International Day of Commemoration in Memory of
the Victims of the Holocaust
Memorial Ceremony, General Assembly Hall
25 January 2013
Professor Mordecai Paldiel, a Holocaust survivor, a former Director of the Department of the Righteous at Yad Vashem
Your Excellency, Mr. Launsky-Tieffenthal; distinguished ambassadors of Israel, Congo and Sweden; dear guests; ladies and gentlemen --
It was a clear moonlit night, as I, a six-year-old boy, trudged along an isolated tree-covered field, together with my parents, my grandmother, and five siblings, one of which I carried in my arms, as we slowly made our way toward the double barbed wire fence that separated France from Switzerland. It was the evening of September 8, 1943, the day Italy surrendered to the Allies, and the Germans were about to take over the watch of that section of the border that had up to then been the charge of the Italians. With the help of two Frenchmen, we made it across safely, only to be arrested by a Swiss border patrol and were interned, but luckily for us, we were not turned back into France, now fully controlled by Nazi Germany.
Our wandering had begun three years earlier, in May 1940, as we fled from Belgium in advance of the German invasion, and wandered from one place to another in France. Presently, with the Germans in full control of the country, we found ourselves with no place to run to, when someone referred my mother to a man who could arrange our flight to Switzerland. The man who made this possible was a French cleric, named Abbé Simon Gallay, who lived in the town of Evians-les-Bains, and who my mother had met only a few days earlier. He had promised to arrange our flight to Switzerland, and he had kept his word. Many years later, when I headed the Righteous Among the Nations Department, at Yad Vashem, I made myself a promise to look up the man, hoping he was still alive, in order to be able to thank him on behalf of my family and the institution that I represented. From other documents made available to me, I also learned of his help to other fleeing Jews. I was lucky to be able to locate him, now in a Catholic retiring home, in Annecy, and to travel there in 1990 in order to award him the prestigious Righteous Among the Nations medal and certificate of honor by Yad Vashem, and on behalf of the State of Israel, for having risked his life, for my family and others, to save us from the Nazis. That same year, I planted a tree in his name in the Avenue of the Righteous, at Yad Vashem. I had fulfilled a long self-imposed commitment and obligation to give thanks and appreciation to my and my family’s rescuer; to Abbé Simon Gallay; to a man who made it possible for my family to continue to stay alive by staying out of reach of those who wished us dead for the simple reason that we were born.
In my 24-year-work as head of the Righteous Department, at Yad Vashem, I was instrumental in identifying and honoring thousands of other non-Jewish rescuers of Jews from the Nazis; men and women from various countries and walks of life, who in saving Jews stood the risk of losing their own life – for the Nazis threatened retribution by warning that rescuers of Jews, if caught, would meet the same fate as the Jews they tried to save. These rescuers reasserted their commitment to an ethical-bound humanity that was being challenged by one of the brutest and immoral forces that has stained the annals of civilized life.
The beginnings of the Righteous program are linked to another dramatic event. In 1962, as the trial of SS senior officer Adolf Eichmann came to a close; a trial during which was unraveled the grimmest details of the Final Solution, but also testimonies of persons who aided the Jews to escape the Nazi dragnet, Yad Vashem decided to launch a program under which non-Jewish persons who risked their life to save Jews would be publicly acknowledged and honored by the State of Israel. A commission chaired by a Supreme Court justice was nominated in order to establish the criteria for this honorific, and the decision taken was that this public commission would continue to function for as long as there was credible evidence identifying rescuers of Jews, whether still alive or post-mortem, who would then be honored, themselves or posthumously through their living relatives.
The Commission decided on that a rescuer of Jews was entitled to the Righteous honor if that person risked his or her life and safety at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators in the attempt to save at least one Jewish person; in addition, that no personal reward accrued to the rescuer as a condition for his engagement, and that the story itself was corroborated by the beneficiary party; that is the Jewish survivors. It was also decided that each rescuer honored with the title of Righteous Among the Nations was entitled to a tree in his or her name in a specially constructed grove at Yad Vashem, named Avenue of the Righteous. This avenue lines the approaches to the Holocaust museum, which details the horrific events of the Final Solution, and the trees are there to remind visitors that the final word is to be left not to the perpetrators but to the rescuers. After some 2,000 trees were planted, and with space lacking for additional tree plantings, it was decided to construct a special site at Yad Vashem to continue honoring the Righteous – the Garden of the Righteous, where the names of those so honored each year, are etched on stone for times immemorial. Rescuers would also receive a specially minted medal with their names on it, and a certificate of honor. These were to be handed to them in public ceremonies through the agency of Israeli diplomatic representatives, for those living abroad, to signal the State of Israel’s validation of the rescuer’s heroic humanity.
To date, at this 50-year celebration of the Righteous program, some 25,000 names of rescuers adorn the Yad Vashem memorial, and a 10-volume encyclopedia published by Yad Vashem, describes their humanitarian and life risking actions that caused them to be remembered and to serve as role models for generations to come. The Commission’s work is ongoing, with many names added annually to this unique roster of knights of the spirit. They represent a various collection of men and women from different walks of life and education; blue and white collar workers; farmers and city dwellers; clerics and lay people, as well as diplomats such as Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden and Aristides de Sousa Mendes of Portugal; the former, who handed out Protective Letters; and the latter – transit visas, and thus making possible the rescue of thousands of Jews. Or, the Polish Irena Sendler and Jan Karski, and the Albanian Vesel Veseli. What they all share was a commitment to help others in need, when challenged to do so, in spite of the risks to themselves in the event of discovery by the Nazi authorities and their collaborating agencies.
I was privileged to have been a party to this ongoing program, to have written numerous books and articles on this inspiring and uplifting phenomenon, and now that I teach here at Yeshiva University and Touro College, I also continue to seek out persons who survived thanks to the help of others, and as a teammate of the ADL/Hidden Child Foundation, as well as a consultant at the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, I aid these survivors to draw up their testimonies and documentation and send it off to Yad Vashem, for the examination of their cases under the ongoing Righteous Among the Nations program. For we have an obligation to pass on to future generations not merely the legacy of the horrors of the Holocaust and their perpetrators, but also of the goodness of the Righteous Among the Nations, and the lesson that the individual person can arouse within himself the spark of goodness that is an innate part of his humanity; that such goodness may start with one small act, then, as shown by many rescuers, it can expand and grow to helping more than one person and to greater lengths of time; and one need not be a saint with a halo over one’s head to do such a saintly deed. Most of those on Yad Vashem’s list of the Righteous were persons who went about their regular business, and then when challenged to help a fleeing Jewish person, found themselves suddenly and instinctively overwhelmed and, for reasons that still they find hard to explain, transformed into rescuers.
Those lucky enough to be rescued by sometimes total strangers – it helped them to regain and reaffirm their own commitment to a universe guided by moral principles. As stated by Primo Levi, that through his help in Auschwitz by Lorenzo Perrone, an Italian civilian construction worker, in Levi’s words: “I managed not to forget that I myself was a man” – this, in spite of Auschwitz.
Or consider, the answer given by the Dutch rescuer Johtje Vos to her mother, who one day came visiting her daughter, and was stunned to find there a Jewish child. The mother said: “You shouldn’t do it, even though I agree with what you’re doing, because your first responsibility is to your children.” To this, Johtje Vos responded: “That’s exactly why I’m doing it!” She added in her testimony, “I thought we were doing the right thing, giving our children the right model to follow.”
And thus, they all acted according to the dictum of that ancient Jewish sage, Hillel who stated: “If I am only for myself, then what is my merit?” A later Talmudic passage underlines this point in even stronger ethical terms: “Whosoever saves one life is as though he had saved an entire world.”
That is a lesson worth repeating, and a plea and summons to anyone in this audience who has not yet accounted for his or her rescue due to the selfless help of others, to do so while there is still time. And I am here to help out.