The Righteous, by Martin Gilbert

                                   The hero
Acts in reality, adds nothing
To what he does. He is the heroic
Actor and act but not divided.
It is a part of his conception,
That he be not conceived, being real.
Stevens, “Examination of the Hero in a Time of War”

The Israeli memorial Yad Vashem keeps a meticulous record of the “Righteous Gentiles,” those who made some effort to save Jews from the Holocaust. This book by British historian Martin Gilbert describes hundreds of these little acts of kindness in chapters arranged by geography. The detail is overwhelming in an odd inverse of other Holocaust histories. Rather than event after event of brutality, charitable actions of one kind and other tumble on in no apparent order, except for the organization by country that the chapters follow.

Some people saved their neighbors, others people whom they didn’t know at all. Some acted out of Christian imperative, or Communist doctrine, or a desire to give the conquering Germans a black eye. The motivation of some will never be known, because they were denounced and sent to the camps themselves, or shot in their own villages, or killed after the war was over by their neighbors who resented their assistance to the Jews. Without comment, Gilbert notes that many acted out of Christian duty while their coreligionists thought it equally their duty to aid the Germans in the roundups. Some even who had been vocally anti-Jewish before the war and agreed that the Jews were enemies of Christian civilization saved Jews, perhaps the first ones, whom they encountered as real people.

Mrs. Klima, in  Warsaw, took in a Jewish couple whom she didn’t know, out of a “sacred duty to shelter anyone in need.” When it was time to make her Easter duty, she didn’t see how she could avoid having to confess breaking the law by keeping the Jewish couple in her house. The Jewish couple moved out temporarily, in the thought that Mrs. Klima would thereby be spared having to confess what she had done. She went ahead and confessed anyway, but the priest was sympathetic and “assured her that she was performing a noble service in helping those in danger.”

Oskar Schindler gets attention here, as does Fr. Bruno of Belgium, who established a network to save over 320 Jewish children. Bishops, priests, and Protestant ministers are among the Righteous. Gilbert does not attempt to show who did enough, or the most, or whether the efforts of a particular Christian community were adequate under the circumstances. The focus is on the efforts actually made and the charity given. The book is generously illustrated with photos of those sheltered and their protectors. There are several pictures of young Jewish girls in their First Communion dresses as they hid out under assumed names.

 

Six Jewish girls hidden at convent of Lubbeek in Belgium (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)

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