UNR hosts an exhibit about those who rescued Jews from Nazis
We often speak of courage in our relatively sane world. When someone opposes a war amid militaristic fervor or advocates unpopular legislation, the term courage comes into play.
But little is at stake for those figures. All they stand to lose is some esteem from others, perhaps reelection, perhaps some business. It’s not like someone will kill them for saying or doing the wrong thing.
At the University of Nevada, Reno, there is an exhibit on people who could have been killed, and sometimes were, for helping to protect the victims of Nazi Germany—Jews, gays, Gypsies. That’s courage.
The exhibit, I Am My Brother’s Keeper, runs through Aug. 14. It is spun off from Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial and research center dedicated to the Holocaust. One section of it, Righteous Among the Nations, is dedicated to documenting and preserving the memory of those who helped protect the Jews.
In conquered Denmark in late 1943, German diplomatic attache Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz—having failed to dissuade his government in Berlin—tipped off Danish officials of an impending roundup of Jews. During the first week of October, the people of Denmark identified, transported, and smuggled the nation’s Jews out of the country to safety in Sweden. Ordinary Danes throughout the country provided assistance. People in the fishing industry ferried the refugees. In Copenhagen, the task was accomplished overnight on October 1-2, the Jewish new year. 5,919 Jews, 1,301 part-Jews, and 986 non-Jewish spouses of Jews were rescued. When the operation was over, only about 500 Jews remained, and they were sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp. 423 of them survived until liberation.
Such things happened in nation after nation where the tentacles of German conquest reached.
In France, the onetime home of Marquis de Lafayette—a hero in both the old world and the new—was used to hide Jews from the Nazis.
In Turkey, Catholic Monsigner Angelo Roncalli—who, at age 50, had written in his journal that he was a failure and “ashamed before the Lord”—busily cranked out a variety of documents to aid the Jews, including baptismal certificates, immigration documents, and travel visas. At one point he wrote of forwarding “three more bundles” of blank documents from Palestine for the use of a sympathetic colleague who was also doing rescue work. “Poor children of Israel,” said the future Pope John XXIII. “Daily I hear their groans around me. They are relatives and fellow countrymen of Jesus.”
In Lithuania, an Axis diplomat, Japanese consul general Chiune Sugihara, worked hard with the underground to get Jews to safety not from the Nazis but from the Soviet secret police after occupation began. He issued visas to more than 2,000, many of them children.
In Italy, the example of Francis was put to work in Assisi, where a network of priests and nuns tended what Franciscan Abbot Rufino Niccaci called “my Jewish flock.”
What’s amazing is that even when the work went on for extended periods, good people did not tire of it, though there was surely strain on both sides—rituals, dietary needs, sacrifices. Moreover, the work was labor- and personnel-intensive. In his book The Righteous, Martin Gilbert quotes French Holocaust scholar Elisabeth Maxwell: “In order to save one Jew, it required 10 or more people in every case.” When Belgian Jew Alexander Rotenberg, a member of the resistance, crossed France to Switzerland, about 50 people were involved in helping smuggle him.
The residents of the mostly Protestant village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, population about 3,000, took in Jewish refugees to their own homes, schools, and other available hiding places. The protection of the Jews went on for four years. Though the entire town was involved in the rescue work, no word leaked to the authorities. Toward the end, a local physician who had treated Jews was murdered by the collaborationist regime.
“There are heroisms all around us,” Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote. Such actions make it more difficult to accept the case that there was nothing that could be done in the face of such powerful evil.
The exhibit at UNR can, with just 12 wall panels and four television monitors, just scratch the surface of this tale. But it’s a good place to start.
One of the monitors flashes photos of those designated the Righteous Among the Nations. It makes it plain that greatness is not found just among the prominent. These were everyday people—a farmer stands in a field with this son, an old Belarus man and his cat, a shopkeeper in an apron with his wife, an elderly couple sitting outdoors.
The stories of courage in the Holocaust have provided material for many movies: Among the Righteous, An Open Door, The Danish Solution, Desperate Hours, 50 Children, Les Hommes Libres (Free Men), The Only Way, The Optimists, Orchestra of Exiles, Miracle at Midnight, The Pimpernel of the Vatican, The Power of Good, Rescue in Albania, The Scarlet and the Black, A Voice Among the Silent, Weapons of the Spirit.
It is possible, of course, to make too much of these heroisms, to let the inspiration they carry overpower the magnitude of the evil of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, these stories are enormously comforting. Imagine if there had been no such actions—none. It is too bleak a prospect to consider.
So far, Yad Vashem researchers have documented and honored 25,681 Righteous Among the Nations. It is heartening to know that so many tried. It is also disheartening to know that there were not enough.