I’ve recently come across the book The Righteous among the Nations, published by Yad Vashem. It includes the details of about 150 stories of non-Jews who risked their lives to save a Jew – or many Jews – during the Holocaust.
What really blew me away was that each of these people had every good reason to go on with their lives, maybe saying a prayer and wishing things were different, but otherwise focusing on their families and surviving the chaos of the war years. In fact, some might have argued to them that they had no right risking their lives and the lives of their families to save, in most cases, total strangers.
In September of 1942, during the mass deportation of the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka killing centers, the following was posted all over Warsaw:
Death Penalty for Aid to Jews who have left the Jewish residential areas without permission. Recently, many Jews have left their designated Jewish residential areas. For the time, they are in the Warsaw District. I remind you that according to the Third Decree of the General Governor’s concerning the residential restrictions in the General Government of 10/15/1941 (VBL; abbreviation for Verordnungsblatt Generalgouvernement, p. 595) not only Jews who have left their designated residential area will be punished with death, but the same penalty applies to anyone who knowingly provides refuge (a hiding place) to such Jews.This includes not only the providing of a night’s lodging and food, but also any other aid, such as transporting them in vehicles of any sort, through the purchase of Jewish valuables, etc. I ask the population of the Warsaw District to immediately report any Jew who resides outside of a Jewish residential area to the nearest police station or gendarmerie post. Whoever provided or currently provides aid to a Jew will not be prosecuted if it is reported to the nearest police station by 4 pm on 9/9/42.
Indeed, families were hung together for helping Jewish neighbors. At times whole communities were killed because they had shielded too many Jews… One never knew if a neighbor with a grudge would tell or if someone desperate for bread would give their info to the police. No one knew who they could trust.
By the time the war was over an estimated 50,000 Poles were killed for helping Jews. Who were these people? Did they always stand out? Would you be able to tell who the “typical rescuer” was?
It seems most were regular people who simply couldn’t watch the suffering of another human being/s and had to do something about it. Many didn’t consider their actions heroic. In fact, the majority went back to leading regular average lives after the war and their actions were unknown for many years.
Each one of these heroes deserve the Jewish people’s everlasting gratitude, and indeed Maimonides rules that all righteous gentiles will arise at the time of techiyas hameisim and have a share in the World to Come. Only then will they get their complete and deserving reward for showing the best of humanity when the rest of the word was showing its worst.
Wishing you a wonderful and inspiring Shabbos,