Discussion Papers Series
Rescue during the Holocaust: The Courage to Care
by Mordecai Paldiel, the former Director of the Department of the Righteous at Yad Vashem
It was a clear moonlit night as I, a six-year-old boy at the time, trudged along an isolated tree-covered field with my parents, my grandmother, and five siblings – one of which I carried in my arms with difficulty. We slowly made our way toward the double barbed wire fence that separated France from Switzerland. It was the evening of 8 September 1943, the day Italy surrendered to the Allies, and the Germans were about to take over the watch of that section of the border. Up until then, the Italians had been charged with this responsibility.
Before this attempt to escape, my family had moved from one place to another, over a period of three years, seeking safety in the Vichy zone of France. We had fled there from Belgium after the Germans invaded the country on 10 May 1940. Our first move was from the little town of St. Gauden, situated at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains, where we attempted to cross into Spain. Having failed, we moved on to Marseilles. Soon after the Germans occupied the city in November 1942, we fled to the little village of Varces, located in the Italian zone of France near Grenoble.
Now, with the Italians gone, my parents decided, in a last desperate attempt, to cross into Switzerland. With the help of two Frenchmen, we made it across safely, only to be arrested by a Swiss border patrol. We were interned, but luckily we were not turned back into France, which was now fully controlled by Nazi Germany.
The man who made this possible was a French cleric named Abbé Simon Gallay, who lived in the little town of Evian-les-Bains. My mother had met him only a few days earlier, but had been told Abbé Simon Gallay was a friendly cleric who would help us. When my mother approached him, he immediately promised to arrange our flight to Switzerland. And he kept his word.
Many decades later, when I headed the Righteous Among the Nations Programme (1) at Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, I promised myself that I would try and find him. I had hoped that he was still alive so I could thank him in person on behalf of my family and the institution for which I worked. My parents, who were still alive in the late 1980’s, had told me how fortunate they were to have discovered this rescuer. When they met him, they were at their wits end trying to find a way to elude the Germans. From other documents made available to me, I learned how Abbé Simon Gallay had helped other Jews who had tried to flee to safety. To my surprise, I had the good fortune of locating him in a Catholic retirement home in Annecy. He told me about his meeting with my mother, who had come to plead for his help.
This programme was established to honour the non-Jewish rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust. When Abbé Simon Gallay was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations in 1990 for having risked his life to save my family and others, I journeyed to France to personally give him the medal and certificate of honour on behalf of Yad Vashem and the State of Israel. I presented the award to him in a prestigious ceremony that was attended by civic and religious officials.
That same year, I planted a tree in his name on the Avenue of the Righteous, at Yad Vashem. I was happy to have fulfilled a self-imposed commitment to give thanks and appreciation to my family’s rescuer - to Abbé Simon Gallay - to a man who made it possible for my family to stay alive by staying out of reach of those who wished us dead for the simple reason that we were born.
The example of Abbé Simon Gallay was an inspiration to help other survivors to honour their rescuers through my position as the Director of the Righteous Among the Nations Department at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. During my 24-year tenure as head of that department, I was instrumental in identifying and honouring thousands of other non-Jewish rescuers of Jews, men and women from various countries and walks of life who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis. In doing so they reasserted their commitment to an ethical-bound humanity that was in short supply during the dark period of Nazi rule, and that was being challenged by one of the most brutal and immoral forces that has tainted the annals of civilized life.
The programme was established through legislation passed by the parliament of Israel in 1953. It took another nine years for this provision to actually be launched, and this was largely prompted by the revelations that were made during Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, which ended in 1962. Eichmann was one of the senior SS (2) officers in charge of the so-called “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”. Eichmann was captured by Israeli agents in Argentina in 1960, where he had lived under an assumed name since the end of the Second World War, and brought to Israel for trial. All of the horrific details of the massive extermination of Jews were laid bare at this trial, through the words of witnesses. But some of the testimonies revealed how survivors were aided and helped by others, by non-Jewish persons.
Some of the witnesses include Avraham Berman, who gave testimony about members of the Polish underground who aided Jews to escape from the Warsaw ghetto; Abba Kovner, who led the uprising at the Vilna ghetto, spoke of the help Jews received from German military Sergeant Anton Schmid; Joseph Melkman, who identified the Dutch rescuer Joop Westerweel, who was murdered by the Germans for his actions; Henrietta Samuel who spoke about Norwegian Ingebjorg Sletten-Fosstvedt, who helped Jews escape to neutral Sweden; Hulda Campiano, who gave testimony about the help her family received in Italy by members of the Catholic clergy, as well as lay persons; and other witnesses who spoke about the rescue of the Jewish community in Denmark. In 1962, as the Eichmann trial came to a close, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem decided to launch a programme under which non-Jewish persons who risked their life to save Jews would be publicly acknowledged and honoured by the State of Israel. A commission chaired by a Supreme Court justice was nominated in order to establish the criteria for this award. This public commission would function for as long as there was credible evidence identifying rescuers of Jews to be honoured.
The first chairman to be appointed to the Commission was Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau, who presided over the Eichmann trial. He was succeeded by Supreme Court Justice Moshe Bejski, who had been rescued by Oskar Schindler, and who had also given testimony at the Eichmann trial.
The Commission decided that the basic criteria that must be met in order to be eligible for the “Righteous” title was that a person needed to have risked his own life and safety by attempting to save at least one Jewish person, with no material advantage to the rescuer, and that the rescuer’s story could be corroborated by the beneficiary party. Each rescuer that met this criteria would then be entitled to a tree in his or her name located in a specially constructed grove at Yad Vashem, named Avenue of the Righteous. This avenue leads to the Holocaust museum, which holds archived records of the horrific events of the Final Solution. The trees are there to remind visitors that the final word was to be left to the rescuers and not to the perpetrators of these crimes. After some 2,000 trees were planted, and with space lacking for continued tree plantings, it was decided to construct a special site at Yad Vashem to continue honoring the Righteous – the Garden of the Righteous. Here, the names of those so honoured each year, are etched in stone for time immemorial. In addition, each rescuer was to receive a specially minted medal bearing the name of the rescuer along with a certificate of honour. For those not able to come to Israel, these honours were to be distributed through the diplomatic representatives of Israel residing abroad, to signal the State of Israel’s validation of the rescuer’s heroic and humanitarian behavior.
To date, at this 50-year celebration of the Righteous programme, some 25,000 names of rescuers adorn the Yad Vashem memorial. In addition, a 10-volume encyclopedia published by Yad Vashem describes the humanitarian and life-risking actions that earned these individuals recognition, and ensures that the memory of these role models will be preserved for generations to come. Space does not allow me to mention all of these knights of the spirit such as Joop Westerweel of the Netherlands, who led fleeing Jews across the Belgian and French borders to the high peaks of the Pyrenees mountains that border Spain; the Belgian Andrée Geulen, who was instrumental in finding safe places for several hundred Jewish children; the French Franciscan cleric Pierre Marie-Benoît, who saved Jews both in Marseilles and, under the name of Father Benedetto, in Rome; the Italian Giorgio Perlasca, who saved Jews in Budapest by posing as the diplomatic representative of Spain; the German Oskar Schindler, who saved over one thousands Jews, both in Cracow, Poland, and Brunnlitz, Moravia; Metropolitan Damaskinos, who invited fleeing Jews to seek shelter in Greek Orthodox religious institutions in Athens; equally his counterpart in Bulgaria, Metropolitan Stefan; the Pole Jan Kozielewski, who under the code name of Karski travelled on a special mission to England and the United States to sound the alarm on the destruction of Polish Jews; the brave Pole Irena Sendler who was instrumental in saving hundreds of Jewish children who were secretly spirited out of the Warsaw ghetto; the Lithuanian Jonas Paulavicius who sheltered a dozen Jews and several Soviet POW’s in his home outside Kaunas, and finally, Janis Lipke, the Latvian stevedore who smuggled Jews out of German labour camps in the Riga area and hid them at his isolated farm near the Baltic Sea coast.
Individuals who are identified as “Righteous Among the Nations” receive certificates bearing this title. In some cases, whole communities were honoured as ‘Righteous” for their role in rescue efforts. Some examples include the French Protestant community of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, where an estimated several thousand Jews found shelter at different periods of time; the Dutch village of Nieuwlande, in Drente province that also sheltered hundreds of Jews; the Danish underground organization that facilitated the flight of Jews to nearby Switzerland. A tree was also planted by the Polish Righteous Wladyslaw Bartoszewski (later the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs) in Zegota’s name, the clandestine Polish organization dedicated to helping Jews on the run. Several dozen diplomats were also recipients of the Righteous title for disobeying or misinterpreting their government’s restriction or prohibition in issuing visas to Jews. Some of these names include Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul-general in Bordeaux, who handed out thousands of transit visas to Jews and others who had reason to fear Nazi retribution. And lest we forget, the legendary Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat sent to Hungary to save the Jews, numbering in the thousands, and whose disappearance at the hands of the Soviets still remains an agonizing mystery.
I was privileged to have been part of this program over a 24-year-period, and to have had the opportunity to write numerous books and articles on this inspiring and uplifting phenomenon. Now that I am teaching here in New York, I continue to seek out persons who survived thanks to the help of others. As a teammate of the ADL/Hidden Child Foundation and as a consultant at the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, I help these survivors draw up their testimonies and documentation and then send it to Yad Vashem for consideration under the Righteous Among the Nations programme. For we have an obligation to pass on to future generations not merely the legacy of the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the story of the Righteous. The lessons of these deeds can arouse the spark of goodness in others that is an innate part of humanity. Such goodness may start with one small act, then, as shown by many rescuers, expand and grow to helping more than one person over greater lengths of time. 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 suddenly challenged to help a fleeing Jewish persons, found themselves suddenly and instinctively transformed, perhaps overwhelmed, into rescuers.
Such is the story of the barely articulate Lorenzo Perrone, the Italian bricklayer who, in 1944, found himself on a team assigned to a certain building project in the Auschwitz camp. It was here that he accidentally met fellow Italian Primo Levi, a Jewish prisoner, who had been assigned to help him out with the cement mixture. At that moment, something was kindled in Lorenzo’s mind and heart. It was not only a liking for the affable Levi but something more – a commitment to help him survive Auschwitz, a hell on earth that could serve as the backdrop for Dante’s Inferno. Initially this commitment took the form of supplying Levi with food stolen from the Italian kitchen. For the next six months, every morning Lorenzo brought Levi a military mess tin full of soup, carefully hidden under some boards, and told him to bring it back empty before evening. Late at night, when all the Italian workers were sound asleep, Lorenzo sneaked into the kitchen and scraped the leftovers from the cauldrons, and this is what he brought to Levi the following day. A slice of bread was sometimes added to the daily soup. One very pressing matter in Primo Levi’s mind was how to communicate to his mother, who was in hiding back in Italy, that she need not worry too much for he was alive, albeit in a German concentration camp. Jews were strictly forbidden to write, however non-Jewish civilian workers such as Perrone were allowed to do so. Lorenzo agreed to write a letter, penned by Levi in coded language, and send it to Levi’s mother through a non-Jewish woman friend.
Surprisingly, in August 1944, Primo Levi received a letter from home, followed by a package from Primo’s sister and mother, who were both in hiding in Italy. The package contained ersatz chocolate, cookies, and powdered milk. “To describe its real value, the impact it had on me ... is beyond the powers of ordinary language”, Levi wrote after the war. It goes without saying that if the real purpose and the author of these letters had been uncovered, both Levi’s and Perrone’s lives would have been in serious danger. In the words of Levi, Perrone “was good and simple and did not think that one did good for a reward”.
Primo Levi was, to put it mildly, dumbfounded by Lorenzo’s goodness – in of all places a camp where civilized conduct and moral behavior had been ground into dust. “A man helping other men out of pure altruism was incomprehensible, alien, like a savior who’s come from heaven… No one knows what I owe that man; I shall never be able to repay him”, Levi wrote in a letter to a friend, on June 6, 1945, soon after the end of the war (3). After the war, when the two met again, in Italy, Lorenzo confided to Primo that back in Auschwitz he had helped others, but he had not thought it necessary to talk about it. “We are in this world to do good, not to boast about it,” he told the startled Primo. In the words of author Carole Langier, “Without Lorenzo Perrone we would not have had one of the greatest witnesses and writers of the Shoah (Holocaust), perhaps the greatest of all”, referring to Primo Levi. In 1998, Yad Vashem conferred the title of Righteous Among the Nations on the late Lorenzo Perrone.
Lorenzo’s goodness left a deep mark on Levi’s thinking, as he testified in his first post-war book, If This Is a Man:
“Why I, rather than thousands of others, managed to survive the test, I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror ... for which it was worth surviving ... His humanity was pure and uncontaminated, he was outside this world of negation. Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man”. (4)
Lorenzo Perrone and thousands of others on Yad Vashem’s roster of Righteous Among the Nations acted according to the dictum of that ancient Jewish sage, Hillel: “If I am only for myself, then what is my merit?” A later Talmudic passage also affirms that, “Whosoever saves one life is as though he had saved an entire world”. That is a lesson worth remembering, for the sake of our future, and a more morally upright humanity.
(1) This programme was established to honour the non-Jewish rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust.
(2) SS: This paramilitary elite group of the Nazi party, known as “Shutzstaffel” in German, was responsible for implementing the security and population policies of the Third Reich, among other duties.
- Who are the “Righteous Among the Nations”?
- Did you know about the Righteous Among the Nations Programme before reading the paper by Mordecai Paldiel? What message does this programme send to students?
- Do you know if anybody from your country has been awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations? If yes, what are their stories?
- What values do you think the rescuers demonstrated? Why do you think they were willing to risk their lives to help others?
- To what extend is individual responsibility essential in combating genocide?
The discussion papers series provides a forum for individual scholars on the Holocaust and the averting of genocide to raise issues for debate and further study. These writers, representing a variety of cultures and backgrounds, have been asked to draft papers based on their own perspective and particular experiences.
The views expressed by the individual scholars do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.