Gentiles Who Dared to Save Jews
Why risk your life to save Jews? It was obvious that the easiest and safest position was to be complacent about Hitler’s obsession to annihilate the Jewish race. Yet many Christians and Gentiles in a society gone mad courageously rescued them. It is unfortunate that the majority of these men and women are virtually unknown in their own countries, but in modern Israel their stories are legendary. Their names are immortalized on a narrow walkway that leads to the Israeli Holocaust Memorial called Yad Vashem. This street is affectionately referred to as the “Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles.”
On both sides of the path to the memorial thousands of evergreen carob trees are planted. At the base of each tree is a plaque inscribed with a name to commemorate an individual—exceptional individuals who believed that all people were created in the image and likeness of God and were therefore worth saving. The details of their heroic deeds are shining tributes to their humanity and sense of decency in helping the oppressed.
Along the path, one tree salutes a heroic man named Joop Westerweel, a Dutch Plymouth Brethren teacher. The father of four, he felt compassion for the plight of Jewish children and devised a plan to smuggle them from Nazi-occupied Holland into neutral Spain. The scheme worked and thousands of children were saved. Eventually he was caught, and Gestapo agents tortured him daily then condemned him to die in a horrid concentration camp. Today his carob tree is beautifully maintained by some of those same children, now adults, whom he sacrificed his life to save.
Another Hollander whose story has been featured in print and film was the noble Corrie ten Boom. She and her unmarried sister lived with their I elderly father in Haarlem, Holland. Their house, called a “beje,” served as both their home and watchmaking shop. In 1940, Holland surrendered to the overwhelming German army. Revulsion gripped Corrie’s heart as she witnessed the systematic attacks on her Jewish neighbors. Aware of her genuine Christian love and compassion, desperate Jewish folks would come to her door for help. When a sign was given that German agents were coming down her street, she would quickly hide her guests in the hollow spaces under the stairs and in a secure secret chamber connected to her room. Even when she was mercilessly beaten and hauled away from her family, she refused to disclose the location of the secret room. Eventually the entire Ten Boom family was sent to the dreaded concentration camps, and Corrie miraculously managed to survive. After the war, she pursued a vigorous worldwide speaking itinerary. She told of her experiences and, more importantly, of God’s protective care for her and her charges. Her main theme was, “Jesus can turn loss into glory.” Another of her favorite lecture topics was the unfathomable forgiveness of God through Christ. Israel honored her deeds with a carob tree on that esteemed avenue.
There is a tree in honor of the dauntless Swedish diplomat, Raul Wallenberg, whose acts of compassion still capture the imagination. Using his prestigious office, he is credited with having rescued thousands of Jews from Budapest, Hungary. It was his courage and nerve that inspired many other Gentiles to actively snatch Jewish people from the jaws of the death camps.
Another plaque honors a peasant Catholic priest from the town of Assisi in Italy named Padre Rufino Salvatore Nicacci. This brave man sheltered and protected over three hundred Jews during the years of the war. Being a very clever padre, he dressed many of them as monks and nuns and even taught them Catholic rituals. Some even administered communion after officiating at mass. While hiding some people in the monasteries, Nicacci arranged jobs for others in the local printing shop. Posters and greeting cards were produced during the day, while at night, false documents and identity cards were clandestinely printed and sent by couriers to Jews in Italy. In 1974, flanked by Israeli dignitaries and many Jewish people he saved, Nicacci planted his own carob tree on the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles.
As the evil of Nazism expanded through occupied Europe, people from various ethnic backgrounds put into practice the universal principles of love and justice against the suffering, each doing what they were most capable of and helping wherever they could—some politically, some secretly, but all with concern and compassion for the Jewish people.
In Vilna, Poland, a simple librarian named Anna Simaite hid Jewish children. She helped feed starving Jews using her own food rationing card. She also helped forge identity passes. At the same time the daring Jadzia Duniec supplied weapons to the Jewish underground. He was caught and murdered by the Gestapo. Another brave woman, Sophia Debicka, turned her humble home into a base for the Jewish resistance.
Abbe Alexander Glasberg of France rescued 2,000 French Jews and even managed to maintain a “safe house” for 65 Jewish teens. A simple French pastor with the heart of a lion personally traveled to the various concentration camps and boldly requested the release of Jewish children. In many cases he was successful. Father Benoit turned his monastery into a rescue center and helped 50,000 Jews reach safety in North Africa.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Miklos Kallay rejected Nazi demands to introduce yellow badges for Jews. He also refused their deportation to Poland. It required the arrival of Adolf Eichmann and his SS henchmen in Budapest to personally handle the “Jewish problem.” In Belgium, Louis Celis raised four young Jewish children as his own. When it was safe, he spirited them to their ancient homeland, Israel. Ingebjorg Fortyedt Sletten, a member of the Norwegian resistance, saved several Jewish families in Oslo, including the chief rabbi of the city. Even Germany had her heroes. Oskar Schindler, a German businessman whose conscience had not been wholly seared by Nazi defamation, saved 1,200 Jews from the extermination camps. He was honored by being buried in the land of Israel.
The wonderful thing about the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles is its acclamation to the testimony of ordinary people. Recent studies on the specific motives of the more religiously minded rescuers revealed that there were some basic spiritual considerations for their conduct. Foremost was the teaching of God’s love and protection for the Jews as recorded in the Bible. Passages such as “I [God] have loved thee [Israel] with an everlasting love” (Jer. 31:3) and “he that toucheth you [Israel] toucheth the apple of his [God’s] eye” (Zech. 2:8) were strong incentives. Other biblical passages—such as the golden rule of Matthew 7:12; the story of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:25–37; the love-for-God-and-neighbor commandment of Matthew 22:34–40; and the impending judgment to come of Matthew 25:33–46—were strong motivating factors that incited devout Christians to help the Jews. For them, the evils of anti-Semitism did not infiltrate their Christian theology.
Secular Gentiles simply held to the belief that hating and killing were wrong. Anto Schmidt, an Austrian corporal, wrote, “I have seen 200–300 Jews shot, innocent children, even babies massacred. By helping the Jews, I have simply acted as a human being, who wished no one any harm.” He was later executed for his involvement.
In Isaiah 1:17 the prophet stated, “Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.” These Gentiles, religiously minded or not, saw the outrageous mistreatment of the Jews and ethically responded to the cry of Isaiah.
There are more than 4,000 carob trees lining the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles. Is that such a great number? For 6 million Jews? People may wish the walkway were a dense forest with millions of trees. It is not. The few that are there represent the small, illuminating lights that refused to be overcome by the oppressive darkness of that terrible period of history. They would never have thought of themselves as heroes, much less saints. Yet the sentiments from the pen of the Jewish writer, Sholem Asch, recognize their celestial virtues.
On the flood of sin, hatred and blood let loose by Hitler upon this world, there swam a small ark, which preserved intact the common heritage of a Judeo-Christian outlook, that outlook which is founded on the double principle of love of God and love of one’s fellow man. The demonism of Hitler had sought to overturn and overwhelm it in the floods of hate. It was saved by the heroism of a handful of saints.
A practical homage to their actions is for all future generations to oppose madness leveled against any people or religious group and to remember that Jew hating may begin with the Jews but never ends with the Jews. This was clearly realized by a Bulgarian intellectual, Dimo Kazasov, when he wrote to his prime minister in 1940: “The law against the Bulgarian Jews would endanger the Bulgarian people itself.” The warning fell on deaf ears. The anti-Jewish laws were enacted, and all of Bulgaria suffered. This should serve as a warning to be vigilant, because a society’s spiritual and moral barometer is measured by their view and treatment of Jews.
Consider what Jesus would have done if a Jewish family had come to His door seeking help to survive the Holocaust. Undoubtedly He would have protected the innocents. The challenge for true Christians is to emulate Christ, endeavoring to allow God to conform our lives to His will and example. As Jesus said, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Mt. 19:19).