Once you leave the reception area in Yad Vashem and start walking toward the dreaded unknown, you first encounter several small trees. Those are the threes in honor of the Righteous Among The Nations.
In my youth there was no doubt in my mind that had I lived in the time of the Holocaust I would have been one of the few brave women and men who had risked their lives to hide Jews. But once I had children of my own this certainty had started to dissipate. It was a disturbing feeling, still I knew that the responsibility of a family and having too much to lose would have prevented me from doing the right and human thing.
Contemplating on doing the right thing I usually refer to two sources which are significant to me: the first is the Halachic principle of “your town’s poor come first.” The meaning here is that you first have to take care of those who are the closest to you; your first obligation is to them. Metaphorically your town’s poor could also be your children and your family. It is hard to forget the wonderful scene from Mary Poppins in which the mother fights for women’s rights but neglects her own children.
However, as Rabbi Yuval Cherlow stresses, in taking care of our town’s poor first, we should never lose sight or close the door on the rest of humanity.
In light of this Halachic principle, the sacrifice of the Righteous Among The Nations, the non-Jews who helped, hid and saved Jews during the Holocaust is even more heroic and admirable.
Although the second source is literary and approaches the issue of doing the right thing from a totally different angle, I find it as powerful. Jane Austen’s novel Sense And Sensibility starts when Mr Dashwood dies and his son John inherits all his wealth. The son made a promise to his father to take care of his step mother and half sisters, but his wife Fanny Dashwood dissuades him from doing so. Austen brilliantly presents John’s conversation with his wife in which she slowly and methodically builds a case why not only does he owe those poor women nothing, but actually they are in debt to him.
This scene is ironical and almost absurd, but it is also familiar and truthful. Thus, whenever I find myself in a situation when such rationalizations are resonating, I ask myself: “am I being a Fanny now ”?
Not finding reasons for not doing the right thing is never enough, still it’s a start.
In contrast, the brave women and men, whose names I saw next to the trees of the Righteous Among The Nations in Yad Vashem, did their utmost and risked their life while doing it. Irena Sendler saved 2500 children, and Pastor Andre Trocmé responded to the demand of the Vichy authorities to produce a list of the Jews in the town, with the words: “We do not know what a Jew is. We only know men.”
We were in Yad Vashem for a day of preparation for the Na’amat trip to Poland next week. I expect that this trip will provide a good opportunity to remember the courage of the Righteous Among The nations, and be grateful that they restored my faith in humanity.