Everyone has heroes and heroines. Some worship them. Others simply adore them. Some hang their photos on walls in their homes to be reminded.
In our home, two small photos were on top of the piano in our salon. One was of the familiar bearded Theodor Herzl looking down from his hotel balcony of the Three Kings in Basel, Switzerland. The other was of Henrietta Szold in Jerusalem, founder of Hadassah, the womens’ Zionist organization. My mother was vice-chairman of the Youth Aliyah committee and Henrietta Szold’s name and her immensely great deeds were spoken of reverently.
Herzl was the father of Zionism and Szold was the founder of the Hadassah Medical Hospital in Jerusalem.
Zeev Vladimir Jabotinsky, Joseph Trumpeldor, and years later Menachem Begin were among my early heroes. An autographed photograph of Menachem Begin hangs on my wall next to the autographed photograph of former President Zalman Shazar. I was privileged to have met privately with both.
In my early childhood there were two non-Jews among my “list” of heroes. One was Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. She was a beloved queen of the Dutch nation and I admired her for her sense of love for her people. Without the trappings of European monarchy, particularly those in Great Britain, Wilhelmina was a humble queen who walked along the streets in Amsterdam without security guards, and she smiled and greeted the passers-by who bowed to her.
She was often seen shopping in Amsterdam’s largest luxury department store, De Bijenkorf, which was founded by Jews, Simon Goudsmit, in 1870. It was located on the main street, the Dam, walking distance from the Royal Palace.
During the Nazi occupation of Holland, German soldiers were prohibited by their commanding officers to enter De Bijenkorf as it was considered “a Jewish enterprise”. In recent years, the luxurious store was bought by the Weston family who own Selfridges in London.
The other non-Jewish hero of my childhood who remains a hero even now in my old age was the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.
So many books have been written about his life, born in a log cabin, self-taught, never went to school, read law and became a famous lawyer prior to becoming America’s greatest and most beloved president….. at least by citizens of the North. Citizens of the South, including all Jews, despised him and adored the southern general, Robert E. Lee.
Lincoln was intimately friendly with several Jews and appointed one of them to the office of Postmaster-General in Illinois. During the American Civil War (called by southerners the War Between the States) from May 1861 to April 1865, a Jewish soldier in the Confederate army of the south was caught and imprisoned in the north. When he learned that his father was dying, he wrote a letter to President Lincoln asking for a brief parole in order that he might see his father before he died.
Abraham Lincoln ordered that the soldier be immediately released from prison and informed the soldier that he was able to remain in his home in Atlanta during the seven days of Jewish mourning (shiva).
One of Lincoln’s most famous actions concerned a General Order # 11, issued by General Ulysses S. Grant on December 17, 1862 which ordered the expulsion of all Jews from Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi. He further issued an order prohibiting the issue of trade licenses to Jews within the areas occupied by the Union Army of the north. He suspected Jews of engaging in war profiteering.
When President Lincoln was informed of this, he disapproved vigorously and sent a letter to General Grant which read “a paper purporting to be issued by you has been presented here. It expels all Jews from your department. If such an order has been issued, it will be immediately revoked”.
Three days later, General Grant obeyed Lincoln’s demand and the infamous General Order # 11 was revoked.
When the war ended, Grant was considered a national hero and he won the majority of Jewish votes in the presidential election of 1868. As president, he appointed many Jews to top positions in the government.
When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, the rabbis in the north held special services in their synagogues to honor the memory of a very beloved president.
These were the heroes of my childhood and remain heroes to this day. Their humaneness and love of people continues to be an inspiration.