We honor the Righteous Among the Nations, but why not our own?
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'Tuvia Bielski saved the same number of Jews as Oskar Schindler'

We honor the Righteous Among the Nations, but why not our own?

With a new book out this month, Holocaust survivor and scholar Mordecai Paldiel is working to see Israeli organizations recognize the Jews who saved fellow Jews during WWII

Marianne Cohn (left) is one of many Jews who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust, and whom Mordecai Paldiel (right) would like to see honored for their heroism. (Photo of Cohn public domain/Paldiel courtesy)
Marianne Cohn (left) is one of many Jews who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust, and whom Mordecai Paldiel (right) would like to see honored for their heroism. (Photo of Cohn public domain/Paldiel courtesy)

NEW YORK — The children always arrived in Switzerland in groups of 20 to 30 at a time. They bore false names; their true names were printed on labels and sewn into the lining of their jackets. Shepherding them to safety was Marianne Cohn.

The Berlin-born woman had escaped into France when the Nazis took power. After Germany invaded France and it became clear that the Vichy government meant to hand over Jewish children to the Nazis along with their parents, Cohn started her rescue operation.

On one return trip across the Franco-Swiss border, a German patrol stopped and arrested her together with the two non-Jewish Frenchmen who acted as drivers and guides. The two non-Jews were eventually released.

Cohn, the point person in this large-scale rescue operation, was interrogated, tortured and then beaten to death with fists and shovels. Years later Yad Vashem honored the two Frenchmen with the title “righteous gentile.” Cohn remained unacknowledged — at least in Israel.

“A school is named after her in Berlin, and two schools are named after her in France. Is there any street named after her in Israel? Is there any school named after her in Israel?” said Mordecai Paldiel, professor of history at Yeshiva University-Stern College.

“What’s wrong with us? What’s wrong with us Jews that we don’t know her story? Why can’t we find a way to properly honor her memory?” asked Paldiel.

If Paldiel had his way, Cohn — who saved hundreds of children — and numerous other Jews like her would have the same name recognition as Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg. Jewish children would know Jewish heroes’ stories and they would be honored for their heroism.

'Saving One's Own' by Mordecai Paldiel. (Courtesy)
‘Saving One’s Own’ by Mordecai Paldiel. (Courtesy)

There are some Jewish organizations which do honor Jewish rescuers. Since 2011, the B’nai B’rith World Center and the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jews who Rescued Fellow Jews During the Holocaust (JRJ) has conferred a joint “Jewish Rescuer’s Citation.” Paldiel and several other survivors sit on the JRJ committee, alongside rescuers and children of survivors and rescuers.

According to the organizations, the citation was established to “correct the public misconception that Jews did not rescue other Jews during the Holocaust.” The citation is given out several times a year and to date, “162 heroes were honored for rescue activities in Germany, France, Hungary, Greece, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Russia, Lithuania, Poland and Holland.”

Additionally, in cooperation with Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL-JNF), B’nai B’rith holds an annual Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at the B’nai B’rith Martyr’s Forest “Scroll of Fire” Plaza in what it calls “the only event in the world dedicated annually to commemorating the heroism of Jews who rescued fellow Jews during the Holocaust.”

To raise awareness of unsung Jewish heroes, Paldiel wrote “Saving One’s Own: Jewish Rescuers During the Holocaust.” Through the untold stories of Jewish activists who rescued thousands of Jews via rescue networks and partisan fighting groups, Paldiel shatters a persistent myth that Jews were passive in the face of death and destruction.

“This idea of gibor — the hero — is a big deal,” Paldiel said, sitting inside his office at Stern College.

Above his desk, framed images of stamps bearing Wallenberg’s profile hang next to a small print of a striped concentration camp uniform.

Paldiel first came across the subject of Jewish rescuers during his 25 years at Yad Vashem where he directed the Righteous Among the Nations Department. Over the course of his tenure — which lasted from 1982 through 2007 — 18,000 names were added to the list, which today totals about 25,000.

And as he researched candidates for Righteous Among the Nations, he noticed something.

Time and again he came on the stories of Jewish rescuers who worked with non-Jews to save Jews. Time and again the non-Jewish rescuers were honored as Righteous Gentiles, while in Israel, those Jews who saved significant numbers of their fellows during the Holocaust were denied formal recognition.

“When I was doing this work I came across many non-Jews who were working in tandem with Jews. In some cases these Jews were doing more than the non-Jews, but it was not talked about. It was not acknowledged. It was completely overlooked,” said Paldiel.

With the publication of “Saving One’s Own,” Paldiel hopes more people learn of the partisan Tuvia Bielski, who, with his brothers, saved 1,200 Jews, and once said that “To save a Jew is much more important than to kill Germans.”

“But after the war [Bielski] came to Brooklyn and was a truck driver. He was completely overlooked by the Jewish community. While everyone was celebrating Oskar Schindler, no one knew of Tuvia Bielski. Tuvia saved the same number of Jews as Oskar Schindler,” he said.

German industrialist Oskar Schindler waves after his arrival in Israel in 1962, to be honored for saving the lives of over 1,000 Jews during World War II. (Keystone/Getty Images via JTA)
German industrialist Oskar Schindler waves after his arrival in Israel in 1962, to be honored for saving the lives of over 1,000 Jews during World War II. (Keystone/Getty Images via JTA)

As Paldiel details in his book, which is published by the Jewish Publication Society, many of these Jews could have left and saved themselves but instead they chose to stay behind, risking their lives so others might get out.

One such woman was Gisi Fleischmann of Slovakia, a member of the Bratislava Working Group, which bribed German and Slovakian officials — an effort that helped stave off the mass deportation of Slovakian Jews until 1944. She was murdered in Auschwitz.

Paldiel was born in 1937 in Antwerp, Belgium; his family fled across the border to France after the Germans invaded. Like so many refugees who found sanctuary in Vichy France they moved constantly.

The mug shot of Mordecai Paldiel from when he was arrested with his family by the Swiss at age six. (Courtesy)
The mug shot of Mordecai Paldiel from when he was arrested with his family by the Swiss at age six. (Courtesy)

In 1942, when Paldiel was five, his family found themselves in Marseilles, a port city on the Mediterranean which saw its population increase threefold during the war years. Paldiel spent several weeks during the summer of 1942 in the home of Rabbi Zalman Schneerson, a distant cousin of the famed Lubavitcher Rebbe. Schneerson saved many Jewish children in France and his story is told in “Saving One’s Own.

Paldiel has only hazy memories of his time at Schneerson’s house — playing in a yard with other children, a childhood fight with another boy, sunshine and the sea in the distance.

In September 1943 the family crossed into Switzerland with the help of Simon Gallay, a Catholic priest who was later honored as a “Righteous Gentile.” Upon their arrival in Switzerland they were arrested and interned in different locations where the children were put under the care of the Jewish Federation while the adults remained under police supervision.

After the war the family returned to Belgium. In 1950 Paldiel moved to the US, he made aliyah in 1962, earning a BA in economics and political science at Hebrew University. After serving in the Six-Day War, he married and had three children, and in 1982 received his PhD in Holocaust Studies from Temple University in Philadelphia.

It was years later when Paldiel was researching Schneerson that he realized Yad Vashem had honored May Charretie, a French non-Jewish courier who aided the rabbi, but not Schneerson himself.

Paldiel said his own story only indirectly inspired his book; rather it was the research around his and others’ stories that moved him.

Danny Atar, KKL/JNF World Chairman (center), and Dr. Haim V. Katz, Chairman of the B’nai B’rith World Center along the Jewish rescuers and their families at the B’nai B’rith Martyr’s Forest 'Scroll of Fire' Plaza on April 24, 2017. (Rafi Ben Hakoon)
Danny Atar, KKL/JNF World Chairman (center), and Dr. Haim V. Katz, Chairman of the B’nai B’rith World Center along the Jewish rescuers and their families at the B’nai B’rith Martyr’s Forest ‘Scroll of Fire’ Plaza on April 24, 2017. (Rafi Ben Hakoon)

About 15 years ago a volunteer group of Israeli scholars including Paldiel tried unsuccessfully to convince the museum to acknowledge Jewish rescuers under a separate but similar program as Righteous Among the Nations.

“Yad Vashem has done a phenomenal job in recognizing non-Jews who rescued Jews, but what Paldiel’s book shows is that the emphasis on the non-Jews who saved Jews has not played up one very important aspect of the history — that Jews saved each other,” said Michael Berenbaum, scholar, author and former project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “It shows the agency Jews could take and it gives us a model of behavior. It gives a certain sense of self-liberation, it gives the oppressed a sense of what you can do for yourself.”

As Paldiel explained, provision 9:1 in the Yad Vashem rules states that Yad Vashem was created to address, among others, the Righteous Among the Nations who risked their lives to save Jews. It doesn’t, however, mention bestowing any honors — that remains up to Yad Vashem’s discretion.

Not making the progress they desired, Paldiel and others tried another tack — legislation. Although withdrawn, there was a proposed bill before the Knesset to require Yad Vashem to acknowledge major Jewish rescuers of the Jewish people in a way that doesn’t conflict with its ongoing and meritorious program for the Righteous Among the Nations, Paldiel said.

Those who opposed the original legislation argued Jews were morally obligated to help fellow Jews and so there was nothing particularly heroic about those who helped, Paldiel said. Other critics said recognizing Jewish rescuers might unfairly scrutinize the actions of survivors; honoring Jews deemed to have acted heroically would cast aspersions on those Jews who didn’t do the same.

In the days since the bill was withdrawn Paldiel said he was told Yad Vashem plans to develop a program that honors Jewish rescuers.

The Times of Israel asked Yad Vashem about its policy regarding Jewish rescuers of Jews and if there are any plans to change them on the horizon. The museum responded that it has and does recount “countless” such stories at the museum, on its robust website, and in dozens of memoirs, research books and articles published over the years by Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research and in a “wealth of educational material.”

Yad Vashem, 'a hand and a name,' was established in 1953 to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and recognize non-Jews who helped Jews survive the war. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Yad Vashem, ‘a hand and a name,’ was established in 1953 to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and recognize non-Jews who helped Jews survive the war. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

“Moreover, this topic is highlighted in various commemorative activities and during the official Holocaust Remembrance Day opening ceremonies as well as other events held at Yad Vashem,” wrote the spokesperson’s office.

While it is praiseworthy to increase awareness of these stories, regarding new legislation, however, Yad Vashem wrote that it “believes that this proposed amendment to the Yad Vashem Law specifically recognizing individual Jews who saved fellow Jews is superfluous and has the potential of having dangerous consequences.”

‘The changes proposed will not benefit the memory of these heroic acts, but instead could erroneously indicate that they were rare occurrences’

“The changes proposed will not benefit the memory of these heroic acts, but instead could erroneously indicate that they were rare occurrences and therefore merit special mention. Consequently, the process can be emotionally damaging and judgmental towards Jews who did not act accordingly. Such a move would be an injustice and is liable to offend the Holocaust survivors themselves,” wrote Yad Vashem.

For his part, survivor scholar Paldiel vehemently disagrees.

“We want children in Israel to know there were Jewish people who did not submit,” said Paldiel. “This does not detract from what the righteous gentiles did. It’s another scale, which complements the story of the righteous gentiles. It shows that there were those among us Jews who took up the challenge, that there were those who risked their lives and those that lost their lives. We should be proud of these people.”

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