Skip to main content

un remembrance events honor rescuers

The 2013 Holocaust Remembrance Events in observance of the International Day of Commemoration were built around the theme of “Rescue during the Holocaust: The Courage to Care”.  

Fran Butensky, Joan Lurie Goldberg, and Judy Mintz from ICJW’s team at UN Headquarters in NY report on the events organized by the Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme in January 2013. 
The events included exhibits, film, educational activities and the annual memorial ceremony. All focused on those who risked their own lives to save tens of thousands of Jews, Roma and Sinti and others from near certain death under the Nazi regime during World War II in Europe. Many of these heroes were recognized and honored.  Each participant at the week’s moving events was encouraged to think about their own moral values, courage, and capacity to turn compassion for others into decisive and heroic action in their time of need. 
Amid the suffering of the millions who were persecuted during the Holocaust, there were pockets of resistance and courageous individuals who defied the Nazi regime.  The documentary, “The Rescuers”, chronicles the inspiring stories of 13 diplomats posted across Europe who assumed enormous personal risks to save the lives of thousands of Jews and others. Their decision not to just stand by was often made in a split second but proved to be the difference between life and death.  These little known inspirational stories explored the mystery of amazing goodness and moral courage in ordinary people who became role models for each viewer as well as for future generations. The film followed Sir Martin Gilbert, an eminent Holocaust historian, and Stephanie Nyombayire, a young Rwandan activist, as they journeyed from country to county interviewing survivors and their descendants always searching for the answer to “why” these diplomats risked everything to help.
The following righteous diplomats formed a special group of courageous individuals who often ignored “rules” and their official orders to let goodness prevail and to chose instead to care and to take action often risking their own lives, their families and careers. The chronicled stories of these heroes must be remembered and shared as examples of how one person can make a difference.
  • Princess Alice from Greece provided refuge to the Cohen family from Athens by hiding them in her palace. 
  • Angelo Rotta from Italy was a Catholic Bishop in Budapest who helped save 25,000 Jews by urging diplomats to provide protective documents. 
  • Chiune Sugihara from Japan represented his government in Lithuania where he issued transit visas to Jews from Poland permitting them to cross Russia and Siberia to enter the safety of Japan. 
  • Jan Zwartendijk from The Netherlands worked in Lithuania and was able to issue transit visas to Polish Jews, who were then able to emigrate safely to Dutch-controlled Curacao. 
  • Henry Slawik from Poland was stationed in Hungary and was able to save Polish Jews by issuing them documents meant for Christians and Aryans. He was executed for refusing to betray Jozsef Antall who also worked to rescue these refugees. 
  • Aristides de Sousa Mendes from Portugal was stationed in Bordeaux, France and issued visas for safe passage for 1500 Jews to neutral Portugal. 
  • Raoul Wallenberg from Sweden was a diplomat assigned to represent his county in Hungary where he defied the Nazis and the Hungarian Prime Minister to save tens of thousands of Jews. 
  • Carl Lutz from Switzerland was the Swiss Vice Consul in Budapest where he provided protective documents to save Jews. 
  • Selahattin Ulkumen from Turkey was a Muslim diplomat assigned to Rhodes where he saved Jews by providing them with documents. 
  • Captain Frank Foley from the United Kingdom went to Berlin in the 1920s as a spy for the British Secret Intelligence Service.  There he worked in the Passport Control Office and through his position, saved thousands of Jews from the death camps. 
  • Hiram Bingham IV from the United States was assigned to the American Consulate in Marseille. He helped the Jews with obtaining visa documents allowing them to enter Spain and then Portugal. He worked with Varian Fry, an American journalist. 
  • Varian Fry from the United States worked in Marseille with the Emergency Rescue Committee along with Hiram Bingham to help Jews flee from Vichy-controlled France.  Together Fry and Bingham IV saved thousand of lives. 

This briefing provided the audience with a stirring and moving account of the unparalleled courage and bravery of the ordinary citizens of Denmark during the German occupation of their country. Unlike the Nazi occupation of other countries throughout Europe, the Danes were initially allowed the freedom to maintain some power and to provide protection to the more than the 7,500 Jews living there; consequently, they were able to maintain their rights, property, jobs and security.
This situation changed in August of 1943 when the Germans ordered the Danish government to institute martial law. When the government refused to comply, the Nazis began planning for the deportation of all Danish Jews. Learning of these plans, the Danish Government set into motion the secret operation to provide safe passage to over 7,000 across the Baltic Sea into Sweden. (500 of the Jews declined to go and were caught but survived the war). This collective resistance by the people of Denmark including their King, Christian V, resistance leaders, church leaders, policemen, students, physicians and ordinary citizens is thought to be one of the largest actions of collective resistance to repression by Nazi Germany.
A superb panel offered facts and their personal insight about the Danish situation and the unsung heroes of Would War II:
Rebecca Neuwirth, Director of the Ambassadors program of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which serves as an engagement platform of strategic learning nets, global symposia and international travel opportunities. She has also served as Executive Director of Thanks Scandinavia, a foundation started by Victor Borge and Richard Netter to give scholarships to Scandinavian students to study in the US and Israel in lasting gratitude for the rescue of Jews during WWII. 
Her thoughts on why the Danes were so successful:
  • The German invasion of Denmark took  only 2 hours
  • The government was allowed to carry on as usual
  • Anti-Semitism was not present in pre-war Denmark
  • Rescue happened because thousands of individual changed the course of history – it added up to more than the sum of its parts
  • Rescue of Jews was a “High point of light”
  • When the Germans took away all police and army, the government knew something was about to happen and warned their Jewish citizens
  • Jews were sheltered by non-Jews
  • Many ordinary German soldiers were not hostile and often looked away
Jacob Abudaram, is a student at the University of Michigan studying foreign policy and international relations. Before starting at Michigan, Jacob participated in a gap-year program called Kivunim: New Directions, where he lived in Jerusalem but also traveled to twelve countries around the world, examining their politics, history society and Jewish communities.
His thoughts on the events were inspirational coming from such a young person:
  • Christian Danes risked absolutely everything to save their Jewish countrymen
  • King Christian V  told the Germans “We have no Jewish problem they are Danes”
  • Danes refuted Germans and showed their values of equality
  • Leaders refused to give the names of any Jews
  • These Danish heroes protected their high moral standards
  • King Christian stood his ground and refused to give in under German pressure
Rikke Borge, daughter of famed pianist and humorist, Victor Borge, who was also co-founder of Thanks to Scandinavia. Ms. Borge told us that her father was a big Danish star and was quite alarmed by German actions and incorporated it into his acts. The Germans tried to attack him and crush his hands but he ran away. Her grandmother was terminally ill in the hospital and the nurses changed her last name on their charts to save her from the Germans. Victor fled to Sweden to escape the Germans
There were other countries that also helped the Jews at great personal risk, Morocco and Turkey were two of them.   Conditions were very favorable for Demark in helping so many Jews escape; their close proximity to Sweden, their freedom of movement and way of life under Nazi occupation and no Anti-Semitism and the fact that King Christian was so resolute in his stand against the German oppression.

Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, began with a moment of silence and reminded us that this year is the 50th anniversary of the Righteous Among the Nations program at Yad Vashem.  Thus, the theme of rescue is very appropriate for this year’s Holocaust Commemoration.
Ban Ki Moon was overseas but had recorded a video message emphasizing that courage is a rare property - we celebrate the courage of the rescuers.  During the Nazi era, ordinary people took extraordinary steps to save the helpless.  This message is relevant today; we must remain vigilant and have the courage to care. There are well known rescuers like Varian Fry and Irene Sendler but today we also recognize those known only to the ones they rescued.  The UN has developed and provides educational materials on the rescuers in several languages. 
Serge Vale, Vice President of the 67th General Assembly reminded us that today we commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz.  The Holocaust remains one of the greatest crimes against humanity and marks a turning point in the history of mankind – this must never happen again.  We have the moral responsibility to act against intolerance and hatred and for human dignity – this is part of our obligation as members of the UN.
Ambassador Ron Prosor of Israel:  We gather here on the eve of Shabbat – “may God give strength to his people and bless them with peace.”  Jews have said these words every Friday since the time of King David – during the Crusades, the pogroms and in Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Treblinka.  Today we bear witness to the six million – the loss is unimaginable.  We will never know what the world has lost in talent and human achievement but their spirit lives on and their dreams remain.   Nothing can break the 5000 year chain of Jewish history and he, a child of survivors, is proud to be the representative of the only Jewish state.  His grandparents could only imagine a Jewish state; his children cannot imagine a world without one.
Many stood idle during the Holocaust but there were a few exceptions – Wallenberg, Lorenzo (rescued Primo Levi), and others who inspire us and become our guideposts in a world still full of prejudice.  Anti-semitism is taught and spread by governments, religious leaders and teachers.  Hamas declares that the Holocaust is a lie made up by Zionists and similar anti-semitic messages are everywhere in the Arab world.  The past should insure our future.  If we say “never again”, we must back the words with actions and teach tolerance to our children.  The Jews are a nation of survivors as is Israel – “Am Yisrael Chai”.
The Motyl Chamber Ensemble provided music at several points in the program.  (Motyl means butterfly; it is derived from the poem “The Butterfly” written by Pavel Friedman at Terezin Concentration camp.) Perhaps most meaningful was the first piece they played – String Quartet No. 3, composed by Viktor Ullmann in Terezin in 1942.  Two years later Ullmann was murdered at Auschwitz. 
Several narrators related the stories of rescuers at various points in the program:
·         Varian Fry - A US citizen and Harvard graduate from NJ travelled to Marseille in 1940 for the US Emergency Fund.  He smuggled people over the Pyrennes and to Africa.  His clandestine operation saved about 15000 artists and writers in spite of the opposition of the US Consulate in Marseille.  The US government did not help him when the Vichy French imprisoned him.  But, finally, in the summer of 1941, he was forced to leave on one hour’s notice.
·         Lorenzo Perrone was an Italian worker at Auschwitz.  He helped, at risk of his life, Primo Levi to correspond with relatives in Italy.  He also provided him with food and warm clothing enabling him to survive. 
·         Irena Sendler was a social worker in Warsaw who worked with Segota, a council to aid Jewish children.  She helped to save 2500 children by placing them in churches and other hiding places.  She was arrested in 1943 but gave no information.  She escaped, on the day of her planned execution, by bribing a Gestapo official.
·         The Veseli family, Muslims of Albania saved a Jewish family, the Mandels.
Others were also cited as being part of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. 
Signe Burgstaller, Deputy Permanent Representative of Sweden quoted Wallenberg: “ To me there is no other choice” when he chose to remain in Budapest and save the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews.  He was arrested by the invading Soviets in 1945 and never heard from again.  Ms. Burgstaller reminded us that genocide is still a threat and, though the main responsibility to protect remains with states and the UN, individuals must also continue to fight anti-semitism and other bias.
Professor Ethel Brooks, a Romani who is now a professor at Rutgers University related stories of Romani who were saved by rescuers.  One Romani woman, Alfreda Markowska, survived a mass shooting and was able to find others who had also survived.  Most were Jewish or Romani children who she placed with friends or in her own home.  A half million Romani and Sinti perished in Europe; some of the sites of the killings are still unknown.  There is still strong anti-Romani bias in Europe; once more we need ordinary people to stand up and speak out.
Cantor Chaim David Berson  of The Jewish Center in NY sang memorial prayers. 
Professor Mordecai Paldiel, himself a survivor, delivered the keynote address and related the story of the French cleric, Abbe Simon Galley, who helped his own family escape.  For 24 years, Professor Paldiel was head of the Righteous department of Yad Vashem.  He found Gallay who was awarded Righteous status in 1990.  The Righteous among the Nations program at Yad Vashem began in the 1960s, after the Eichmann trial, when the Israeli government formed a commission to find and honor rescuers.  Each one honored had a tree planted along the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem; when space ran out a garden was build.  All together, on this 50th anniversary of the program there are 25,000 names of rescuers.   The work of identifying rescuers is ongoing.  The best story he told and a good way to end this report:  A Dutch woman told her daughter to stop her rescue work and worry about her own children and their safety instead.  The
daughter replied she did the rescue work so her children would have the right example to follow.