Ahead of International Holocaust Memorial Day on Sunday, President Reuven Rivlin today, Thursday, opened an exhibition called ‘Beyond Duty – Saving Jewish Lives and Showing the Way’ as part of his official visit to France. The president was accompanied by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian. The exhibition shows the stories of diplomats who saved Jews during the Holocaust and is a collaboration between the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Yad Vashem. The exhibition is being displayed in Israeli diplomatic missions around the world.
During the Holocaust, because of their relatively wide-ranging powers, diplomats had the authority and the powers to decide the fate of many people. Some 36 diplomats in around 20 countries, recognized as Righteous Amongst the Nations for their actions, did so and saved an estimated 200,000 lives.
Among the stories is that of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Portuguese Consul in Bordeaux, France. Defying official orders not to issue transit visas, particularly to Jews, the ‘Angel of Bordeaux’ worked tirelessly to issue tens of thousands of life-saving visas. When this was discovered, Sousa Mendes was dismissed and died destitute and penniless. ‘Even if I am fired, I can only act as a Christian and according to my conscience,” he said. “If my actions are seen as a refusal of orders, I would rather stand with God against man than with man against God.”
“Some 200,000 people were saved by the actions of these diplomats, Righteous Amongst the Nations,” said the president. “Their stories are a unique part of the history of the Holocaust. They prove that we always - as individuals, as representatives of our people and as countries – have the ability and the responsibility to make choices.”
The president continued, “just last year, 2018, there was a rise of 69% in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in France compared with the previous year. These are difficult and unacceptable findings. We need strong European leadership to challenge anti-Semitism in all its forms. As Europe changes with the rise of neo-Fascist and extremist right-wing forces, we must say as clearly as possible that for us in Israel there is no such thing as loving Israel and hating Jews, just like there's no such thing as loving Jews and hating Israel. Jew-hatred and anti-Zionism are anti-Semitism.”
“We will remember these diplomats as Righteous Amongst the Nations forever,” said the president. “May the memories of all those who perished in the Holocaust be bound up in the bond of life.”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian said, “Diplomacy is not just a matter of relations between states. It also deals with relations between people – men and women facing history. Today, we honor the memories of diplomats who saved Jews who were destined to be killed by the Nazis. Defying orders, they simply ignored the rules and regulations and gave Jews under threat passports, visas and diplomatic refuge in their embassies. The exhibition we are opening today shows us the obligations of humanity. This is not just an obligation to those who died, but also to those who are alive today. France is not afraid of confronting its own history.”