Here is what I know about the Polish-Catholic truck driver Wilusz Halamaj, born sometime at the turn of the 20th century and murdered in 1944.
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His mother, Franciszka, hid three Jewish families on her tiny premises in Sokal, a small town in Eastern Poland, from October 1942 to July 1944. Two of those families, including my own, were hidden in the hayloft above her pigsty, and the third in a hole dug under her kitchen floor. Wilusz, his wife and young daughter, lived in the nearby town of Strij.
How did this poor peasant woman have the means to feed three families – altogether 16 people – for 20 long months? It worked like this: Her son, who was a driver for a German oil company, would every so often sneak his mother a few barrels when his bosses were looking the other way so that she could use this sought-after commodity to barter for food. How do I know this? My grandfather documented it in his wartime diary.
And what if Wilusz had been caught? Let’s just say that for lesser acts of kindness toward Jews, Poles had been known to pay with their lives.
It turns out that Wilusz had a soft spot for Jews in general, not only those hiding in his mother’s home. While making the rounds in his truck during those awful years, he would often stop in the nearby forest of Dolina and smuggle in supplies to the dozens of Jewish partisans hiding out there. That is, until one day he was ambushed and executed on the spot. How do I know this? My grandfather wrote it in testimony he submitted to Yad Vashem in 1981, based on an account provided by the dead man’s mother. Wilusz’s two nieces, who live today in Connecticut, were able to corroborate the story for me.
Yet Yad Vashem has ruled that Wilusz Halamaj does not merit the designation of “Righteous Among the Nations” – the highest honor bestowed on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. In fact, here is what a representative of the institution wrote five months ago in response to a request submitted by three survivors that he be recognized posthumously:
“The diary indeed mentions Wilusz Halamaj, who lived with his family in Strij. Maltz describes how he visited his mother and would bring provisions to his family, which obviously helped also support the Jews in hiding. He no doubt knew about the hiding Jews, and Moshe Maltz records Halamaj's telling them about his giving food to other Jews. Unfortunately, we have no proof of these acts and nothing documenting his tragic end.”
In short, according to Yad Vashem, the survivor testimonies carry no weight.
So here is my question: What type of proof was Yad Vashem seeking? An oil-stained chip from one of the barrels he delivered to his mother? Shrapnel from the bullet that hit him? A photograph of his execution?
To be fair, back in 1986, Yad Vashem did bestow the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” upon Wilusz’s mother, Franciszka, and his sister, Helena, at the request of the older generation of survivors, all of whom have since passed away. In hindsight, the younger survivors – those who were children during the years in hiding and are now getting on in years – felt that they owed a great debt to Wilusz as well and wanted to see his name recognized, too.
To date, Yad Vashem has recognized almost 25,000 “Righteous Among the Nation.” The title is awarded by a special commission headed by a Supreme Court justice. According to the Yad Vashem website, this commission bases its decision on the fulfillment of the following conditions:
“1. Active involvement of the rescuer in saving one or several Jews from the threat of death or deportation to death camps;
2. Risk to the rescuer’s life, liberty or position;
3. The initial motivation being the intention to help persecuted Jews: i.e. not for payment or any other reward such as religious conversion of the saved person, adoption of a child, etc.; and
4. The existence of testimony of those who were helped or at least unequivocal documentation establishing the nature of the rescue and its circumstances.”
My family is not alone in feeling deeply let down by Yad Vashem’s decision to reject their request to honor a non-Jew they believe put his life on the line for them. Nor are they alone in feeling insulted at having their testimony challenged by Yad Vashem. In a far better known case, two years ago, it refused to recognize a man by the name of Khaled Abdul Wahad, who had hidden several dozen Jews in Tunisia when German troops entered their town during the war. Abdul Wahad would have been the first Arab awarded this designation. Yad Vashem explained its decision at the time saying there was no proof that he had put himself in any personal danger.
There are countless other cases. In fact, Congregation Adas Israel in Washington D.C. set up its own “Garden of the Righteous” more than 20 years ago, where it honors, among others, many of those rescuers who don’t pass muster with Yad Vashem.
Yad Vashem maintains that it must impose strict standards when designating a non-Jew as “Righteous Among the Nations,” because otherwise the title will be cheapened. In other words, the more easily the designation is handed out, the less value it has. It is for this reason that Yad Vashem goes to such lengths to validate every claim submitted.
I would argue that Yad Vashem has nothing to fear. Should it decide to relax its standards a bit, there is little reason to believe it will suddenly be inundated with recognition requests. After all, there are no cash gifts for those recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations.” All they (or, more likely, their descendants today) receive is a medal, a certificate and a plaque in their name at Yad Vashem. Neither are there any limitations set by law on the number of rescuers that can be honored.
Which begs the question: Why not? Why not give the survivors the benefit of the doubt? After all, what interest do they have in concocting stories like these? And what have they to gain from it all besides a sense of satisfaction, as their days draw to a close, that they’ve finally paid some longstanding dues?
Judy Maltz is a correspondent for Haaretz in English and the producer of “No. 4 Street of Our Lady,” an award-winning documentary about her family’s rescue story.