When you enter the grounds of Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Shoah commemoration site, through the massive stone arches and the entrance foyer, you reach the main plaza via the Garden of the Righteous.
“The Righteous Among the Nations, honored by Yad Vashem, are non-Jews who took great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust. Rescue took many forms and the Righteous came from different nations, religions and walks of life. What they had in common was that they protected their Jewish neighbors at a time when hostility and indifference prevailed.” (Yad Vashem’s website).
You cannot begin to think about the terrible history of the period between 1933 and 1945, without first acknowledging that our survival, as individuals and as a people, relied not only on Divine Providence but also on the kindness and goodness of non-Jews.
Indeed, I would suggest that you cannot speak at all about Jewish history without acknowledging the wonderful kindness that Jews, the smallest among nations, according to Deuteronomy, have received from the righteous among the nations.
Good relations between Jews and non-Jews begin at the dawn of our history. Avraham met Melchitzedek, who offered him gifts and respect. But Avraham was not in particular need at that time. The first cases of non-Jews taking risks on behalf of the Jews are recounted in the Book of Exodus. The midwives who resisted Pharoah’s instruction to kill the Jewish babies were, according to some accounts, Egyptian. Pharoah’s daughter, who defied her father’s terrible decree was possibly a non-Jew prepared to risk everything on behalf of an innocent child. However, the Torah does not tell us whether she faced a real risk.
The first story in our history where Yad Vashem’s definition of righteousness would certainly apply was that of Rahav, in the Book of Joshua, who helped the spies sent into Jericho. She risked everything to hide them and then let them down the city walls on a scarlet cord, purposely misleading the authorities so that the spies could escape.
King David, too, received protection from non-Jewish tribes when in hiding from his father-in-law.
These Biblical women and men were the role-models, who inspired Ancient and Mediaeval figures such as Cyrus of Persia, Abd al Rahman in 10th Century Spain and Bishop Rudiger in Speyer in the 11th Century. It was difficult to find protectors during the Crusades and at other times of persecution but there are examples of exceptional individuals in almost every time and place. Many of their names are not known.
There were and continue to be many, many Christians who assisted the Jews to return to this land, seeing it as part of their Christianity, but often at a cost, including defying the foreign policy of their countries of origin and quite frequently risking professional advancement and at great economic loss. Loving Jews was rarely a cause of advancement!
When it came to the Shoah, the greatest threat to the survival of the Jewish people since the destruction of the Second Temple, literally thousands of individuals have been honoured by Yad Vashem for their heroic and ethical behaviour. We are determined not to forget their names.
Oscar Schindler, Irene Sender, Raoul Wallenberg, Harry Bingham, the zoo-keeper’s wife – they have become legends. But the greatest heroes of all are the housewives, the shop-keepers, the farmers, the nurses, the neighbours, the landlords, the tenants who were motivated because of their compassion and their virtue to protect, to hide and to rescue their fellow human beings.
So often, I see the Talmudic quote, “a person who saves just one life, it is as if they have saved an entire world” applied to them.
When the British rescuer, Nicholas Winton was honoured in a BBC program, he saw that the children he had saved were now the parents and grandparents of literally hundreds of descendants.
The world is different because a comparatively small number of people stood up against tyranny and for what was right. They used their power for good and not evil.
Power is the key word here. The individual does have power. Occasionally, she succeeds in magnifying her personal power through simple acts that make a huge difference.
But, sometimes we do not feel empowered at all or feel that our power is significantly limited.
For nearly 2,000 years, the Jewish people felt powerless to determine their own futures or even to protect themselves. The phenomenon of “righteous among the nations” – a term coined by Yad Vashem based on a Rabbinic honorific usually, in the past, given to converts – is premised on the reality that the Jews needed help. We needed to be protected and rescued.
If you walk through the Garden of the Righteous and come into the main plaza inside Yad Vashem, you see there two installations, by the same artist (Nathan Rapoport), each telling a different narrative of the Shoah. The one on the right – the first one if you are Hebrew speaking – tells of the Jews being rounded up and sent to the slaughter. The one on the left, is of the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
There is no doubt which narrative was preferred by the founders of the State of Israel. Holocaust Remembrance Day is officially called the Day of Commemoration for the Shoah (Annihilation) and for the Heroism. The idea of Jewish powerlessness and reliance on the kindness of others was not the story we wanted to tell. We wanted to maintain some sense of dignity and remind ourselves that there were those who resisted and who fought for themselves and their people.
Nothing is straightforward about the Shoah or any aspect of Jewish life and history. On the one hand, we venerate and remain eternally grateful to the heroes who behaved with such righteousness. On the other, we are not keen to recall the circumstances under which we relied on their kindness. There are many Israelis who are, at some level, ambivalent about honouring the righteous because doing so reminds us of our powerlessness – our shame.
The other complication is that when we remember the righteous, we cannot but compare them to the perpetrators of hatred and murder. It is a bit like the way we remember Noah, who is described in the Bible as “righteous in his generation.” The Rabbis question: if he were living in any other generation, would he be considered “righteous” or is it just because his generation was so bad that he seemed good? We ask, why would we need a category of “righteous among the nations” if the nations were righteous? We would not need rescuers if there were no pursuers.
This criticism of the wider world and the sense that the virtuous are a very small minority within a sea of evil and hatred penetrates much of Israeli society. Seventy years plus after the Shoah, many Israelis fear, distrust or despise the outside world, seeing the friends of the Jews as too few to consider a serious category. Nazism is on the resurgence. Muslims would kill us if they could; Christians either want to renew the Crusades or to convert us surreptitiously; entrepreneurs elsewhere want to kill us to steal our ideas; communists want to kill us to steal our wealth. Only a few would defend us if we could not defend ourselves. Essentially, those who are different from ourselves are not to be trusted but to be feared.
This affects our relationships within this country as well as towards the outside. We do not trust any other nations to protect us and we do not trust any minority not to revert to form and become a “fifth column.” History has shown us that we stand alone. The Torah supports us. “Am levado yishkon,” it says in the Book of Numbers. You are a people who will dwell alone. Do not rely on anyone.
My weltanschauung is quite different. My life is governed not by fear but by the freedom and confidence to love that comes from a belief in the inherent goodness in all humanity. Some call me naïve. But my naivete is based on my faith. Noah as well as Jacob, Yaakov, in the Torah are described as “tam.” The term is sometimes translated as “simple” and on the seder night just a couple of weeks ago, the “tam” is the simple son. But Yaakov was not simple. He was a person of deep faith. I strive to have that sort of simplicity of faith, paradoxical as it may sound.
I start with the Talmudic principle, responding to the question as to why the Creator began all of humanity from just one couple rather than populating the earth from the outset. So that we should all know that we all have the same ancestors, say the Rabbis. As the Quran says, if the Creator had chosen to make all of us as one nation, one faith, He could have done so. But our Creator chose to make us all different. It is His will.
We are all created in Tselem Elokim – the image of G’d. G’d is good; people all have the propensity for good. It is evil, not good, that is the aberration. Most people are righteous, until their circumstances or education or manipulation take them in another direction.
My interactions with people of faith have exposed me to the righteousness of people from all backgrounds. I have seen how the Sikhs feed thousands of people, regardless of their faith, at all their community venues; I see what Christian charity means in the acts of so many saintly people; I have Muslim friends who volunteer tirelessly to help those in need; Buddhist and Hindu friends reject material benefits so that they can clothe and feed others.
In their analysis of rescuers during the Shoah, Yad Vashem found that some pre-war personal connection to the person they rescued was a powerful motivator. When people know each other as people, their tendency is to respond to them in kindness not hostility. My friends help each other and others in their times of need. Their righteousness is not what sets them apart; it reflects their essential character. Righteous people are to be found in all the nations.
Like others, I, too, have some problems when I hear the term “Righteous Among the Nations.” I am concerned that it implies that the righteous are few and far between, behaving uncharacteristically for human beings (those from other nations). Unquestionably, in Europe during the Shoah, they were too few. Certainly, today, there are still many good people who are doing nothing to prevent evil flourishing. But when you have confidence that people are essentially good, you know that they can be awakened to behave righteously when the need arises, as people always have done.
We have always been the beneficiaries of goodness. It is no shame to rely on the kindness of others. The shame would be if we did not cultivate that same love for humanity in ourselves.