Jewish Rescuers

Through Yad Vashem’s fine “Righteous Among the Nations” project, Israel and the Jewish People have, since 1963, aptly recognized non-Jews who saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust while imperiling themselves.

But while the deeds of these 19,000 well-deserving non-Jews, who placed the lives of other human beings before their own well-being during those dark years in Europe, have been intensely researching, acknowledged and commemorated over, the Jewish People have largely ignored individual Jews and Jewish organizations who, during the same period, went beyond the call of duty to save the lives of fellow Jews. Like the many non-Jews who have been recognized over the years for their heroism, these Jews knowingly put themselves in danger to help save their brethren – in many cases doing so even when they themselves had the opportunity to flee the Nazi persecutions and thus be saved. These people operated in the same countries and localities as many of the Righteous Among the Nations, participating and sometimes leading the rescue operations and putting themselves in the greatest of dangers as Jews. Many paid for their efforts with their lives.

The stories of three of these outstanding individuals can exemplify the phenomenon:

  • Zerah Wahrhaftig, working under adverse conditions in Lithuania, exploited false “visas” to Dutch protectorates in the Caribbean to extract thousands of Jews via Russia to Japan with the help of the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara and his Dutch colleague Zwartendijk.
  • Tuvya Beilski built a viable settlement – including public kitchen, medical clinic, hospital, bakery, flourmill, bathhouse, stables, schools and more – hidden in the harsh Belarus forest. By the end of the war, 1200 Jews who escaped from ghettos in the vicinity found refuge in what became know as “Beilski’s Shtetl.”
  • Mussa Abadi and Odette Abadi-Rosenstock picked up Jewish children in Nice and Cannes, France, whose parents had already been deported or were in hiding. With the assistance of the Bishop of Nice Paul Raymond they found hiding places for the children and provided them with forged ID and baptismal certificates. 527 children were saved by the Abadis.

A small number of these rescuers are still alive in Israel and around the world. Some of them remain reluctant till today to recount their stories. Their satisfaction remains in the knowledge that through subterfuge, cunning and bravery they were able to overcome the Germans and their collaborators and save Jews – in the tens, hundreds and sometimes even in the thousands. Today, their heroism goes largely unknown and unrecognized. Ironically, 57 years after these events, no framework has yet been established to pay tribute to these unsung heroes, nor has the subject of Jewish rescuers been studied in a comprehensive manner by the academic world. Indeed, as concluded by the eminent Holocaust historian Nechama Tec “While there were Jews who selflessly rescued others, as a subject of systematic study they have remained unnoticed.” (“Reflections on Rescuers”, in The Holocaust and History, ed. M. Berenbaum and A. Peck, Indiana University Press and US Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1998, paperback 2002. p. 657). Tec herself asks accusingly, “Why had I overlooked the rescue of Jews by Jews? Did I think that self-preservation, as a basic drive, would take precedence over everything else? Historically, Jews have been viewed as victims, and not as rescuers, not as heroes. Had I unconsciously assimilated these perceptions? Had I assumed that victim and rescuer were incompatible roles?” (Ibid.)

In recognition of the need to break with years of virtual silence on this issue, a group of Holocaust survivors from Holland, France, Germany and other countries who were themselves saved by the efforts of Jews, together with a number of Jewish rescuers and representatives of international Jewish organizations, established in 2000 in Jerusalem the “Action Committee for the Recognition of Jewish Rescuers.” Since its founding, the Committee has been engaged since then in numerous initiatives aimed at bringing this little-known chapter in Holocaust history to the attention of the general public These activities include the ongoing compilation of their stories, contacts with Holocaust commemoration and research institutions, outreach to the media, meetings with appropriate government and elected representatives etc. The Committee, an all-volunteer body, has also been the catalyst of activities at Yad Vashem, the US Holocaust Memorial and other institutions on the issue of Jewish rescue. Making the lessons of Jewish resistance – armed and unarmed – relevant for Jewish youth today is a major motivation behind the activities of the Action Committee.

As time progresses, fewer and fewer of these rescuers remain alive and all efforts must be made to unearth their stories before it is too late. The Action Committee seeks to promote in various ways the commemoration and awareness of the courageous activities undertaken by Jewish rescuers. This includes the incorporation of Jewish rescue in school Holocaust studies curricula – a project which is of particular relevance because many of the rescuers were themselves school-age youths at the time – along with greater academic research into this area. It is imperative that these events become part of the Jewish ethos of courageous resistance to oppression and persecution.

In honor of those who risked their lives to save others, the Action Committee is working to ensure that the heroism shown by Jews who helped their fellow Jews to survive through a time of unspeakable horror, will find its rightful place in the vast compendium of tragic events that took place during the Holocaust. As the surviving rescuers age and pass along, we owe it to them to act without delay.

The working Committee,

Haim Roet (Chair)
P.O. Box 8257
91082 Jerusalem, ISRAEL
Tel. 02-563 1199
Fax 02-566 2283

Ilana Drukker
P.O. Box 8504
91084 Jerusalem, ISRAEL
Tel. 02-563 9570
Fax 02-561 1177

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