Vilna, Poland, December 31, 1941. Officers in the German army celebrate Sylvester in an upstairs apartment. Members of the Jewish underground meet in the same building, downstairs. Their host is German soldier Anton Schmid, who rushes from one group to the other to keep his comrades at arms from becoming suspicious.
Schmid is a loyal German soldier. But in 1941, when he was posted to the Vilna Railway Station, he witnessed countless Nazi atrocities. Almost immediately, and at great danger to himself, he began saving Jewish lives.
During this holiday gathering, one of the Jews present tells Schmid that when Israel becomes a state he will be honored for his bravery with a golden Star of David. Shortly afterwards, however, Schmid is arrested by the Nazis, convicted of high treason and executed.
On August 15, 1953, the Knesset unanimously passed a law establishing Yad Vashem, outlining its objectives and framework. The ninth clause charged the institution with perpetuating the memories of non-Jews who jeopardized their lives to save Jews. They were to be known as hasidei umot haolam. Righteous of the Nations.
Together with others who risked everything they held dear to save Jewish lives, Anton Schmid is remembered in a special section of Yad Vashem that pays tribute to the Righteous of the Nations. Indeed, tree-lined avenues, landscaped gardens and ever-increasing memorial walls feature the names of over 25,000 incredibly courageous people.
A sculpted memorial for Unknown Righteous stands at the entrance to this special section. Behind the statue is a tree planted in honor of Joop Westerweel, a Dutch teacher who refused to countenance wrongdoing. In 1942 he joined an underground network that smuggled hundreds of Jewish youths out of Holland to safety in other countries. When the group leader was caught by the Nazis, Joop took over.
Captured in the act of helping two youngsters escape, he was sent to the Vught Concentration Camp in Holland. He was beaten and tortured, yet refused to reveal any information about his comrades. On August 11, 1944, Joop was executed by the Nazis.
Another tree honors Gertrude Babilinska, daughter of a Polish postal worker. The oldest of eight children, Gertrude left home at 19 and found work in Warsaw as a nanny with the wealthy Stolowicki family. She cared not only for their baby, but for Mrs. Stolowicki, who had become very ill.
When the Germans attacked Poland, the family’s father was in Paris and never returned home. The family’s other employees turned their back on the now pauperized mother and her three year child Michael, but not Gertrude, who fled with them to Vilna. Terrified by bombs falling on the road, Mrs. Stolowicki was helpless to function; Gertrude took responsibility for both mother and son.
While stranded with other refugees in Vilna, they survived by what scarce money Gertrude managed to earn. Mrs. Stolowicki passed away, but not before asking Gertrude to take her child to Palestine. When the Jews were forced into a ghetto in Vilna, Gertrude managed to stay out by acquiring false papers and baptismal proof for five year old Michael.
After the war, Gertrude tried to take Michael to Palestine, but they were forced to remain in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany. Finally, she wrangled passage on the Exodus, a ship bound for Palestine. When the ship was turned back by the British, Gertrude and Michael found themselves back in Germany. There they remained until they finally landed on the shores of the Promised Land in 1948. Gertrude, who remained a devout Catholic, remained in Israel and raised Michael as her son – and as a Jew.
A plaque next to a tree on the opposite side of the path is inscribed with the names of Zayneba and Mustafa Hardaga. Pious Muslims from Sarajevo, they strictly followed Islam’s religious laws and rites. Their Jewish friends, the Kabilios, lived next door.
On April 14, 1941, German bombs destroyed the Kabilio home and the Hardagas immediately took them in. Soon afterwards, the Nazis set up headquarters right across the street, and circulated notices that promised death for anyone sheltering a Jew.
The Hardagas refused to turn the Kabilios out, but Joseph Kabilio worried about the danger to his friends. He managed to send his wife and daughters into an Italian-occupied zone. Then he hid in a hospital until informers turned him over to the Nazis.
Heading for certain death, Joseph somehow was able to escape. But with nowhere else to go, he returned to the Hardagas home. He hid there for several months, until he was the last Jew left in the city. Then, with the Hardagas’ help, he reconnected with his family – and joined the partisans.
The Kabilios survived. And when they returned to Sarajevo after the war, the Hardagas presented them with an unopened box of jewelry that had been left for safekeeping. With this they were able to make a new life, eventually immigrating to Israel.
Two Dutch university students – Henriette (Hetty) Voute and Gisela Wieberdink-Soehnlein – are remembered with trees as well. During the war, Hetty and Gisela belonged to an underground network intent on saving Jews. Hetty became involved in finding shelter for Jewish children; her friend Gisela acted as courier between underground organizations, and escorted children to safe houses.
When the mass deportations began in Amsterdam, Jewish children were separated from their parents and sent to a transit center to await transport to the death camps. Hetty and Gisela spirited children out of the center by hiding them in milk cans, laundry bags, potato sacks, anything that they could get their hands on.
Both women were caught and sent to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. Somehow, they survived and, years later, were recognized as Righteous among the Nations.
Remember the New Year’s Eve party in Vilna, where Anton Schmid was told that someday he would receive a Star of David as a gesture of thanks? Anton had replied that when that day came he would wear it with honor. Today, instead of a medal, he is remembered with a tree.
Only 30 of the 7,000 Jews in Liepaja, Latvia, survived the Holocaust. Eleven of them were saved by Robert and Johanna Sedul. They are among hundreds of Righteous inscribed on the Wall of Names, in a plaza that is located near a cattle car that sits on railroad ties high among the trees – a car just like those that transported Holocaust victims to the death camps.
Robert was a janitor who began sheltering Jews in 1943. While they remained hidden behind a partition in the cellar of the building where he worked, Robert managed to provide them with food and to keep their spirits up until he was killed near the war’s end by a Russian shell. His wife Johanna continued safeguarding the Jews until the final liberation in 1945. The names of Robert and Johanna are engraved on a wall together with those of other Righteous Gentiles from Latvia.
Another tree honors Olena Hyrhoryshyn. In the summer of 1941, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and in the fall the massacres began. Eleven-year-old Donia Rozen, an orphan, had been living with her grandparents in the Ukrainian town of Kosow. Donia and her grandmother were taken in by a neighbor; the grandfather was murdered by the Nazis. A year later, the only remaining Jew in Kosow, the child ended up fending for herself in the surrounding forests.
Olena, a 60-year-old peasant, found Donia and took her home, despite the hostility of her neighbors. And when the situation worsened, and Olena refused to turn Donia in to the authorities, her brother threw them both out of the house.
Captured by the Nazis, they managed to escape into the forests. Here Olena built a hideout for Donia and covered it with dry twigs. After working by day to provide them with food, Olena would return at night and try to warm the child’s frozen body.
As the hunt for Jews continued, Donia’s shelter was discovered. She jumped into the Prut River, reaching the Red Army and safety on the other side. Donna was free, eventually immigrating to Israel and becoming, after time, head of the Department of the Righteous. Olena was never seen or heard from again.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a photographer and licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.