‘Jewish Rescuers Citation’ Rights ‘Historic’ Wrong

Holocaust ceremonies tend to highlight non-Jewish heroes far more often than Jewish ones, says one event organizer.

Gedalyah Reback,

Alan Schneider, Director of Bnai Brith in Jerusalem
Alan Schneider, Director of Bnai Brith in Jerusalem

For those who have attended Holocaust commemoration events or have visited Yad Vashem, they are likely familiar with the Righteous among the Nations, a long list of acknowledged non-Jews who exerted immense effort to protect and save Jews during the Holocaust. They are often heralded as examples of coexistence despite an atmosphere of unrelenting anti-Semitism. In the process, they are shown as paradigms for continued mutual tolerance.

But, what about the Jewish heroes? That is a question that Alan Schneider, Director of the B'nai Brith World Center in Jerusalem, and several others have asked after reaching the conclusion that in the effort to showcase a sense of diversity and pluralism in Holocaust commemoration, the heroics and bravery of Jewish rescuers have actually been downplayed or overlooked.

“Our focus on Jewish self-rescue is something relatively new. There had been some research and some books but it's a miniscule part of the historiography of the entire Holocaust.”

“We know that thousands of Jews were involved in rescuing other Jews. There has been a focus over the years on the means of murder employed by the Nazis – the Nazi murder machine and the Nazi army. These have been issues of very intense research,” says Schneider, who says that research has come at the expense of following patterns of Jewish resistance and subversion to Nazi orders to deport or execute Jews. “Unfortunately, Jewish self-rescue has not been a great point of interest by historians.”

The reasons are many, says Schneider.

“It's interesting, Patrick Henry’s book dealt largely with Jewish self-rescue,” referencing the Whitman College professor’s ‘We Know Only Men,’ “and this non-Jewish professor reached the conclusion that Jews did more than any other national group in Europe to help rescue themselves. Comparing the conditions Jews tried surviving under to what others were living under, he reached that conclusion. Compare Russian prisoners of wars or Polish officers who never revolted over the whole course of the war, to Jews who were in concentration camps and ghettos and did revolt. 

“That’s not the conclusion the average Jew today would necessarily reach.”

Part of the mission of the Jewish Rescuers Citation is to re-instill the idea that Jews are not only capable, but prone to be hardened heroes.

“We are raising these stories and bringing them to attention is to help Jews reach this conclusion. This notion that Jews went to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter, is just not true. This phrase was very common just a few years ago. That was not actually the case, across the board, and there were many cases of resistance – armed resistance.”

Jews fought in Allied armies in great numbers and partisans, Schneider acknowledges, but that isn’t the priority of Schneider’s initiative.

“We're focusing on Jews who undertook rescue activities. In most cases, it was impossible to both rescue (Jews) and fight the Nazis. If you'd fight, the Nazis would obviously try to weed them out of the forest wherever they were hiding.”

Schneider points to a specific incident that pushed one Chaim Waltz to launch the initiative for the recognition in the first place.

“Chaim Waltz of Holland was rescued as a child by three men: two non-Jews and one Jew. He didn’t know much about it until he heard a lecture by Yehuda Bauer that it is more typical of Jews to recognize contributions of others and not their own heroes.”

He cites the mandate of Yad Vashem to recognize the Righteous among the Nations and the thousands of names they have added to that database.

“It got Waltz thinking that his two non-Jewish rescuers were recognized, and while the Jewish rescuer came to the ceremony that he was not even mentioned - let alone receiving recognition! Years later when hearing this speech, he realized this was exactly his case. He brought together some survivors, rescuers to form a committee to raise this issue.”

“We’ve also been lobbying the Knesset and Yad Vashem to do more on this issue. Yad Vashem last year published its first book wholly dedicated to the subject of Jewish rescue.”

Schneider admits Yad Vashem has been making more of an effort to refocus on this aspect of history. He spoke of the launch of that book last month. While the book does not bring any new material to light aside from some newly translated material already published in other languages, he says that the book takes a new look at that previous research through the freshly minted lens of this overlooked aspect of Jewish history.

“The important part of this book is that the editor broke stories up into 10 chapters in a very good academic fashion. He determined 10 different types of rescue because each country over the course of the war the situation changed and there were different opportunities for rescue.”

“In Hungary for example, the Holocaust only started at the end of the war. They watched from afar at events in other countries and were able to prepare themselves ahead of time” in case the Nazis extended their policies to Hungarians. They were well-organized.”

“Many Jews were fleeing from other Eastern European countries into Hungary where Jews were being persecuted but not murdered. They were able to take advantage of that and rescue Jews in Hungary.”

“We think there’s a very important lesson here about Jewish solidarity that should be learned through these illustrated stories of people who engaged in rescuing fellow Jews.”

For their part, Yad Vashem has defended its position and noted it does in fact go to great lengths to detail the many stories of Jewish courage and defiance during the holocaust - including those who saved lives.

"Jewish defiance and resistance during the Holocaust took many forms and Holocaust history is laden with stories of Jewish heroism, solidarity and self-help," including "helping someone to evade forced labor or deportation, setting up a rescue network, assisting in escape attempts, passing letters and information, giving a fellow inmate a piece of bread, providing encouragement, smuggling food or false papers, etc," Yad Vashem said in a statement to Arutz Sheva.

"Almost all survivor testimonies describe instances of help extended by one Jew to another.

"These awe-inspiring expressions of courage, self sacrifice and solidarity deserve to be documented, researched and imparted, and Yad Vashem is committed to dealing with this topic in all its manifold activities, including on our website.

"However it is practically impossible to define criteria which will enable to decide what act of help deserves special distinction or a medal."

In that, there is a key difference between Jewish and non-Jewish rescuers.

"With non-Jews the basic criteria is the element of risk to the rescuer. i.e. a person who knowingly chose to put himself or herself in danger and chose to leave the safety of the bystander’s position and identify with the victims to the extent of being willing to share their fate.

"In what concerns Jews, this distinction cannot be made, since all Jews were destined for extermination and therefore were in mortal danger no matter what they did. Helping fellow Jews could have augmented that danger in a particular instance, but evading danger altogether was not an option."

Schneider feels that Jews have forgotten not only how their own kind has been heroic in the past, but also the notion that people should still feel a sense of comradery against common threats.

Schneider refers to one incident where historian Professor Saul Friedländer argued before a crowd that “Jewish solidarity died in the Holocaust.” It apparently caused a heated uproar with those in attendance, particularly from Professor Dina Porat, the current chief historian at Yad Vashem.

When asked by Arutz Sheva if he thought there was a certain sentiment that non-Jews should be recognized more for any reason, Schneider continued that Jews have given him and other organizers a number of reactions or excuses for the trend to recognize gentile saviors but not Jewish ones.

 “We've gotten reactions like, ‘Jews were bound to rescue fellow Jews,’ based on ideas like ‘kol Yisrael eravim zeh b’zeh’ (‘All Israel is responsible for one another.’) or ‘al ta’amod b’dam re’ekha’ (‘Don’t stand on the blood of your brother.’). But of course our answer has been, ‘Then why present any citations to policemen, soldiers or anyone who has a certain responsibility or was trained or paid to do something? Why recognize anything outstanding?’”

“And that's exactly the point. I think people who do the outstanding or take the brave step that is counterintuitive instead of rescuing themselves” deserve recognition, for “recognizing that, 'If I can cross the border, maybe others can, too!’"

One thing often overlooked for the Jewish resistance of the time – those who fought the Nazis and those who rescued Jews – is that they were all remarkably young.

“Most of these people were young, in their teens or their 20s, engaged in these activities. It has a particular poignancy for young Jews we bring hundreds of high school Jews and soldiers participate. It is important for us to convey that message.”