From 1982 to 2007, Mordecai Paldiel directed the Righteous Among the Nations department at Yad Vashem, adding 18,000 names to the museum’s list of 27,000 gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
As the years passed, though, something began gnawing at Paldiel. Why was no one honoring the many Jews who saved lives during the Holocaust? “I came upon these stories of major Jewish rescuers,” he told The Jewish Press, “but there was no program at Yad Vashem or any other institution to recognize them and make their stories known to the Jewish community at large.”
Paldiel decided to fill the void – if only in print. Two months ago he published his ninth book, Saving One’s Own: Jewish Rescuers During the Holocaust ( Jewish Publication Society). Paldiel currently serves as a professor of history at Yeshiva University’s Stern College and Touro College as well as a consultant at the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.
The Jewish Press: Your family survived the Holocaust in part due to the help of a non-Jew whom you later inducted into Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations. How did he save you?
Paldiel: I was a child at the time. I was born in Belgium in 1937, and the Germans invaded in 1940. My family fled to France, and then in 1943 we crossed into Switzerland illegally with the help of a Catholic priest. That’s how we survived the war.
When I came to work at Yad Vashem, I looked this priest up and was lucky to still find him alive. I took down his statement – I already had a statement from my parents – and we honored him at Yad Vashem. I also flew to France where we had a ceremony in his honor. He has since passed away.
Your new book highlights Jewish rescuers during the Holocaust. Weren’t there many thousands of Jews who helped save Jews during this period?
I only picked out those Jews who saved dozens, hundreds, and sometimes even more than a thousand Jews. I felt that the Jewish community should know about these Jewish heroes.
If you had to select two or three Jewish rescuers whose stories stand out in your mind, who would they be?
It’s very difficult to answer, but I would pick out a man like Walter Suskind in Holland who saved over 1,000 Jews. He was a German Jew who fled to Holland when Hitler took over, and then when the Germans invaded Holland he was working in the Dutch Theater in Amsterdam. The theater had been converted by the Germans into an assembly place for Jews being sent off to various camps. Susskind was put in charge of registering the arrival of Jews in the theater, and by all kinds of monkey business he managed to get at least 1,000 Jews out of there. He himself wound up in Auschwitz where he perished.
Another hero is Wilfrid Israel. He owned the largest department store in Berlin, something like Macy’s here, and in the 1930s he was the one who arranged the Kindertransport by which 10,000 children were sent to England. He himself fled to England but later went to Spain to work with the Jewish Agency to help get Jews out of Europe. He died when the Germans shot down a plane taking him from Madrid to London. The actor Leslie Howard from “Gone With the Wind” was also on that flight. German intelligence had been told that Winston Churchill was going to be on that plane, but he was not.
And then a third person is Moussa Abadi who was born in Damascus, Syria. When the war started, he was in France, and together with a woman he later married, Odette, he organized a private network to save children whose parents were captured by the Germans. He had a list of 527 children whom he dispersed in the countryside with the help of the bishop of Nice, and he kept tabs on these children. He had secret lists of all these children’s assumed names as well as their real ones, and after liberation he looked up these children and brought them back to the Jewish community.
How about major Jewish rescuers in Eastern Europe?
There were two women in Poland, Vladka Meed and Maria Marianska, who saved many Jews. They operated in Warsaw and Krakow [respectively] posing as non-Jews – at great risk to their own lives – helping Jews hide among the non-Jewish population. I knew both these women.
There was also Zerach Warhaftig from the Religious Zionist movement in Lithuania. He was the one who approached the Japanese ambassador there, Chiune Sugihara, and persuaded him to issue transit visas to Japan for thousands of Jews. He himself escaped through Japan and later on became a minister in the Israeli government.
And then there are the Bielski brothers who saved over a thousand Jews. Usually partisan groups didn’t accept children, pregnant women, or the elderly because these people couldn’t fight the Germans. But Bielski’s group was an exception. It had 1,200 Jews, and two-thirds of them were not there for combat purposes. After the war, Tuvia Bielski, the group’s leader, came to this country and worked as a truck driver in Brooklyn. He was totally overlooked by the Jewish community – no one approached him or thanked him. He died in 1987 and only recently has he begun to be recognized.
Did you discover anything surprising while doing research for this book?
Yes. I discovered that I was sheltered in France by Rabbi Zalman Schneerson who was a distant cousin of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He saved many Jewish children in southern France by taking them from one place to another, and in the summer of 1942, when I was five years old, I was hidden in his children home for a few months.
I didn’t know this, though, until my sister told me while I was doing research for this book. I then confirmed this fact by finding my name in Rabbi Schneerson’s files at YIVO.
Major Jewish rescuers generally needed non-Jewish help to succeed in their efforts. In the book, you provide many examples of non-Jews who agreed to help and many examples of non-Jews who did not. How do you explain these different reactions?
That’s a huge question. I would say the following. In general, the Germans made it known that anyone who helped a Jew would be severely punished. He could be sent to a concentration camp or shot immediately. So it was dangerous. By helping a Jew, you were risking your own life. So there may have been many people willing to help Jews, but not to the point of risking their own life.
That’s one reason many non-Jews didn’t help. Another reason was anti-Semitism. Maybe there was a reluctance to help because they didn’t particularly like Jews. And a third reason is that most rescuers only helped Jews when they were asked. In other words, a Jew had to make the first step. He had to approach a non-Jew whom he probably knew from before the war and plead for help. You can’t blame those people who were not approached.
You worked at Yad Vashem for a quarter of a century as head of its Righteous Among the Nations department. What lessons did you learn from you tenure there?
The Holocaust was a period of great extremes. On one extreme was a regime that launched a program of mass extermination while the whole world largely sat back and watched.
Side by side with this extreme evil, though, were examples of extreme goodness – of righteous gentiles who risked their own lives and the lives of their families in order to save a Jew. And they didn’t do it because someone told them to or because they knew they would be honored by Yad Vashem 60 years later. They did it because they felt it was necessary.
The other thing I learned is that it was a lot easier to kill than to save. The people who killed Jews during the Holocaust can claim they were simply carrying out orders. It was not their own individual decision. They acted as part of a larger organization and did what they were told.
The rescuers, though, were not part of an organization. They were all individuals. They didn’t have anyone to pass the buck to. And when they saved Jews they didn’t know there were other people saving Jews too. They didn’t have that kind of psychological support. And yet, they did it anyway – despite the risk to their own lives. That takes a lot of courage.