Last Friday was international holocaust remembrance day. A day for reflection about the horrors of the holocaust and how nations turned a blind eye to the suffering of the Jewish people. As with any dark time in history, there’s always a silver lining. While countries denied asylum to Jewish refugees, heroes around the world did what they could to help them. For those who helped the Jewish people, the state of Israel awarded these heroes with the fitting title of “Righteous Among the Nations.”
Who were the righteous?
From the World Holocaust Remembrance Center:
Most rescuers were ordinary people. Some acted out of political, ideological or religious convictions; others were not idealists, but merely human beings who cared about the people around them. In many cases they never planned to become rescuers and were totally unprepared for the moment in which they had to make such a far-reaching decision. They were ordinary human beings, and it is precisely their humanity that touches us and should serve as a model. So far Yad Vashem recognized Righteous from 44 countries and nationalities; there are Christians from all denominations and churches, Muslims and agnostics; men and women of all ages; they come from all walks of life; highly educated people as well as illiterate peasants; public figures as well as people from society’s margins; city dwellers and farmers from the remotest corners of Europe; university professors, teachers, physicians, clergy, nuns, diplomats, simple workers, servants, resistance fighters, policemen, peasants, fishermen, a zoo director, a circus owner, and many more.
Scholars have attempted to trace the characteristics that these Righteous share and to identify who was more likely to extend help to the Jews or to a persecuted person. Some claim that the Righteous are a diverse group and the only common denominator are the humanity and courage they displayed by standing up for their moral principles. Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner defined the altruistic personality. By comparing and contrasting rescuers and bystanders during the Holocaust, they pointed out that those who intervened were distinguished by characteristics such as empathy and a sense of connection to others. Nehama Tec who also studied many cases of Righteous, found a cluster of shared characteristics and conditions of separateness, individuality or marginality. The rescuers’ independence enabled them to act against the accepted conventions and beliefs.
Bystanders were the rule, rescuers were the exception. However difficult and frightening, the fact that some found the courage to become rescuers demonstrates that some freedom of choice existed, and that saving Jews was not beyond the capacity of ordinary people throughout occupied Europe. The Righteous Among the Nations teach us that every person can make a difference.
What can we learn from the righteous?
Every year I read the profiles of the righteous to remind myself how great people can be in the midst of unimaginable horror. We all know the amazing story of Oscar Schindler, but two of my favorite lesser known righteous are Chiune Sugihar and Jose Contreras. Historians have estimated both men saved a total of 80,000 people.
Chiune Sighar on his reasons for helping the Jewish people:
You want to know about my motivation, don’t you? Well. It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes, Yes, I actually witnessed such scenes with my own eyes. Also, I felt at that time, that the Japanese government did not have any uniform opinion in Tokyo. Some Japanese military leaders were just scared because of the pressure from the Nazis; while other officials in the Home Ministry were simply ambivalent.
People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives….The spirit of humanity, philanthropy…neighborly friendship…with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation—and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.
What explains the bravery of the righteous?
The righteous are similar to us in many ways, they are normal people with the same goals and ambitions we have today. They feared Government repercussions for rebelling from society’s norms. And, most importantly, they wouldn’t want to do anything to put themselves or their loved ones in jeopardy. However, the righteous were able to control their fear in order to do what was right. I believe the righteous had a “why” to overcome their sense of fear. As the author, professor, and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” We’ll never know all of the heroes “whys”, but one could imagine these people had a strong sense of a moral obligation to humanity to not sit idly by while their brethren were being slaughtered.
While many of the righteous of the 20th century have passed, their spirit still lives inside of each and every one of us. The question is… when you are called to be righteous, will you stand up and be counted?
P.S – Please donate to the ACLU. 🙂