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The Righteous During the Holocaust

When non-Jews saw whole families of their Jewish neighbors, including women and children, being forcibly taken by the Nazis to be shipped to an unknown destination, what was their reaction? Many remained indifferent, probably out of fear for their own well-being if they objected or interfered. There were some who even encouraged and actively participated in the roundups and persecution. However, a righteous few could not tolerate standing by and watching these gross injustices unfold before their eyes. They instead took action to counter Nazi brutalities, risking their own lives in the process. What these righteous individuals did was the ultimate in courage and humanitarianism.

Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust memorial and museum, has recognized over 23,000 men and women in 45 countries as "Righteous Among the Nations." The honored righteous range from Polish farmers, who hid Jews in their cellars, attics and barns, to Catholic nuns, who hid Jewish children at their convents. In all of the German-occupied countries virtually all the righteous were ordinary people. Sadly, most political and religious leaders collaborated or at least made no protests to the Nazis. Of course, Denmark was the prime exception to this. It should also be noted that in Bulgaria, the entire Orthodox Church made a policy decision to defend Bulgarian Jews and refused to hand the community over to the Nazis during the war.

Below are short biographies of some of those Righteous honored by the HMC.

Abegg, Elisabeth (Germany)
Elisabeth Abegg was a Quaker who taught history at the Berlin Luisen girls' school until she was dismissed in 1933 by the Nazi school director for her anti-Nazi views. In 1942, at age 60, she began using her home as a temporary shelter and assembly point for rescuing many Jews. She then expanded her activities to create a rescue network made up of friends and former students. They sheltered Jews in and around Berlin, Alsace and East Prussia and provided false identities, money and provisions. She even sold her jewelry and other valuables to finance her rescue operations.

Benders, Johan (Netherlands)
Johan Benders was a teacher at the Amsterdam Lyceum and encouraged the students to manufacture false papers for Jews. He and his wife, Gerritdina, gave shelter to Jews, including several children. In 1943, the Benders were betrayed by one of their neighbors. Johan was brutally tortured during his interrogation and twice tried to commit suicide. On April 6, 1943 , he jumped to his death from the third floor of the prison. Gerritdina was pregnant and left with their two young daughters. In a heart-rending requiem for their dead teacher, many of Johan's former students marched passed the jail whistling the school tune. Despite the tragedy, Gerritdina continued to shelter Jewish refugees. A street in Amsterdam has been named in memory of Johan Benders. On March 27, 1997, Yad Vashem recognized Johan Benders and his wife, Gerritdina Benders-Letterboer, as Righteous Among the Nations.

Bielski Brothers (Belarus)
The Bielski Brothers Brigade was a most effective and feared resistance group which operated in the Novogrudok area Naliboki forest. Tuvia Bielski, the commander, was exceptional in that he actively sought to shelter all fellow Jews in his camp--men, women and children, the elderly and the sick. He sometimes forced unwilling and frightened ghetto internees to go with him against what they thought was better judgment. He and his group were in constant danger, yet he never lost sight of his ultimate goal to save as many of his fellow Jews as possible. At war's end, more than 1,200 Jews were saved.

Borkowska, Anna (Poland)
Anna Borkowska was the Mother Superior of a small cloister of Dominican sisters in Kolonia Wilenska near Vilna. During the summer 1941 Ponary massacres, she concealed a number of Jews in the convent and later smuggled weapons into the Vilna ghetto. The Nazis grew suspicious of her activities and arrested her and closed the convent. She survived the war and was honored by Yad Vashem in 1984.

The Danish Government (Denmark)
The Danish Government reached an understanding with the occupying Nazis that the Jewish population would not be harmed, but in 1943, it was discovered that the Nazis planned to rescind this agreement. Many quarters of Danish society joined in a vast rescue effort: Danish fishermen transported Jews to Sweden; educational, economic, religious and social organizations protested to the Nazis including King Christian X. The Danish police not only allowed the rescue campaign to continue without disturbance, but participated in it. Within three weeks 7,200 persons "the majority of Danish Jews" and hundreds of their non-Jewish relatives, had been sent to safety in Sweden.

Father Marie-Benoit/Padre Benedetti (France)
Father Marie-Benoit turned the local monastery of Bourg d'ire, Maine-et-Loire, into a rescue agency where Jews could obtain false papers. He established ties in Nice with representatives of the Union of French Jews and with Italian officials in an effort to transport Jews into Italy. The Gestapo forced him to flee to Italy where he accepted the leadership of the Committee to Assist Jewish Immigrants. He established contact with Italian, Swiss, Hungarian, French, and Romanian officials for the sole purpose of helping Jews, and became known as the "Father of the Jews".

Fry, Varian (United States)
Following the occupation of France by the Germans, the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) was established in the US, primarily to assist Jewish intellectuals stranded in France to come to the US. Fry's role was to find a way to get these refugees out of France. He employed an array of schemes, most of which were illegal. He was arrested, but was able to continue his activities for a further 13 months, before being deported from France back to the US. In all he helped approximately 4,000 Jews among them a number of well-known figures, including Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Siegfried Kracauer and Leon Feuchtwanger.

Ho, Feng-Shan (China)
Feng-Shan Ho was the Chinese consul general in Vienna during 1938-1940. After the Anschluss, the Nazis required that Austrian Jews have entry visas or boat tickets to another country before being allowed to leave. Unlike most of his fellow diplomats, he issued visas to Shanghai to all who requested them. Thanks to him, hundreds of Jews were able to escape to China, or to use their visas to reach alternate destinations. He ignored the instructions of the Chinese ambassador in Berlin and was given a demerit in 1939. After a long diplomatic career, Ho retired in 1973, and died in 1997, at the age of 96.

Karski, Jan (Poland)
Jan Karski was a Polish courier for the Armia Krajowa, Polish Home Army, assigned to report on the Polish situation, particularly the Jewish plight. To accomplish this he was smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto twice and entered the Belzec concentration camp, posing as a guard, and witnessed the mass murder program. He escaped to England and the United States where he personally informed, among many others, Winston Churchill, Rabbi Stephen Wise and Franklin D. Roosevelt of the Final Solution. He tried to arouse public awareness of the massacres in Europe. Fearing arrest by the Soviet Secret Police, he remained in the United States and continued to speak out at every opportunity.

Korczak, Janusz (Poland)
Janusz Korczak was a famous pediatrician, author, champion of childrens' rights and beloved director of the Jewish orphanage on Krochmala Street in the Warsaw ghetto. When the Germans arrived, he continued caring for his charges in as normal a manner as possible. Although he was offered asylum many times, he refused to abandon the children. On August 5, 1942 the Germans rounded up Korczak and his 200 children. With Korczak at the head, they marched three miles, silently and calmly in rows of four to the Umschlagsplatz from where they were all shipped to Treblinka.

Kutorgiene-Buivydaite, Elena (Lithuania)
Elena Kutorgiene-Buivydaite was an ophthalmologist by profession and worked in medical institutions in Kovno. She was active in the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, a Jewish welfare organization for children and was in contact with Jewish doctors. During the German occupation, she concealed Jews in her home and established ties with the underground. She obtained arms, sought hiding places, distributed anti-Nazi literature and scheduled underground meetings in her home. Following the war, she was a member of the Special Government Commission for the investigation of War Crimes and in 1982 was awarded the title "Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem.

Mendes, Aristedes de Sousa (Portugal)
This Portuguese minister in Bordeaux followed his conscience and, contrary to his government's orders, granted entry visas to thousands of homeless and defenseless Jews. He lost his position and forfeited his career, but remained faithful to his principles and his sense of humanity. He died in exile in the United States.

Nevejean, Yvonne (Belgium)
Yvonne Nevejean headed the Oeuvre Nationale de l'Enfance (ONE), a Belgian government subsidized agency supervising children's homes. She rescued more than 4,000 Jewish children by providing them with new identities, ration cards and permanent places of refuge. She received help from many lay and religious persons and, with few exceptions, managed to outwit the suspicious Germans. At one point, she arranged the release of a group of children from the Mechelen camp. Children under her protection were nicknamed "Yvonne's children".

The "NV Group" (Netherlands)
Most Dutch Jews were rounded up and sent to the Dutch Theater in Amsterdam before being sent to Westerbork Camp. Their children were separated from them and sent across the street to a nursery known as the "Creche". Non-Jewish Dutch citizens formed a cell known as the "NV Group", and managed to rescue over 200 Jewish children. The organization's leaders, Joop Woortman, and Jaap Musch, were arrested. Musch was tortured to death and Woortman died in Bergen-Belsen.

Sendler, Irena ("Jolanta") (Poland)
In 1939 Irena was employed by Warsaw 's Social Welfare Department and worked in special canteens, providing meals, finanical aid, and other services for orphans, the elderly, and the poor. She also served Jews, who were in great need, and helped many to obtain false papers. When the Jews were placed in the ghetto, Irena managed to get permission to go and work there, and provided a vital connection with the outside world. When the deportations began in 1942, "Jolanta" did all she could to help people escape. She was betrayed and sentenced to be executed, but one of her colleagues bribed a Gestapo man and saved her life. The Jewish Historical Institute asserted that she was one of the most dedicated and active workers in aiding Jews during the Nazi occupation.

Sugihara, Sempo (Japan)
Sempo Sugihara was the Japanese counsel in Kovno, Lithuania who risked his life and the lives of his wife and children. He defied explicit diplomatic orders and issued transit visas to Polish and Lithuanian Jews, including the students of the Mir Yeshiva, who were trying to escape both German and Soviet clutches. He worked day and night signing papers for Jews waiting in long lines around the consulate building. His hands became stiff and numb distributing these life saving documents in a race against time. Even as he was leaving Kovno, he was signing papers and shoving them through the train window. "I should follow my conscience. I cannot allow these people to die."

Ülkümen, Selahattin (Turkey)
Selahattin Ülkümen was the Turkish consul-general on the Greek island of Rhodes . In late July 1944, the Germans began the deportation of the islands 1,700 Jews, but Ülkümen managed to save about 50 of them by issuing them documents declaring their Turkish nationality. In many cases this was a false claim and Ülkümen lied many times to suspicious Gestapo agents, claiming that under Turkish law the spouses of Turkish citizens were considered to be citizens themselves.

Wallenberg, Raoul (Sweden)
Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat who arrived in Budapest in July 1944. He was responsible for rescuing more than 100,000 Hungarian Jews from July to December 1944. He designed, issued and personally distributed "Schutzpasse", protective passports, which gave the impression that Jewish holders were on their way to Sweden under the protection of the royal Crown. He also housed the Jews in "safe houses" flying the Swedish flag. He personally went to collection points and convinced the Nazi authorities in perfect German that the Jews who were about to be deported had to be released to his custody. He moved fearlessly with determination at great personal risk. On January 17, 1945 , Wallenberg and his driver were arrested by the Soviets never to be seen again. In December, 2000, the Russians finally admitted Wallenberg was wrongfully imprisoned. He is presumed dead.

 

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