Is it time to honor Jews who rescued Jews in the Holocaust?
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Is it time to honor Jews who rescued Jews in the Holocaust?

Child survivor who sought recognition for Jewish resistance operative who helped saved his life sees his effort bear fruit

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

The B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL-JNF) commemorating the heroism of Jews who rescued fellow Jews during the Holocaust, April 16, 2015, in the Martyrs Forest near Jerusalem. (Yossi Zamir)
The B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL-JNF) commemorating the heroism of Jews who rescued fellow Jews during the Holocaust, April 16, 2015, in the Martyrs Forest near Jerusalem. (Yossi Zamir)

When the Nazis came in 1943 during the second day of Rosh Hashanah to round up what was left of the Roet family in their Amsterdam apartment, 11-year-old Haim (Hendrik) Roet’s mother succeeded in rebuffing them.

Knowing the Nazis would return soon, she removed her sons’ yellow Stars of David and a woman from the underground took them to a train station where they were placed under the precarious protection of the resistance.

The brothers journeyed to Drente, where they separated into different safe houses in a village called Nieuwlande. Helped by underground activist Johannes Post, who was in turn aided by two members of the resistance, Arnold Douwes and Max Leons, young Haim was brought to a farm where he was hidden for a year and a half by Anton and Aleida Deesker.

Roet credits all three members of the Dutch resistance with bringing him to his wartime refuge. Of the Deeskers he has said, “They were an extraordinary family who saved my life.”

The entire Nieuwlande village, Post, Douwes and the Deeskers have all been honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum for rescuing Jews in the face of mortal danger.

Leons, however, being a Jew himself, was not recognized.

Roet made aliyah to Israel with his family in 1949. He worked with the Israeli Ministry of Trade and Industry and the World Bank and has been a passionate volunteer for Yad Vashem.

A statement by preeminent Holocaust historian Prof. Yehuda Bauer made Roet question Leons’s exclusion some 15 years ago, however. In a meeting, Bauer said it was typical of the Jews to recognize non-Jews and not Jews.

“I was sitting there and I thought that there were three people in the underground who brought me out and one of them was a Jew. He was never recognized by Yad Vashem, only the two others,” Roet said in an interview with London’s Jewish Telegraph. “There is a big plaque of 200 names and in large letters the names of the two underground members who organized it. The third is not there because he’s Jewish.”

In conversation with The Times of Israel this week, Roet said, “The Jew that assisted me could have had a relatively easy life and not go into the streets every day to help other Jews.”

Roet said that when Leons initially told his father he wanted to go assist other Jews, his father asked incredulously, “You! With your nose?”

For Roet, the easily identifiably Jewish Leons was clearly going above and beyond in putting his life in danger through his resistance work.

‘I was sitting there and I thought that there were three people in the underground who brought me out and one of them was a Jew. He was never recognized by Yad Vashem’

Roet had already successfully initiated the “Unto Every Person There is a Name” program in which names of Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust are recited at the Knesset and Yad Vashem in Israel, and in various Diaspora communities. In 2000, he helped found the Action Committee for the Recognition of Jewish Rescuers.

The committee, made up of Holocaust survivors and other volunteers, has petitioned for the inclusion of Jewish rescuers’ stories in the annals of broader rescue history. Its efforts have borne fruit: In Israel, the newly renovated Yad Vashem Museum has a permanent exhibit dedicated to Jewish rescuers.

But the most significant outcome of Roet’s activism in this area is an annual Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony awarding the “Jewish Rescuers Citation,” held by B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem and Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel (KKL-JNF) at a plaza among the six million trees planted in the Martyrs’ Forest near Jerusalem.

While the ceremony is in its thirteenth year, the citation has been awarded only since 2011. Making up for lost time perhaps, over 100 Jewish rescuers who operated in France, Germany, Holland and Hungary have since received the honor.

“When we leave out the Jews, we’re leaving out an important part of the picture,” director of B’nai B’rith World Center Alan Schneider told The Times of Israel just after Wednesday’s Yad Vashem state ceremony.

Alan Schneider (center), director of B'nai B'rith World Center, at the ceremony honoring Jewish rescuers of Jews on April 16, 2015. (courtesy)
Alan Schneider (center), director of B’nai B’rith World Center, at the ceremony honoring Jewish rescuers of Jews on April 16, 2015. (courtesy)

Schneider applauded Yad Vashem’s increased efforts in the area of Jewish rescue, including a recent Hebrew-language book and several symposiums and seminars.

“But there’s a lot more to be done. This is something that we feel has not gotten the attention over the years, whereas there has been a lot of attention on how Jews were murdered, rounded up, the war, restitution efforts,” said Schneider.

Stories of Jewish rescue of Jews convey important principles to today’s youth, said Schneider.

“Jews should take these examples of Jewish solidarity and use them as educational tools,” he said.

The B’nai B’rith ceremony included some 200 Border Police cadets as an honor guard and 200 high school students. This is intentional: A high percentage of those who were active in resisting the Nazis were in their teens and early 20s, said Schneider.

Soviet Jewish World War Two veteran Boris Ginsburg joined partisans for two years and in 1944 he joined the Red Army as a combat soldier and fought till the and of the war. (photo credit: AP/Oded Balilty)
Soviet Jewish World War Two veteran Boris Ginsburg joined partisans for two years and in 1944 he joined the Red Army as a combat soldier and fought till the and of the war. (photo credit: AP/Oded Balilty)

In her 1997 landmark survey, “Jewish Resistance: Facts, Omissions, and Distortions,” historian Nechama Tec wrote, “Particularly active in the Eastern European ghettos were youths who, before the war, belonged to Zionist and non-Zionist movements that covered the entire political spectrum from left to right…

“While eager to fight the Germans, youthful resisters were realistic about the inevitable outcome of any armed encounters. Knowing well that they could not stop the destruction of Jewish lives, they hoped that through armed resistance, they would, at very least, salvage the honor of the Jewish people,” she wrote.

Tec’s findings, recently reprinted in the 2014 compendium “Jewish Resistance Against the Nazis,” initiated edited by Catholic professor Patrick Henry, show that resistance efforts were more widespread than commonly acknowledged.

In the ghetto, she cited countless acts of “unarmed humane resistance,” humanitarian activities that benefit others, which she called “resistance of a very special kind, without hope and without resources… Such efforts contributed to the perpetuation of Jewish life while challenging the validity of Nazi policies of annihilation.”

In terms of armed resistance, Tec wrote, “Historical evidence shows that open armed resistance was more frequent for Jewish than non-Jewish underground groups.”

‘Historical evidence shows that open armed resistance was more frequent for Jewish than non-Jewish underground groups’

In Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe, wrote Tec, Jewish underground organizations were set up in seven major ghettos and in 45 minor ghettos. Armed Jewish uprisings took place in five concentration camps and in 18 forced-labor camps.

Additionally, she cited estimates of 20,000-30,000 Jews who participated in the Soviet partisan movement. “Of the Jews who fought within those ranks, an estimated 80% perished.”

But should these partisans and other resistance fighters be honored in the same way that Righteous Among the Nations are?

‘When you are in something together, you help each other’

Dr. Chanan Karshai, an 88-year-old retired pediatric hemotologist living in Jerusalem, was a partisan in the Slovakian mountains after escaping from a forced labor camp. His entire family perished.

In conversation with The Times of Israel Thursday, he said he doesn’t personally need the recognition.

Former Slovakian partisan, Dr. Chanan Karshai. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)
Former Slovakian partisan, Dr. Chanan Karshai. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

He compared Jews helping fellow Jews during World War II with going on a hike with a friend.

“When you go on a hike with friends and one breaks a leg, the other friends help. When you are in something together, you help each other,” said Karshai.

All the Jews were facing the same terrible consequences, the same terminal fate, which made them part of the same group, he said.

Non-Jews, on the other hand, said Karshai, had a choice of facing mortal danger or trying to keep their heads down and survive.

“The punishments for Jews were so harsh, it didn’t matter if you helped or not — you would be killed anyway. A non-Jew, however, if he helped a Jew, he put in danger his life, his property, his family,” said Karshai.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s premier institution for Holocaust studies, would seem to agree with Karshai’s assessment.

“Almost all survivor testimonies describe instances of help extended by one Jew to another. These awe-inspiring expressions of courage, self sacrifice and solidarity deserve to be documented, researched and imparted, and Yad Vashem is committed to dealing with this topic in all its manifold activities, including on our website, in our educational, commemoration and research work and more. For example, the Yad Vashem Library contains over 1180 items that have been classified with the subject ‘Relief and Rescue by Jews,'” wrote a Yad Vashem spokesperson in an email.

Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. (photo credit: courtesy)
Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. (photo credit: courtesy)

“However it is practically impossible to define criteria which will enable to decide what act of help deserves special distinction or a medal. With non-Jews the basic criterion is the element of risk to the rescuer. i.e., a person who knowingly chose to put himself or herself in danger and chose to leave the safety of the bystander’s position and identify with the victims to the extent of being willing to share their fate,” she wrote.

All Jews were in mortal danger. “Helping fellow Jews could have augmented that danger in a particular instance, but evading danger altogether was not an option,” she wrote.

To this, Holocaust survivor Roet said this week, “Our committee of action decided to deal only with Jews who did over and above to rescue other Jews.”

Rudolf Kastner, photographed at Israel Radio in the 1950s (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rudolf Kastner, photographed at Israel Radio in the 1950s (photo credit: Courtesy)

In Washington, DC, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Miles Lerman Center for the Study of Jewish Resistance awarded 18 Jews with Medals of Resistance from 1994 until 2004. The award stopped, but research on the subject continued.

Former partisan Karshai noted another factor in his inclination not to formally honor Jewish rescuers.

He cited the example of controversial Jewish-Hungarian Rudolph Israel Kastner, who was credited with helping Jews escape Europe during the Holocaust, and later accused by an Israeli court of collaboration with the Nazis. Although the Supreme Court overturned the decision in 1958, Kastner had been already assassinated by Lehi veterans in 1957.

“Half the population says he worked with Nazis and sold his soul to the Germans, the other half says he’s a national hero,” said Karshai, adding it’s sometimes best to leave well enough alone.

Averting a Greek tragedy

Posthumously honored with B’nai B’rith Jewish Rescuers Citation this year, Rabbi Moshe Shimon Pessach is a figure whose legacy is also still somewhat open to interpretation.

A widely-renowned Jewish scholar whose 6,000-volume library is now housed in Jerusalem’s Ben Zvi Institute, Pessach is credited by B’nai B’rith with initiating the rescue of the Jewish community of Volos, Greece, and saving hundreds of Jews during Holocaust.

Rabbi Moshe Shimon Pessach and family pre-World War II. (courtesy Volos Municipality)
Rabbi Moshe Shimon Pessach and family pre-World War II. (courtesy Volos Municipality)

The Volos Jewish community has arguably been in existence since the ancient Greek Empire. In 1940 it held some 900 Jews, and after 1941 and the Italian occupation of Greece, the population was swelled slightly by refugees from other communities. The Volos community lived in relative safety under the Italians until the German conquest in 1943.

Word reached the town’s Archbishop Joachim Alexopoulos that the Germans would start deporting its Jews on March 25, 1944.

According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The resistance movement was very active in Volos. The chief rabbi, Moshe Pessah, worked with Archbishop Joachim Alexopoulos and the EAM (National Liberation Front) to find sanctuary for the city’s Jews in the mountainous villages of Pelion… Of more than 1,000 Jews living in the city in March 1944, only 130 were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.”

Those who were deported, said his great-grandson Dr. Ilias Pessach, in Israel to accept the B’nai B’rith award alongside his uncle, simply did not listen to their rabbi.

B’nai B’rith also claimed he “established a unit of partisans that rescued Allied soldiers and fought the Germans – actions for which he was decorated both by king Paul of Greece and by the commander of the Allied forces in the Mediterranean.”

Archbishop Joachim Alexopoulos was recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations for his work in saving the Jews of Volos, Greece. courtesy)
Archbishop Joachim Alexopoulos was recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations for his work in saving the Jews of Volos, Greece. courtesy)

Great-grandson Pessach said one of his motivations in pushing for his great-grandfather’s recognition was to remind today’s Greece that a Jew could be a Greek patriot.

Unfortunately, Pessach explained, there is some controversy over his great-grandfather’s legacy in the Greek Jewish community.

According to Pessach, another, well-connected Volos family has claimed it was their ancestor who alerted the Volos Jews of the impending Nazi arrival. As a result, his relative is not mentioned in the country’s Holocaust museums and memorials.

Dr. Yitzchak Kerem, a researcher at Hebrew University on Sephardic Jewry, said what Rabbi Pessach did during the Holocaust “was courageous and had foresight: He encouraged the community not to stay in the city and to go to the mountains. Also, behind the scenes, he refused to give the Nazis lists of names of the Jewish community and where they lived.”

Whether he formed a partisan troop is not so clear, and, according to Kerem, “more rumor than fact.”

“That was his claim to fame, but I’ve never met any Jewish partisans that had testimony and there’s no archival material in resistance archives,” said Kerem.

Pessach heatedly rejected Kerem’s position on the partisan unit. “He was 70 years old,” said Pessach. “He wasn’t carrying a gun, but he organized units.”

Family representatives at the B'nai B'rith/KKL ceremony recognizing Jewish efforts to save Jews during the Holocaust. (Yossi Zamir)
Family representatives at the B’nai B’rith/KKL ceremony recognizing Jewish efforts to save Jews during the Holocaust. (Yossi Zamir)

There is rich historical documentation of Pessach’s role in helping his community through arranging provisions for the hundreds of Jews in his care in the mountains and aiding in communications between resistance fighters, among other efforts. He was decorated by Greece in 1985 and by the Allies in 1945 for his roles. Israel extended its greatest possible honor and reburied the rabbi and his wife in 1957 in the Holy Land on the state’s shekel and at the state’s behest.

Pressed again, Sephardic Jewry historian Kerem repeated that the idea of a Jewish unit is a myth, although there were many Jews who fought with the partisans. He hastened to add that for him, this little detail makes no difference to the fact that Pessach is a true Jewish hero.

“It’s a good thing he’s being honored because B’nai B’rith honors people Yad Vashem couldn’t, and it’s time to recognize Jews who helped other Jews,” said Kerem.

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