Saving Lives in a Time of Murder
"The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust" by Sir Martin Gilbert (Henry Holt and Company, $35).
On Jan. 19, 1942, Rabbi Jacob Schulmann of Grabow Synagogue wrote to his community in Lodz:
"Alas, to our great grief, we now know all. I spoke to an eyewitness who escaped. He told me everything. They’re exterminated in Chelmno, near Dombie, and they are all buried in the Rzuszow forest."
Jews were not simply hunted down by Germans. They were frequently turned over by their Polish neighbors. Jews hiding in the woods were discovered, sometimes by children. They turned them over out of a variety of motives — some out of fear, others out of hate, some simply for money.
But at that same time, Henry Herzog — today living in the United States — was hidden in Rzeszow by three non-Jewish Poles.
In 2001, Herzog wrote to Martin Gilbert — the official biographer of Winston Churchill, author of more than 70 books and perhaps the greatest living historian — agreeing that "the memory of those who at the risk of their own lives, as well as of their families, helped Jewish people escape the genocide should be held in sanctity, counted and recounted."
With the help of people like Herzog, Gilbert has collected hundreds of stories of righteous gentiles who acted with extraordinary courage to save lives — each a world in itself — at a time of maximum peril. They "serve as models of the best in human behavior and achievement to which anyone may choose to aspire."
Here is one of the stories, in summary form: Richard Vanger was 10 years old when a young Polish Catholic, known to him only as Mrs. Teresa, agreed to hide him and a rabbi’s daughter, Gietl, in her barn. Later, he got to stay in the house, under the bed, listening as Mrs. Teresa played Chopin on the piano — music he still remembers today.
One day, as Richard was hiding in another village, two Polish policemen and an SS officer, acting on a tip, went to Mrs. Teresa’s barn, where Gietl was hiding.
Finding Gietl, they confronted Mrs. Teresa: "What is this Jew doing in your place?"
As Mrs. Teresa hesitated, Gietl said: "Thank you very much for all you have done for me" — and the SS officer shot Gietl on the spot.
Mrs. Teresa was arrested and taken to the concentration camp in Koldiczewo. She survived the war, but emerged a sick woman and died in 1952, at the age of 42. With the help of Vanger, Gilbert has told her story.
One reads these stories — story after story — and wonders, why did they do it? In a time when all around were joining in the persecution of defenseless people, when even the slightest hesitation could result in incarceration or death, why did they do it?
Some believed God was testing their Christian faith by sending them Jews in distress.
Some saw sheltering Jews as a form of political resistance.
But time after time, most of them explained their actions simply by saying, "We did the only thing a decent person would do."
Marie-Elise Roger, who saved a life in France, commented:
"I did nothing unusual … I only took in a little guy who had just lost his parents … I loved him and gave him food to eat. If I had not done this, that would not have been normal."
Gilbert conveys the stories — in the understated, matter-of-fact, unemotional style for which he is famous — not simply to recognize individual bravery, but to remind us that "it is possible for human beings … to find the strength of character … to resist the evil impulses of the age, and to try to rescue the victims of barbarity."
There is a Jewish imperative in remembering and recognizing the courage of these people. It is an important part of the history of World War II.
But in the end, the point of this book is not only to record history, but to force us to consider our own moral lives. The book’s ultimate question is one Gilbert phrases as follows: "Could I have acted like this, in the circumstances; would I have tried to, would I have wanted to?"
He — and we — would like to think we would. But the response of one of the righteous gentiles to "why did you do it?" is sobering.
Her answer was, "Why do you ask?" In other words, if you have to ask….
On the other hand, there may be, as Rabbi David Wolpe has written, a spiritual gene lying dormant inside us, a natural inclination to do good that is not self-executing, but that can be awakened through the study of religious and moral texts.
If so, this book is one we need to read.
Sir Martin Gilbert will be the sixth annual Rabbi Jacob Kohn Scholar-in-Residence at Sinai Temple in Westwood from Nov. 14-16. For information and reservations, call (310) 474-1518.
Rick Richman edits “Jewish Current Issues” at rrichman.blogspot.com