The Righteous Yet Unrecognized: The Muslims Who Saved Jewish Children During WWII

With his usual capacity for describing horrors of genocide and acts of compassion, historian Yair Auron presents the unknown story of Circassians who in 1942 saved Jewish youngsters from slaughter.

Members of the Circassian community in Israel, wearing traditional dress.
Yaron Kaminsky

The world has all sorts of hunters. Some people hunt animals, others race after flash floods in the desert in the winter. Prof. Yair Auron is a hunter of a completely different type: a hunter of genocides and compassion. Auron is an Israeli historian who has dedicated a long chapter in his professional life to dealing with the two opposite sides of the human equation of modern times: genocide and, by contrast, the quiet heroes who saved lives and saved the life breath of humanity.

Auron, who until recently was a professor at the Open University, established an academic program there that is unique in Israeli academia – in genocide studies. Some 15,000 students have participated so far in the program, within whose framework many books were written and published about this terrifying, horrible and panhuman phenomenon.

Auron has now published his most recent research in a new book: “The Banality of Compassion: The Story of the Circassian-Muslim Village in the Caucasus that Saved Jewish Children During the Holocaust” (in Hebrew). The story is almost unknown, it is small and enormous at the same time, heart-rending, distant and yet so close.

Besleney is a village of simple and honest farmers in the Caucasus, in an area inhabited by Circassian peoples. The story of historical encounters between the cultures there starts long before the Holocaust. For over 100 years (from 1763 to 1864), czarist Russia battled the Circassian tribes in the northwest Caucasus. Hundreds of thousands of Circassians were murdered, slaughtered and/or expelled by Russian soldiers. At the end of the long war, only some 10 percent of the original population remained in the Circassian lands.

Those who remained of the “Adyghe,” as they call themselves, managed to preserve their traditions and customs, and a social code – the Circassian “oral Torah,” as it were, which constituted an educational system and encompassed both individual and collective norms. The code included moral categories such as honor, integrity, honesty, truth, humility, and ways to function in society; sensitivity, as well as the need to listen to and respect others, etc.

The best-known customs and beliefs in this framework included respecting elders, because of their long life experience; honoring parents; hosting visitors; generosity to others; and the importance of the status of women. Their traumatic historical memories, along with this unique value system, were put to a test when the Circassians faced the reality of World War II.

“Leningrad was one of the cities that earned the title a ‘city of heroism.’ When the danger the German military would conquer Leningrad grew, it was clear the Jewish children would face an especially great danger so it was decided to evacuate them,” writes Auron. “On April 10, 1942, a convoy of children departed from a number of orphanages in the city. They were put on freight trains and wandered (for four months) on the roads to the Caucasus mountains because they thought the Germans would not conquer the area. In the final days of July 1942, or at the beginning of August 1942, the Germans bombed the train and many children were killed.”

Four wagons

Suddenly, on the morning of August 16, 1942, something extraordinary happened in the fields of the peaceful and innocent village of Besleney. “Only the elderly, women and children remained in the village, the men were drafted into the Red Army,” Auron continues. “The convoy passed a few villages, but their residents refused to accept the children because of the severe famine and also out of fear of the Nazis. The residents of Besleney saw four wagons harnessed to horses passing through on the road in the outskirts of the village, with exhausted, sick children, who looked much older than their ages (3 to 14), some in fact dying and a few even dead.

"The children of the village of Besleney were the first to meet them and saw they were exhausted and sick. They tried to speak with them but the children from Leningrad did not answer. After that the mothers came in from the fields and took 32 children. Everyone took one child. This is a story of rescue with women at the center. On the morning of the next day – or, according to a different version, after two days – German soldiers entered the village. They suspected there were Jewish children there, searched for them and threatened to shoot the residents and burn the village with its people in it if they found a single Jewish child there. During the 152 days the German soldiers spent in the village, no one was turned over to them.”

This is the essence of the story that Auron discovered by accident, because of a conversation he had in Jerusalem with an Israeli Circassian security guard from the town of Kfar Kama in the Galilee. “We had a genocide too,” the young man innocently said – and Auron’s life went on a detour to the Caucasus.

"The Banality of Compassion," published by Israel's academic Resling Publishing House, was written in a fashion that combines exacting historical research that aspires to capture and reveal the facts and figures of the times, the people and the places, but without backing down on a commitment to universal human values.

Ultimately, Auron's book includes a philosophical-historical discussion, asking: Why did residents of one village rescue and people of another village murder? Or, what is the line that separates a murderer from a righteous person, or a rescuer of humans from someone perpetrating crimes against humanity? It includes background on Circassian history, World War II and its events, and is based on the latest genocide studies as well as fascinating personal interviews, which were conducted in Israel and the Caucasus, with the remaining survivors and rescuers alike.

Auron does not hesitate to take a stand against the racism of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem, especially now: “The claim that among the 32 children who were saved were also a few non-Jews, which is why we cannot give those who saved a non-Jew the title of ‘Righteous Among the Gentiles’ – such a view is opposed to the value system of the rescuers: the sanctity of human life and equality of human life, whoever the person may be.”

During the 20th century, over 170 million people were killed in crimes against humanity, says Auron. We must not make do with sanctifying the memories of just six million of them, because the evil is panhuman, and the Shoah and holocausts are human and not unique to just the Jews, he asserts.

Auron has a good reason for his use of Hannah Arendt’s term “banality” in the tile of a number of his books, including this one: He rejects the classic Israeli Zionist dichotomy, in which the Holocaust took place on a different planet, and the Shoah belongs only to us and is not connected to the general malaise of the human race. Everywhere that evil exists, good is there too, Auron says: “In the acts of rescue of the village of Besleney, the highest expression of humanity is expressed in a unique, personal and collective way: ‘the banality of compassion, kindness and humanity.’”

The Israeli education system would do a good thing if would make this book required reading as part of every curriculum, whether in civics, history, Holocaust studies or literature courses. Even if just for a number of non-cynical Israelis to grow up here, who will actually implement Auron’s theoretical path in our so difficult real world.