Rose Gandrey-Réty LagrotteThe Righteous Among The NationINTRODUCTIONThe Righteous Among the Nations is a group of people who have risked their lives during World War II to protect the persecuted Jews; for their act of bravery and selflessness, they have been honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial. Those so recognized are awarded the Righteous Medal and a certificate of honor and their names are inscribed on the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous in Israel. This is the highest honor bestowed by the Jewish people and is a recognition for the few virtuous who represent the good in mankind.In less than a decade, over six million Jews were violently murdered across European territory.
This genocide, led by the Nazi party in Germany was made possible because of the reaction of most Europeans who stood by, silent, or worse handed their Jewish neighbors to the authorities. However, in these dark times of moral collapse, ordinary people stood up by their extraordinary courage to uphold human values, perhaps saving humanity from the point of no-return. They risked their own lives and disobeyed the law to save Jews from certain death in the gas chambers. These men and women paid for their heroic efforts with their lives. Although some did not live to tell their story, as of today over 26,000 have been rewarded for their actions and have received the title of « Righteous Among the Nation ».The Righteous Among the Nation contrast with the general indifference and hostility of non-Jews during the Shoah from 1939 to 1945. These people regarded Jews as human beings who shall be protected as if they were part of their obligation. They rescued Jews, hid them, gave them shelter and food when the world seemed to demonize them.
One decision, one moment in their lives that changed the course of humanity as an instinctive human gesture. These rescuers acted with no other motif that no life was worth more than another, that they felt was right to help those persecuted when someone came to knock on their door. More than an act of kindness, those who made the decision to help a Jew went against the law, and risked their own lives as well as of their families for as an act of treason. Agreeing to hide someone during a raid was a dangerous initiative. The price to pay for their action was high; in Germany, the person who sheltered Jews was executed as well as their entire family.
Many Righteous Among the Nation were incarcerated in camps, and many died in the name of justice. Violence was everywhere, and Jews weren’t the only one receiving punishments. In consequence, rescuers, as well as the rescued, lived under the constant fear of being caught, yet ordinary people chose to defy the rules anyways.
Those who made that decision sacrificed their normal lives in order to help someone else. Most rescuers were ordinary people, human beings who cared about the people around them. Although some acted for ideological reasons, most Righteous never planned to do what they did, but their decision seemed natural, as if there was no other option but to protect the innocents. People like Oskar Schindler; Irena Sendler; or Pastor Andre Trocme saved thousands of Jews and live to tell their story. Others never made it. These men and women helped to save Jews from the horrors of the Holocaust, often at great risk to their personal safety and that of their families, and it is their humanity that touches us and that we should follow as models to make a better world. We shall never recreate such crimes, shall never be bystanders of horrors, and by honoring them on the Wall of Honor, the Righteous Among the Nation are never forgotten; they lead us to better things, a better world where people make the just decision. « Anyone who saves one life saves the world entire ».
This quote from the Talmud is inscribed on the medal the Righteous Among the Nation receive from Yad Vashem, the highest civil distinction of the Israelis State. As of January 1, 2017, the title had been given to 26 513 people around the world; however, the book of the Righteous will never be close as many rescuers will stay anonymous due to lack of testimony. Yet acknowledged or not, these people incarnate the best in humanity. Indeed, all considered having done nothing more than their duty as men. As Elie Wiesel said, “And so we must know these good people who helped Jews during the Holocaust. We must learn from them, and in gratitude and hope, we must remember them.” They are heroes and will be models to new generations.
This paper will investigate who these people are and the reason behind their heroic decision to “do what seemed right” at the risk of their own lives. Looking back at the living situation of the population between 1933 when the Nazi Party rose to power and their demise in 1945, we will fathom the worst of humanity as well as its best, when fear grew into the hearts of all in these darker times. What happened over 80 years ago has defined the world we live in today, and it is of the utmost importance that we never forget the crimes men have committed, so that it never happens again. But in all this shame, all this trembling consciousness of the extent of our obedience, it is even a greater must for all the future generations to never forget the people who refused to obey, those who gave up their lives to give us hope that nothing is doomed.
These men and women who have protected the justice in this world, those who told us to never stop fighting. Without the world would not be the same, and the resistant of oppressive authority reminds us to never stop fighting for the human rights of all, our freedom, our love for one another, and our future. The Righteous Among the Nations are a particularly diverse group of men and women of all conditions, all ages, all confessions (christians, musulmans, atheists) and all professions (teachers, doctors, priests, diplomats, workers, maids, policemen, farmers etc…). Among them are educated socialists as well as illiterate peasants, civil servants or people living on the margins of society, from all over Europe. What was their common denominator? The conviction of having a moral obligation towards the persecuted Jews and being ready to pay a high price to defend it. This paper is a tribute to some of these courageous rescuers such as Irena Sendler, who saved more Jews than any other individual during the Holocaust before being arrested and tortured, Oskar Schindler who came to show extraordinary initiative, tenacity, and dedication to save the lives of his Jewish employees; Miep Gies who hid the Frank family and saved Anne Frank’s famous diary when the family was caught.
The list goes on, and all these names deserve more recognition than anyone else, as they represent a symbol of greatness and heroism from regular citizen. They should never be forgotten, they are the bravest of all, and for that they have received the highest honor possibly given; they are the Righteous Among the Nation. In this paper, I will explain why these people are so extraordinary in their bravour, the danger they faced once they chose to disobey the rules enforced by their government and followed by so many, because of how strongly their actions contrast with the rest of the hopeless world they lived in at the time. HISTORY As soon as Adolf Hitler obtained his title of chancellor, on January 30, 1933, he worked toward transforming Germany into a dictatorship. He also undertook to equip himself with the necessary means to implement his policy of long-term “racial purification” and the conquest of Europe, both inside and outside the legal framework of the German constitution.
Following the attack of political militant Marinus van der Lubbe who set fire to the German Parliament, Hitler and his minister of propaganda declared the state of emergency to protect the country from the growing communism. This decree, known as the “Reichstag Fire Decree”, suspended the rights provided in the German constitution protecting fundamental individual rights, including freedom of the press, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. The privacy of citizens was no longer protected since the decree authorized censorship of correspondence, telephone tapping, and house searches without a warrant or without reasonable grounds. Under the state of emergency thus established, the Nazi regime could arrest and detain people without cause and without time limit.
Hitler and his political party employed a policy of terror as well in order to intimidate their opponents. In the following months, the Nazi Party utilized paramilitary formations such as the SA (Sturmabteilung) and the SS (Schutzstaffel) that had been created in 1920 and 1925 to protect previous leaders. Members of these groups were granted permission to execute anyone considered an enemy of the party. In 1933, the Gestapo —a centralized force of political police— was created in order to annihilate all opposition.
Any organized opposition to the regime was virtually eliminated. Democracy was dead in Germany. In the summer of 1933, the only regime allowed in Germany was its of the Nazis, and fear ruled the country and the population whole. The persecution of Jews quickly followed Hitler’s rise to power. The Nazi party established many Anti-Jewish decrees and acts of violence against the Israelis population over the next decade. As soon as the domination of the Nazi Party was made and Hitler became a dictator, the party’s anti-Semitism began to show.
SA officers started to stand by Jewish-owned shops to discourage people from going inside; Germans were told not to buy from shops and businesses owned by Jews. The courts no longer protected Jews from persecutions and attacks on themselves or their properties. The Department of Racial Hygiene was established and “Kosher” was banned. The everyday life of Jews was affected by the hatred of the government in power.
The following years, actions were taken to restrict the freedom of the German Jews. Between 1935 and 1936, the Nuremberg Laws passed which institutionalized many of the racial theories prevalent in Nazi ideology. Jews lost German citizenship and mixed marriage became forbidden. They also lost access to many public places such as parks, pools, but schools and universities as well. Not only were they not welcome in their homeland, but the Nazi Party refuse to grant them passports —marking a Jewish passport with a red letter ‘J’— to prevent them from leaving the country. Germany under the Nazi influence began to treat Jews as evil and on the night of November 9 to November 10, 1938, hatred filled the streets of Germany. During the incident known as “Kristallnacht”, non-Jews torched synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses, and murdered their neighbors and acquaintances. Kristallnacht was the result of human rage and was the first act of violence from civilians and officials did nothing to calm the riots, watching the worst of mankind come out.
Marking the beginning of the horrifying event that would follow, close to 100 Jews died during the tragic night, and some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested to be sent to Nazi concentration camps. The violence of Kristallnacht served notice to German Jews that Nazi anti-Semitism was not a temporary predicament and would only intensify. As World War II started, the fate of the Israeli People becomes a little darker as the days pass by. Their access to information is limited as radios and phones get confiscated, and faced a forced curfew, and by 1941, they are forbidden to leave the country and obligated to wear a Yellow Star of David. Trapped and exposed to everyone, the Nazi Party takes the “Final Solution” to the next level and begin the relocation of German Jews in ghettos.
From its creation on October 12, 1940, to the creation of kill center in 1942, over 400,000 Jews were deported to the Warsaw ghetto. This prison surrounded by 10 feet high walls topped with barbed wire and guarded cause the death of over 83,000 Jews from starvation and disease. Even in the camps, resistance was present and people tried to survive the inhuman conditions they were facing. On April 19, the Warsaw ghetto uprising started as a result of the German troops deporting the survivors of the condition to killing center in Treblinka.
However, regardless of the courage of the Jews heart, they were crushed by May 16 and the few remaining people were deported to concentration camps or killing center, unable to physically resist the Nazi Party abusing them. The camps spread all over Europe, where more than 1,000 ghettos were operational. The Jewish Combat Organization stood alone against the power facing them if not for the few heroes outside of the barbed walls doing everything in their powers to keep others out of the camps. Inside, death was almost the only outcome.
By 1941, the Third Reich was determined to eradicate the Jews of Europe. Three men were responsible for the conception of the plan that would led to the extermination of the Jewish population in Europe; Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich. Their solution, the mass killing of the community until complete eradication of the totality of their members. Himmler and Heydrich put together the plan into action and with the help of the death squad Einsatzgruppen, they initiated the killing of over 10 million Jews —mostly through shooting—. The process of lining up men and women, children and elderly, and shooting them against the walls before dumping their body into mass graves. The killing squads alone murdered more than a million Jews and tens of thousands of other innocent people who had refused to obey the outrageous request of the state. The Nazi Party had used the camp system since 1935 to imprison political opponents.
In 1941, the first killing camp was opened in Chelmno, followed by Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka where Jews were murdered in gas chambers. Over three million Jews died in the killing centers alone. What happened behind these barbed walls was inimaginable to the outside world. No one could have thought about the atrocities that were being committed, or perhaps people would have refused to obey the Nazi law that requested of all citizens to denounce their fellow Jewish neighbors. But they did.
The blind obedience that people all over Europe followed during the reign of the Third Reich is abominable. The indoctrination of the German people was a long process during which every form of authority taught people to obey the Nazi Party without questioning. The propaganda was everywhere, and Jews were vilified in order to make de denunciation more justified. Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda and National Enlightenment under Hitler claimed “The essence of propaganda consists in winning people over to an idea so sincerely, so vitally, that in the end they succumb to it utterly and can never escape from it.” The tactic used by the Party was to persuade the people of Germany that Jews were the problem of the nation.
The successful operation gave them the power to unleash the hatred of the population on Jewish communities, where the government could intervene. As a result and at the exception of a few, people obeyed the law. Yet antisemitism was not the only reason why people sent their friends and acquaintances to a certain death. The social-psychological factor of fear was a big factor of motivation, as well as pressure to conform was one of the most effective tool of the state to come to its mean.
A concept bizarre to understand in today’s society is the simple idea that in Nazi Europe at the time, it was the law. Not only were you rewarded if complying, but defiance to authority was dangerous. If in refuse to report Jewish activity to the police, you and your family would be punished, and even risked to be sent to camps yourself. As Kershaw puts it, what happened to “the Jews” was simply not a high priority for most people. In a society that functions on conformity, being an outsider is often a problem. For that reason, some highly regarded people by society committed infamous acts. One infamous person, Mayor Maurice Papon, who at the time signed orders to send over 75,000 Jews to concentration camps. Other personality respected in today’s world who condemned her employees was Coco Chanel.
Even long after the war, these evil characters never paid the price of their actions because they were protected by the government— they’d technically never done anything illegal. And even many who chose to help Jews in spite of the law, not all were saint-like individuals motivated by altruistic feelings. Some poor people requested money in return, and those are not considered by Yad Vashem title of Righteous. PARAGRAPH I- PARAGRAPH II- “My dear friends, each one of us can conjure memories and innumerable stories, and still we shall not encompass all that should be said about this man Schindler, about his deeds and his attitude toward us. But from all things, always the humanitarian in him stands out. He made an indelible mark not only because of a single rescue operation, but for his constant fatherly attitude and self-sacrifice, which are indescribable; he passed a test that has no equal. And he stayed with us to the very end. He did not leave us until 10 minutes past midnight, on May 8, 1945, after the SS guard had left first, and the armistice was already in force.
” Testimony of Moshe Bejski at the reception in Israel, 1962, for the German Oskar Schindler. In March 1943, Schindler witnessed the liquidation of the Cracow ghetto and was shocked by the brutality and inhuman methods of his own kinsmen. Something in him was kindled, a spark that grew larger with time and led him to a self-imposed commitment to do whatever was possible to save hundreds of Jewish laborers and their spouses. He bribed SS and Gestapo officials and commanders, making them believe that “his” Jews were a valuable asset to a country at war.
Many of the 900 Jewish workers in Schindler’s expanded factory were unqualified for the specialized labor of the enamel plant, the Germans grudgingly released to him some of the ghetto Jews who were being transferred to the newly created Plaszow labor camp, which was notorious for the brutality of its commander, Amon Goeth. In October 1944, he was ordered to close his plant and to release the Jewish workers to the SS. Instead, he succeeded in transferring the total of his 1,100 protegees. When the war ended, he had to his credit some twelve hundred lives saved. Schindler wound up penniless and miserable. This jovial man had exhausted his energies for a most noble cause, the saving of innocent lives, for which he derived no profit to himself.Schindler’s last request was to have his remains buried in Jerusalem. The cortege who carried his coffin to the Latin cemetery on Mount Zion in 1974 included several hundred of those he saved.
The Schindler’s List, a movie by Steven Spielberg tries to recapture the unique story of this great humanitarian as an additional testament to future generation. In 1962 a tree was planted in Schindler’s honor in the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem. Oskar and Emilie Schindler were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations in 1993.