It is fitting that the United Nations, as part of the international commemoration of the Holocaust on Jan. 27, is paying tribute this year not only to the millions of innocents who died in the Nazi gas chambers, but also to those who made extraordinary sacrifices to hide and protect tens of thousands of Jews and others from certain death at the hands of Hitler’s genocidal pogrom.
I’m speaking, of course, of the rescuers — those individuals who made a calculated decision to shelter Jews and others wanted by the Nazis for no crime other than being the members of a deeply hated minority.
The rescuers’ heroic deeds are often forgotten amid the greater tragedy of the Shoa.
Fourteen years ago, a group of students in rural Whitwell, Tenn., embarked on a remarkable classroom project in an effort to come to grips with the sheer enormity of the Holocaust. They did so by collecting paper clips.
For several months, the students collected 6 million paper clips, one for each of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. It was a monumental undertaking, requiring hours of unforgiving tedium as the paper clips were collected and counted. But they succeeded in filling much of a rail car with paper clips.
(In Pittsburgh, a similar project is under way at Community Day School to build a Holocaust sculpture containing 6 million pop tabs.)
I wish there could be similar efforts to raise awareness about the rescuers, those courageous individuals who went out of their way to save Jewish lives.
Aside from Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” which in 1993 so greatly elevated public awareness of one rescuer in particular, the stories of the righteous gentiles who made profound, life-altering choices have been largely forgotten to history.
Perhaps what is most remarkable about the rescuers is that their varied ethnicities and religious backgrounds challenge our preconceived notions about who might risk his or her own life for the sake of Jews.
Apart from their willingness to help others, they do not seem to have much in common. They crossed gender, ethnic, religious and socio-economic lines. They were Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Evangelical, Baptist, Lutheran and also Muslim. They were farmers, doctors, diplomats, peasants and kings. They were simple people of faith.
My very existence stands as testimony to those who had the courage to care. When I was a child in Nazi occupied Poland, I was taken in by a Polish Catholic woman who had been my nanny. She saved me by hiding my true identity from the Nazis. She provided food, shelter and a safe haven and raised me for four years until the war was over and my parents returned to claim me. She even had me baptized. And yet, while I’m eternally grateful for her sacrifice, it is still hard for me to understand why she went to such great lengths to keep me hidden. What was it that gave this poor, illiterate and uneducated woman the moral courage to save a life?
Others went to even more extraordinary lengths to protect their Jewish neighbors and friends. Consider the almost unfathomable story of Khaled Abdelwahhab, recently unearthed by the historian and writer Robert Satloff.
In 1942 the Germans arrived in Mahdia, a town on the eastern shore of Tunisia, where Abdelwahhab lived with his family. In the town, the Germans set up a house where they would capture Jewish girls and sexually violate them. Two local Jewish girls, unable to deal with the trauma of their experience at the house, committed suicide, and news of their fate spread like wildfire through the terrified town.
Abdelwahhab found out about it and did what he could to protect young girls by distracting the Germans with liquor and other pursuits. Later, after learning that a Jewish family was hiding in an olive oil factory, he warned them that they were in grave danger, gathered the family and all of their relatives and moved them to his family’s farm 20 miles to the west. He arranged for food and shelter, and every day, for over four months, he visited them, provided for them and made them feel safe.
Abdelwahhab risked his life for the sake of others in the face of humanity’s greatest evil. Here is a story we don’t hear every day — an Arab saving Jews.
Another lesser-known story is that of Feng Shan Ho, a Chinese diplomat who issued thousands of visas to Jewish refugees during World War II. Ho was among the first of a small number of diplomatic rescuers who took extraordinary measures and personal risk to do the right thing.
Ho served as the Chinese Consul General in Vienna from 1938 through 1940. Despite being ordered by his supervisors to cease his activities, he nonetheless facilitated the safe departure of thousands of Jews in 1938 and 1939 by issuing visas to the Chinese port city of Shanghai.
One would think that years later Ho would be deemed a national hero for his actions. On the contrary, Ho became the victim of a campaign by Chinese nationalists in Taiwan to discredit him, and he was eventually impeached and denied a pension for his 40 years of diplomatic service. He died before the world could fully acknowledge all that he had done.
(Ho’s son, Monto Ho, delivered the keynote address at the 2006 Yom Hashoa program at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. The late diplomat’s granddaughter, Manli Ho, who wrote a book about her grandfather, was also there.)
In November, the Anti-Defamation League posthumously honored Ho with the ADL Jan Karski Courage to Care Award, and we have likewise honored Abdelwahhab for his remarkable actions.
The rescuers paved the way for us to understand how humanity can play a role, as it did to a sadly limited extent during the Holocaust, to take action and to prevent acts of hatred and genocide from happening again.
(Abraham H. Foxman is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.)