"FAITH IN THE HUMAN SPIRIT IS NOT LOST" - Google Cultural Institute
Recognition of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem - A Unique Program
Nazi Germany occupied Vilnius on 24 June 1941. The murder of the Jews began immediately, and by the end of the year, two thirds of the 55,000 Jews of that thriving community had been shot by the Germans and their collaborators in the forest of Ponary. Most people looked on as their Jewish neighbors were taken to the killing site. Some cooperated with the Germans, and only few helped the Jews. Among the few who stood by the Jews was a German soldier from Vienna, Anton Schmid.
On New Year's Eve 1942, members of the Dror
underground in Vilna gathered in Schmid’s apartment. To express their gratitude
to the Wehrmacht soldier who was putting his life at risk to save them,
they told him that after the war they would invite him to the Land of Israel
and give him a golden Star of David. "I will wear it with pride," said
Schmid. Unfortunately none lived to see that day. Soon after, Schmid was caught
and executed; most, if not all of the Jews present at the meeting were killed in
the Holocaust. Nevertheless, the promise to honor his actions was fulfilled 22
years later, when Yad Vashem, on behalf of the Jewish people and the State of
Israel, bestowed the title of Righteous Among the Nations on the Austrian
rescuer, and his widow planted a tree in his honor.
THE MEMORY OF GOODNESS
When Yad Vashem was founded in 1953 by a law of the
Knesset, paying tribute to the "Righteous Among the Nations who risked
themselves to save Jews" during the Holocaust was included in the
Remembrance Authority’s mission. Thus a unique program was established: the
unprecedented attempt by victims to single out, within the nations of
perpetrators, collaborators and bystanders, persons who bucked the general
trend and protected Jews from death and deportation.
The program therefore commemorates not only the rescuers’
courage and humanity, but also constitutes a testament to the resilience of the
survivors who, despite having come face to face with the most extreme
manifestation of evil, did not sink into bitterness and revenge. In a world
where violence more often than not only breeds more violence, this affirmation
of the best of humanity is a unique and remarkable phenomenon. And it was the survivors
who became the driving force behind the program.
Letter of Erika Mayer
(saved by Gertrud Wijsmuller) to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, 25 July 1961:
“At the moment, when accounts of the Eichmann process [sic]
bring again and again to our mind the atrocities committed by the Germans, it
is good to know that in spite of the most horrid threats always fully carried
out by the Nazis, there have been people courageous enough to stand up against
The motivation for the Righteous program was no doubt a
sense of moral duty and enormous gratitude towards the rescuers, but it also
responded to a deep need, so well expressed by Primo Levy when he spoke of
Lorenzo Perrone, his rescuer in Auschwitz, who "constantly reminded me by
his presence… that there still existed a just world outside our own, something
and someone still pure and whole… for which it was worth surviving."
Facing life after Auschwitz, survivors felt it was essential to emphasize that human
beings were also capable of defending and maintaining human values.
Letter to the Editor from Naje
Israel Zeitung (translated from Yiddish), 5 May 1961:
“I could not believe that….there was a German, Mr. Otto
Busse, who helped the Bialystok resistance fighters and the partisans in the
forests, who risked his life and the life of his family in Germany… The faith
in the human spirit is not lost, and thanks to such dear friends of mankind,
the world will be saved from another flood [the destruction by God in the book
of Genesis]… I believe Yad Vashem should gather all the facts of these good
deeds – known and unknown….”
Letter of Julian
Aleksandrowicz (who was saved by Alesksander Roslan) to Prime Minister David Ben
Gurion, 10 November 1960:
I propose that especially now, as we approach the opening
of the Eichmann trial, the Israeli government – the most fitting institution –
should launch a campaign to honor those who risked their lives to save Jews
during the German occupation... The purpose would be to show youth worldwide… that
the main goal of mankind is the help offered by strong persons to those who are
weaker…. We know that the future of the world depends on the wisdom of
co-existence and on the values we will instill in the young generations…”
In the years after the end of the war, survivors
maintained relations with their rescuers. They sent them parcels and money,
invited them to come to Israel, and wrote to Israeli leaders and to Yad Vashem
requesting to pay tribute to those that saved their lives. Following the
capture of Adolf Eichmann, Chairman of Yad Vashem Arieh Kubovy was inundated
with requests, begging Yad Vashem to show the world "that the Jewish
people was not only interested in bringing the perpetrators to justice, but
also wished to pay tribute to the righteous persons." Thus, on 1 May 1962,
Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Avenue of the Righteous was dedicated at Yad
Vashem, and the first trees were planted along its path.
The dedication of the Avenue of the Righteous was
attended by Foreign Minister Golda Meir. The first eleven trees were planted
along the path leading to the Hall of Remembrance, situated on a bare hill.
They were placed in the ground by Righteous from different countries as well as
their Israeli hosts – the Jews they had rescued. One of the trees was planted
by Maria Babich, the Ukrainian nanny who saved the Jewish child under her care.
When the war ended and the child’s father returned, Babich joined them as new
immigrants to the Land of Israel.
approach this mission with awe – we have an important task to fulfill,"
said Justice Moshe Landau at the Commission's first meeting in February 1963.
"It is not an easy mission, but we are committed to act honorably on
behalf of Yad Vashem, the Israeli State and the entire Jewish people."
Over the years, the Commission developed a set of rules and criteria as to who
may be recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. Thanks to meticulous
examination of all available testimony and evidence, and strict adherence to
the program’s criteria, the title has won worldwide recognition.
the very start of the program, Yad Vashem realized that it would be highly
challenging to decide who was worthy of the lofty distinction. The planned
tree-planting ceremony in honor of Oskar Schindler, for example, had to be
postponed when a survivor protested the recognition, claiming that even though
he too had been saved by Schindler, Schindler had been a member of the Nazi
party and had robbed their family business in Krakow. Wishing to establish a
fair and orderly decision process, Yad Vashem established the Commission for
the Designation of the Righteous and nominated a Justice of the Supreme Court
as its chairman.
Since 1962, thousands of requests from all over the
world, in all European languages as well as Hebrew and Yiddish, have arrived at
Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where they are researched and then presented to the
Commission. Commission members – mostly Holocaust survivors, all volunteers –
invest many hours in painstaking examination of the cases and in soul-searching
deliberations before they decide whether the case complies with the program’s
Once a Righteous is recognized, a certificate is prepared by calligrapher Lea Zamin, a Holocaust survivor from the Netherlands, whose rescuers were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.
Ceremonies honoring the Righteous are held either in Yad
Vashem or by Israeli diplomatic representatives in their countries of
residence. Those being recognized receive a medal and a certificate of honor,
and their names are commemorated on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem. (In
the case of posthumous recognition, the Righteous' heirs are usually in
attendance.) In the early years, when rescuers or their relatives came to
Jerusalem, trees were planted in their honor; since then, their names are
engraved in the Garden of the Righteous.
As Yad Vashem marks the 50th anniversary of
the Righteous program in 2012-13, close to 24,500 men and women from 47
countries had been honored. Those recognized form a diverse group of people
from all corners of Europe, coming from all walks of life (from highly educated
city dwellers to illiterate peasants), professions, age groups and religious
affiliation (all Christian denominations, Muslims and atheists). Hundreds of
new requests reach Yad Vashem every year. With the growing distance in time,
searching for evidence and putting together the pieces becomes more and more
challenging, but the commitment of Yad Vashem’s workers and Commission members
to fulfill this mission does not waver. Yad Vashem, the State of Israel and the
Jewish people will continue to search for the few lights that shone in the
darkness of the Holocaust.
Contributor: Curator —Irena Steinfeldt, Yad Vashem
Contributor: Curator—Gili Diamant, Yad Vashem