A mentally unstable princess, a Berlin prostitute, a Nazi officer and a village idiot: These are some of the extraordinary individuals on the long, surprising and varied list of the Righteous Among the Nations, about 27,000 people who risked their lives with no thought of recompense in order to save Jews from the Germans, and have been awarded recognition by the State of Israel.
“The individuals on the list are different from each another in every respect – age, occupation, status, education, faith and political leanings,” says Irena Steinfeldt, who this summer ends her stint as head of the Department for the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem.
In an interview upon the completion of 11 years in the unique position, she shares with Haaretz some of the fascinating stories that have crossed her desk, along with a number of insights she has gleaned into human nature.
At the outset, she emphatically declares that any attempt to find a common denominator among the righteous gentiles is doomed to failure. Thus, for example, she insists that “there is no similarity” between Princess Alice – Prince Philip’s mother and a great-grandchild of Queen Victoria – who hid the Cohen family in a palace in Athens, and Hedwig Porschütz, a prostitute from Berlin who hid the Bernstein twins in her Alexanderplatz apartment.
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And Anton Sukhinski, a loner from the village of Zborow in Ukraine whom his neighbors ridiculed as a simpleton, does not fit any profile of an average righteous gentile. The Jewish children he saved had been among those who mocked him before the war, but when all morality collapsed and the vast majority of people turned their backs on Jews in indifference or even participated in the killing, it was he alone, the village idiot, who in contrast to his neighbors upheld fundamental human values and, unaided, managed to save the lives of six Jews, members of the Zeiger family.
“What does this Sukhinski, from the margins of society, have in common with Prof. Wadysaw Bartoszewski, a member of the Polish underground organization egota, who rescued Jews during the Holocaust and eventually became the foreign minister of Poland?” wonders Steinfeldt. According to her, “For every attempt to draw up a profile of a righteous gentile, I can immediately find a murderer or a collaborator with the Nazis who perfectly fits that profile.”
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And indeed, on the roster of the Righteous Among the Nations there are controversial figures, like the Polish resistance fighter Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, who founded the egota rescue organization. In a brochure she published in 1942, she called upon her fellow Poles to protest the murder of the Jews, while noting that they were still “political, economic and ideological enemies of Poland.” About the decision to recognize her as a righteous gentile, Steinfeldt says, “Her case is complex. Her rescuing and her anti-Semitism are parts of one and the same package.”
There are even card-carrying Nazis on the roll of the Righteous Among the Nations. The most famous of them is Oskar Schindler, but there are also less famous ones, like Gerhard Kurzbach, who commanded a military vehicle maintenance garage near Krakow and saved many of the residents of the nearby Bochnia ghetto from expulsion to the death camps, hiding them in the workshop. In 2012, under Steinfeldt’s direction, he was awarded the title.
The story of Kurzbach’s recognition is one indication that the stories of potential righteous gentiles who have not yet been recognized remain hidden in archives and in the memories of people who lived through that period. In 2011, Steinfeldt received an email from a resident of Germany who sought to find out if Kurzbach, a relative of his, was deserving of the title. During the research, “It suddenly became clear to me that there was a wonderful tale here, and lots of testimonies cropped up, describing a rescue story that we hadn’t known about before,” she says.
It turns out that decades earlier, various archives had received testimonies from Holocaust survivors documenting Kurzbach’s rescue activity. These included a letter his wife received in 1943 from Jews whom her husband had rescued, in which they wrote to her that they loved him “like a father and good friend,” and that they were very grateful. Steinfeldt says that the reason for his belated recognition is insufficient manpower. “At Yad Vashem there are still very many testimonies and a great many materials that haven’t even been catalogued,” she says, with regard to the potential for recognizing additional candidates for the title.
A vanishing generation
“Our job is partly historical and partly detective work. On the one hand, today, with the help of technology, it is possible to gain access very quickly to things that were once very hard to find,” she says, noting that the staff of the department make use of Facebook to locate relatives of righteous gentiles and survivors. On the other hand, she says, “The work is more difficult now because the first generation is leaving us.”
Each year hundreds of names are added to the list. However, it is important to her to stress that even if “the potential is enormous,” as she says, it is still always a matter of stories about people who are “extraordinary, exceptional, who were in the most minuscule of minorities. It’s not that there is a big mountain here hiding information that will change the overall picture of the Holocaust. The picture is of murder and destruction. The Righteous Among the Nations were only small pinpoints of light.”
It’s not only a profile of a typical righteous gentle that Steinfeldt refuses to outline. She also vigorously rejects comparisons between different nations in that context. In retrospect, she admits she is not certain that it was correct to publish the statistics documenting the numbers of Righteous Among the Nations by country.
Poland is at the top of that list, with 6,863 documented righteous gentiles – more than in any other country. However, Steinfeldt rejects the Polish government’s attempt to use this figure in the discussion of the part played by the Poles in the Holocaust. “This number is meaningless,” she says, “because there were significant differences among the various countries – in the numbers of Jews living in them, the Germans’ treatment of the local non-Jewish populations, the degree of danger faced by anyone who helped Jews and more.”
According to her, it is also possible to present a different set of statistics, one that would show the number of righteous gentiles relative to the number of Jews in each country. In that case France, where about 300,000 Jews were living and about 4,000 righteous gentiles have been recognized, comes out ahead of Poland, where there were some 3 million Jews and about 7,000 righteous gentiles. From another angle, she also notes that in Poland, in contrast to France, people who rescued Jews faced the risk of being sentenced to death. “It’s very problematic to try to draw sweeping conclusions about particular nations,” she says. “Since the Righteous Among the Nations are the exceptional individuals, they cannot be used as a criterion for measuring the quality of the collective.”
In this spirit, in contrast to many educators. Steinfeldt does not believe that the Righteous Among the Nations are the model according to which we should instruct our children. “It’s a bit self-righteous and simplistic,” she says, “because this moral model is very difficult to apply.” She gets angry when she hears teachers musing to their students about why there were so few righteous gentiles. And she thinks to herself – let’s just see what you yourself would have done. “I can’t say how I would have behaved in a similar situation. To this day I can’t understand from where the righteous gentiles drew the strength to do what they did.”
The criteria for awarding the title are stringent. A candidate must be a non-Jew, someone who helped Jews, taking personal risk and without recompense. Over the years there have been objections with regard to each of these criteria. Steinfeldt believes they make sense. “All of us, after all, do good deeds. We help an old woman cross the street and we donate a bit of money to the needy. But in the end, this doesn’t require us to pay any real price,” she says. “The Righteous Among the Nations are the few who stood out above the rest by putting their lives on the line, and being prepared to pay a price for what they did.”
A secret commission
Various limitations have meant that some of the families of the Righteous Among the Nations do not know that Yad Vashem has bestowed the recognition on a member of their family. Even though the names of the Righteous Among Nations are published on the Internet, the news does not always get through to an unknown number of families. “Sometimes, even after a search, we have no idea where the family is,” she admits.
In other instances, a different kind of problem with the families arises: The family is located but refuses to accept the citation in the name of the righteous gentile who is no longer alive. This happens for various reasons, ranging from modesty (“My mother didn’t think she deserved a medal”) to intra-family quarrels to anti-Israel ideology.
Steinfeldt encountered a case of the latter sort in 2013, when Yad Vashem recognized the first (and to this day the only) Arab righteous gentile, Mohammed Helmy, an Egyptian physician who hid Jews in Berlin. Upon being notified, however, a relative of his who was identified in Cairo informed Yad Vashem that the family was not interested in receiving the citation from Israel. Ultimately, an Israeli film director, Taliya Finkel, located another relative, who accepted the certificate in a ceremony in Germany.
“When I took up the position, I said, ‘Wow, I am the only person in the world running a department like this,’” Steinfeldt recalls. “There have been genocides in other places in the world but I haven’t found any parallel to the victims trying to find, among the nations who committed the crimes and the collaborators, the few good people who were a ray of light in the darkness. This made my job unique in the world,” she says.
Commemoration of the rescuers has been among the missions of Yad Vashem delineated by law, since its establishment in 1953. “Originally, we planned a short-term project in which a few instances of righteous gentiles would be found, a book would be published to commemorate them, and that would be it,” she says. Since then, 65 years have elapsed, and every year hundreds of names are still being added to the list of the Righteous Among the Nations.
The investigation undertaken about each candidate them makes use of Yad Vashem databases, information from archives and organizations around the world, testimonies from survivors and information on the Internet. After the evidence is collected, the case is submitted to the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous, which consists of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Israel from various countries and is headed by a retired Supreme Court Justice (currently Jacob Turkel).
Last month Yad Vashem refused a request from the Movement for Freedom of Information to publish the names of the commission’s other members and the minutes of its deliberations. A source in the movement characterizes that refusal as “one of the strangest refusals we have received,” and wonders aloud, “What is the reason for this concealment?”
Steinfeldt declares most emphatically that the work of the commission is carried out in a “clean, orderly and supervised” procedure and she supports the continued confidentiality of the commission’s activity. The background to this, she says, is concern about pressure on the members of commission on the part of survivors, rescuers, political elements, organizations and variouso influence peddlers. “The topic, after all, arouses tremendous public interest and is fraught with powerful emotions. I have no doubt that the members of the commission would refuse to participate or would apply self-censorship if they knew that the deliberations were going to be published now or in the future,” she says.