Yona (Jonas) Eckstein (1902-1971) was an active member of the Jewish community in Bratislava and a successful wrestler in the “Hakoach” Jewish sport club there. Through his sporting activities and vivacious personality Eckstein befriended city officials and police, and when the Jews of Bratislava were being rounded up for deportation in 1941, Eckstein was charged with providing food to Jews in the transit camps and was given the privilege of remaining in his own home.
But Eckstein did not take advantage of his relative freedom and good connections to escape to a safe heaven. Instead, he utilized them to facilitate rescue activities of fellow Jews that endangered himself and his family.
His diverse activity touched thousands of people over a period of two and half years, encompassing the clandestine delivery of food to hidden Jews along with information vital for their survival; hosting orphans from Poland and facilitating their conveyance to pre-state Israel via Hungary; hosting Jews who fled to Slovakia from Auschwitz; hosting and conveying Polish Jews to the then-relative safety of Hungary; and hiding Jews in bunkers – including one he dug under his own basement. Eckstein was imprisoned and tortured by the Gestapo and pressured by Jewish leaders to hand over hidden Jews. Many of the operations undertaken by Jonas Eckstein were done in the framework of the Jewish community and the “Working Group” headed by Rabbi Chaim Michael Dov Weissmandl and Gisi Fleischmann, but most of his activity was undertaken at his own initiative.
For years, his heroism was known only among Jewish survivors from Bratislava. Like many other rescuers, Jonas Eckstein did not speak of his rescue activities and many details remain obscure to this day. After the war, Eckstein immigrated to Australia, making one triumphant visit to Israel where he was hailed by hundreds of people he rescued and their offspring, shortly before succumbing to diabetes.
For the past 12 years the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL-JNF) have held a unique joint Holocaust commemoration ceremony at the B’nai B’rith Martyrs Forest on Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day/Yom Hashoah — the only ceremony dedicated annually to commemorating the heroism of thousands of Jews like Yona Eckstein who went beyond the call of duty to rescue fellow Jews.
During the ceremony a “Jewish Rescuers Citation” will be conferred by the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers during the Holocaust (JRJ) and the B’nai B’rith World Center on seven rescuers or their next of kin: Efraim Agmon, Moshe Alpan, Neshka and Tzvi Goldfarb, Miriam and Yitzhak Roth from Hungary and Jacob Maestro from Greece. Since the establishment of the Jewish Rescuers Citation in 2011, 70 awards have been presented to rescuers who operated in France, Germany, Holland and Hungary — only a small fraction of those Jewish rescuers we know about after years of research.
The phenomena of Jewish rescue and the instructive stories of thousands of Jews who labored to save their endangered brethren throughout Europe has yet to receive the public recognition and resonance they deserve even though they represent some of the finest examples of Jewish solidarity and the timeless Jewish edicts that I know: “Neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor” and “All Jews are responsible for one another.”
Many who could have tried to flee chose to stay and rescue others; some paid for it with their lives, like Goffredo Pacifici from Italy who repeatedly undertook the dangerous task of smuggling groups of Jews at night across the Tresa River between Italy and Switzerland while it was guarded by German troops. He was the only Italian to remain with the Jewish refugee children at Villa Emma after the area was occupied by the Germans and it was he, together with the group’s indefatigable leader, Yosef Indig, who spirited them across the river. When Indig begged him to join them, Pacifici replied: “Try to understand me. I still want to try to help some more Jews to cross the border. I want nothing in exchange! What will happen to me is not that important! When all will be safe, I’ll also put my wife in safety and then I’ll join the partisan in the mountains.”
When it became clear that the Swiss would no longer turn away youngsters over 16, Pacifici led successive groups of Jews to the river and on to safety. On Dec. 7, 1943 Goffredo and his bother Aldo who assisted in the escapes, were picked up by the Varesse police, deported and murdered in Auschwitz. In his book about his own escapade across Europe with nearly a hundred orphaned and refugee children in tow, Indig wrote:
“[Pacifici] was the representative of all that was good in Italian Jewry. A proud Jew with a warm soul. He was felled on the treacherous route he took without fear. He was one of the heroes of our rescue, among the greats we came to know during our Italian exile.”
With great heroism, Jews in every country in occupied Europe employed subterfuge, forgery, smuggling, concealment and other methods to ensure that some Jews survived the Holocaust in Europe, or assisted them in escaping to a safe haven and by doing so resisted the Nazi murder machine. The few rescuers who are still alive remained reluctant until recent times to recount their stories, satisfied in the knowledge that they were able to overcome the German tormentors and their collaborators.
Holocaust historiography has focused for 70 years on the means and ways Jews were despoiled, deported, dehumanized and murdered. Some holocaust historians are aware of the urgent need for change. Writing in the introduction to his soon-to-be published book “Jewish Resistance to the Nazis” Patrick Henry, professor emeritus at Whitman College notes that “[I]n the realm of rescue, particularly when compared to the acclaim granted non-Jewish rescuers, the tremendous role played by Jews in the rescue of other Jewish persons, often working in Jewish organizations and in conjunction with non-Jews, has not received sufficient academic study and appropriate public recognition.”
It is now high time to focus more of our collective energies on uncovering and disseminating the heroic stories of Jews who resisted and rescued fellow Jews.