In the year ahead, buildings around the world will be festooned with elaborate murals that celebrate “Righteous Among the Nations” who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
In the initiative launched by the group Artists 4 Israel, the first two murals were installed earlier this year on buildings in Portugal and Greece. Fundraising pending, the group’s vision is to celebrate hundreds of additional heroic “upstanders” with murals around the world.
“The purpose of the project is to force people to interact with the Holocaust, to learn and to find pride in fighting against antisemitism,” said Artists 4 Israel’s CEO Craig Dershowitz. “The beautiful murals are a psychological trigger,” he said.
In addition to people who see the murals in person, millions are reached through social media platforms curated by famous street artists enlisted for the initiative, said Dershowitz.
“With the ‘Righteous’ mural project, we have the opportunity to educate via positivity, by celebrating the heroes of a nation and giving citizens the chance to emulate their actions,” said Dershowitz.
Until this new “Righteous” project, in its more than decade of operation Artists 4 Israel has concentrated on bringing hundreds of artists to Israel, where they have painted bomb shelters in the south and created tattoo art on the bodies of wounded veterans and terrorism survivors.
“It is always important to look past the art and at what message the art is communicating,” said Dershowitz.
‘Putting it in their faces’
When German forces landed on the Greek island of Zakynthos in 1941, the local mayor was ordered to supply a list of the Jewish population for deportation.
Mayor Loukas Karrer, in coordination with church leader Archbishop Dimitrios Chrysostomos, instead devised a scheme to rescue nearly all of the island’s 275 Jews.
While Chrysostomos went to negotiate with the Germans, Karrer burned the list of Jews living on Zakynthos and wrote his and the archbishop’s names on a piece of paper. Karrer then joined the meeting with the Germans and handed the paper to the archbishop, who in turn passed it to the Nazi administrator.
“Here are your Jews. If you choose to deport the Jews of Zakynthos, you must also take me, and I will share their fate,” said Chrysostomos, who was under gunpoint for much of the encounter.
After the confrontation, the mayor and the archbishop immediately warned the island’s Jews. Most of them went into hiding in villages and were able to survive the Holocaust with assistance from neighbors.
To celebrate the rescue of the Jews of Zakynthos, Artists 4 Israel commissioned artist Kleomenis Kostopoulos to honor the rescuer duo on the side of a building in Patras, Greece.
“Murals are one of the most important forms of contemporary expression and communication in public spaces,” said Kostopoulos of the project, completed in March. “Today, more than ever, we must revisit our history in Greece by bringing it to the streets and putting it in their faces,” said the artist.
Called “Memory for Blessing,” the Patras mural blends portraits of Mayor Karrer and Archbishop Chrysostomos alongside images of the island’s Jews.
In Greece, at least 80% of the Jewish community — some 70,000 people — were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau and other killing sites. The wartime story of Zakynthos contrasts starkly with — for example — the Greek island of Rhodes, where only 151 Jews survived the Holocaust from a community of 2,000.
‘I saw myself saving lives’
Also earlier this year, Artists 4 Israel worked with artist Mr. Dheo to commemorate diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes with a mural near Porto, Portugal.
“A New Memory Across the Portuguese Skyline” depicts Sousa Mendes, Portugal’s consul-general in France during the war. In that role, he defied his government’s orders by issuing Portuguese visas for up to 30,000 Nazi refugees, including 10,000 Jews.
“I remember as soon as I spoke with my father about this project, straightaway he mentioned Sousa Mendes as a hero and he told me that everybody here — it’s going to be unanimous — everybody will like the project, will like the wall, especially the older generations,” said Mr. Dheo. “They know what he did.”
After rumors of Sousa Mendes’s actions made their way to Lisbon, he was dismissed by the Portuguese government and left destitute with a large family to support.
“If thousands of Jews are suffering because of one Christian [Hitler], surely one Christian may suffer for so many Jews,” said Sousa Mendes after his dismissal.
In 1966, Sousa Mendes was the first diplomat recognized as “Righteous” by Yad Vashem. But not until 1988 — 34 years after his death — was he granted total rehabilitation by the Portuguese government.
Dershowitz said Artists 4 Israel has two murals lined up for United States locations in 2023, pending funding. The first will commemorate Master Sargent Roddie Edmonds of Knoxville, Tennessee, who refused a Nazi order at gunpoint to identify his unit’s Jewish soldiers in a German POW camp.
“We are all Jews here,” Edmonds told the Nazi commandant, after which he threatened to have the Germans prosecuted for war crimes. By rallying his soldiers against German orders, Edmonds is credited with saving up to 300 American-Jewish soldiers in the POW camp.
The second mural planned for the US will honor Irene Gut Opdyke, a Polish rescuer who hid Jewish families and later relocated to southern California. When 12 Jews she was hiding were discovered by a German officer, Opdyke agreed to become his mistress in exchange for not turning them in.
“You must understand that I did not become a resistance fighter, a smuggler of Jews, someone who defies the SS and the Nazis, all at once,” wrote Opdyke in her memoir. “One’s first steps are always small: I had begun by hiding food under a fence.”
Years after moving to California with her American husband, Opdyke wrote about her positive interactions with Jews as a child and how her daydreams became reality after Germany’s occupation of Poland.
“In my fantasies, I was always caught up in heroic struggles, and I saw myself saving lives, sacrificing myself for others. I had far loftier ambitions than mere romance,” wrote Opdyke.
“Before Artists 4 Israel started the Righteous Among the Nations Global Mural Project, I was familiar with only a few of the more famous ones,” said Dershowitz. “But as this program continues, I am learning of hundreds of heroes each more brave than the next.”
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