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‘The House of Two Families’ Documentary Remembers Righteous Jewish Allies

I firmly believe that the courage of any one of the Righteous Gentiles far outweighs that of a dozen generals covered with ribbons from chin to navel.
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August 14, 2020

Jacob Wexler, a Jewish mill owner, lived in the Polish town of Ludwigpol with his wife, Chana, and their daughter, Mira, until the outbreak of World War II. In 1939, the Soviet army arrived from the east and took everything the Wexlers possessed. Two years later, the German army stormed in from the west, killed Jacob and crammed Chana and Mira and the town’s other Jews into a ghetto.

The Wexler family story might have ended there — another statistic among the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. However, anticipating the fate in store for them, Chana and Mira, together with Jacob’s brother Joseph, escaped from the ghetto and found shelter for the next two years with longtime Christian friends, the Weglowski family.

What in normal times would have been an instance of heartwarming hospitality between two families of different faiths turned into a daily gamble of life and death.

During the war, any Polish family sheltering Jews was killed by the Nazis, together with the hidden Jews. In this case, however, both families survived the war and later were aided financially by the American-based Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR).

On Aug. 17, the foundation will present online a documentary on the two families and their survival titled “The House of Two Families.” The online series of films concludes Aug. 24 with a profile of JFR’s president, Roman Kent, who survived Auschwitz and three other concentration camps.

There is no dearth of Jewish organizations supporting worthy causes, and the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous is hardly the best known or best funded. However, the question of moral courage at the heart of the foundation’s mission is a challenging one. It is a timeless and universal self-confrontation, tested in everyday life but rarely posed in such stark relief — at least in recent history — than during the Holocaust.

How could ordinary men and women offer shelter to an unknown and often despised Jew on the run from the Nazis, knowing that they were thereby risking the lives of an entire family? What kind of person or character does it take to take a stand against the beliefs and prejudices of the surrounding society?

The late Rabbi Harold Schulweis mulled a related question while observing his children watching a television show on the Holocaust. Would his children grow up, he pondered, believing that all the world hated the Jews and would kill them if given the opportunity? Schulweis, then senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, was a man of great heart and mind who analyzed the accomplishments but also the shortcomings of the Jewish community. Even more remarkably, when he detected shortcomings, he set about enlisting allies to remedy the situation.

Together with Janice Kamenir-Reznik, an attorney and one of his congregants, in 1986, Schulweis founded what was initially called the Foundation for Righteous Christians to identify and sustain those non-Jews who had risked everything to aid Jews during their darkest hour. His new project was not always well received. Critics complained that emphasis on the non-Jewish rescuers would somehow diminish the enormity of the Holocaust. Others argued that the number of the righteous was pitifully small compared with the mass of those who perpetrated or acquiesced in the Holocaust.

Schulweis addressed the first concern in an article in the Baltimore Jewish Times. “By their risk of life and limb, these rescuers offer the most persuasive refutation of those who hide behind the ‘I-was-just-a-cog-in-the-wheel’ argument,” he wrote. “Here is not theoretical preaching, or hypothetical morality, but hard evidence of real acts by real people. There was and always is an alternative to passive complicity with evil. Here are case histories of human beings, who could find ample rationale to avert their eyes and plead impotence, but who could not live the lie.” 

They also are rarely recognized by society. By contrast, there is universal praise and respect for real or exaggerated heroism in wartime battles. I am a combat veteran of World War II and Israel’s War of Independence (not to mention a U.S. Army recall during the Korean War and a cushy stateside assignment editing an Army newspaper). Yet I firmly believe that the courage of any one of the Righteous Gentiles — men, but especially women — far outweighs that of a dozen generals covered with ribbons from chin to navel.

Today, the organization Schulweis founded has been renamed the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, with its headquarters in West Orange, N.J. Although World War II and the Holocaust ended 75 years ago, JFR currently extends financial and other assistance to some 214 aged and needy Righteous Gentiles in 18 countries, according to Stanlee J. Stahl, the organization’s executive vice president. At its founding, JFR identified and aided eight rescuers, a number that eventually rose to 1,800, Stahl told the Journal. Since then, JFR has provided them more than $39 million in assistance. In addition, the organization has trained a cadre of 600 master teachers through its Holocaust Teacher Education Program. It also sponsored the publication in 2015 of “How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader,” edited by Peter Hayes.

Like others who have met and talked with gentile rescuers, Stahl was struck by their denial that they had done anything out of the ordinary. She said, “When asked what made them risk their lives to save what were often complete strangers, their answers generally came down to, ‘How could I not?’ ” 

The same attitude and response is found in the 1987 documentary “Weapons of the Spirit” by Los Angeles filmmaker Pierre Sauvage. The film chronicles the story of 5,000 French citizens (mostly farmers) in the remote mountain hamlet of Le Chambon who sheltered an equal number of Jewish refugees during the Nazi occupation.

It was the constant quest of Rabbi Schulweis to spread knowledge of such deeds throughout the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. “Altruism, courage, moral heroism are, by definition, rare,” he wrote. “For the sake of thirty-six righteous, the world is sustained; for the sake of thirty righteous non-Jews, the Talmud declares, the nations of the world continue to exist.”

“The House of Two Families,” will screen at 5 p.m. on Aug. 17 on Facebook.

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