Last week I was honoured and moved to be guiding three generations of the Brand family in Israel for a Bat Mitzvah trip. What made this even more special and memorable was that the Bat Mitzvah celebrant’s grandfather had himself been saved as a child from the Warsaw Ghetto by Righteous Gentiles. As a result of this heroic selfless action his extended family were able to celebrate this momentous life cycle event in Israel.
The grandfather, Dr. Stephen Felton (born Stefan Feldsztejn), was with our entire group the day before the Bat Mitzvah celebration as we visited Yad Vashem to pay homage to the remarkable extended Polish Catholic family that saved him and his mother and hid them by moving them from place to place in Nazi-Occupied Poland for two years. After much searching we found the inscription honouring the Matacz family and took a photograph with all thirteen family members in front of the plaque.
There were so many reasons for non-Jews not to help Jews during that terrible period of the Holocaust. These reasons included:
- Fear of being targeted yourself for sheltering Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators.
- Antisemitism. Having absorbed the propaganda from the Nazi Party or Church you believed the Jews were getting “what they deserved.”
- Human nature or apathy. Not wanting to get involved with something that did not directly concern you.
Yet, regardless of the above, the country of Poland, despite having those who collaborated with the Nazi regime, also had more “Righteous among the Nations” than any other country in Nazi-occupied Europe, including the many members of the Matacz family. According to the Yad Vashem Righteous Among the Nations Database,
The entire Matacz family was involved in the survival of Ewa Feldsztejn and her son. They protected her, provided for her, and treated her as one of their own.
It warms the heart and restores faith in human nature when one hears about such acts of goodness and decency. The Matacz family, despite very good reasons for not helping Jews, went out of their way and risked their lives to save not only Stephan and his mother, but other Jews, simply because they were good decent people and it was the right thing to do. Pure altruism. We are all made in God’s image and we all need to respect our common humanity and then, and only then, will the world be a better place.
The ripple effect of the kindness of the Matacz family’s actions was that decades later three generations of Jews were privileged to celebrate a beautiful Bat-Mitzvah on top of Masada in the Jewish homeland.
We were also deeply moved after Dr Felton shared his mother’s memories of those difficult times with our group to see IDF soldiers visiting Yad Vashem. They reminded us that like the mythical Phoenix arising from the ashes of Europe, our state arose and was reborn. Nobody handed us our state, in the words of Chaim Weizmann, “on a silver platter.” It rose because of the selfless courage of generations of selfless young boys and girls who were and still are prepared to step forward and “walk the walk.”
For just as in the previous century the young chalutzim (pioneers) recreated our old-new Jewish homeland by planting one tree at a time, revived our language one word at a time, and restored our sense of self-worth one defender at a time, so today we are blessed with a generation of young men and women who are keeping the dream alive to be a “free people in our land” and ensure that “never again” indeed means never again!