Book Review: The Righteous

The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes Of The Holocaust 

Author: Martin Gilbert

Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, hardcover, 529 pages, including: List Of Maps, Preface, Acknowledgements, Afterword, Maps Of Places Mentioned In The Text, Bibliography, Illustration Credits, and Index

The Author

At the time this volume was published in 2003, Sir Martin Gilbert had published eight books on Holocaust themes, a subject he had been writing on for forty years. He was an Honorary Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, where he taught and did research for many years. In 1995 he was knighted, and in 1999 he was awarded a Doctorate of Literature by the University of Oxford for the totality of his published work. He also taught Jewish History at the University of California and Hillsdale College, Michigan. 

Content

In addition to the sections of this volume mentioned above, this work contains seventeen chapters, titled: 1 Rescue in the East, 2 Eastern Galicia, 3 Vilna, 4 Lithuania, 5 Poland: The General-Government, 6 Warsaw, 7 Western Galicia, 8 Germany and Austria, 9 Germans beyond Germany, 10 Central Europe and the Balkans, 11 Norway, Finland and Denmark, 12 France, 13 Belgium and Luxembourg, 14 Holland, 15 Italy and the Vatican, 16 Hungary, 17 In the Camps and on the Death Marches. 

Observations

As a historian of the Holocaust, Gilbert has been thorough in the compilation of this volume. In addition to travelling to many of the places mentioned, he has relied on correspondence and conversations from Holocaust survivors and their family members, “the Righteous” (those who helped Jews and saved them by hiding them), and archives, especially from the Yad Vashem Righteous Among the Nations Archive, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Photo Archive, as well as newspaper and journal articles, and books on the Holocaust.

The stories of the Jews who escaped the Nazis and survived the Holocaust because of “the Righteous” Gentiles who hid them are very similar—though, of course, there are unique factors in each of them. 

When asked why “the Righteous” Gentiles hid the Jews, knowing that if the Nazis caught them, they too could be killed (and many of them were, or they too were taken to concentration camps); one of the most common answers was quite modest: “We are not heroes, we only did our duty, what needed to be done.” Some said that it was their Christian faith that motivated them to do the right thing. 

Many of them expected nothing in return from the Jews; and some hid them for long periods of time, even years, until the war was over. However, they not only hid the Jews, they also provided them with food, drink, and sometimes clothing, and even medical care when needed. Those Righteous who could hide Jews only for a short period of time, were often instrumental in moving the Jews to other safe places.

Some of the hiding places were small, crowded, and dark—requiring the Jews to lay down or sit in a position quietly for lengthy periods of time, until it was safe for them to come out of such hiding places. 

In a number of cases, Jews had to be constantly on the move, from one temporarily safe hiding place to another, in order to keep one step ahead of the Nazis. Tragically, many Jews had hidden somewhere safely for a lengthy period of time, only to be discovered close to the end of the war and then murdered, along with “the Righteous” who had hidden them. Also, tragically, Gentile neighbours would betray their neighbours who were hiding Jews. Even after the war, some of “the Righteous” Gentiles were murdered by their neighbours; or they realised that they were not safe where they lived and had to move elsewhere.

“The Righteous” who saved Jews came from all walks of life and backgrounds. Some of them prior to the war had Jewish friends and neighbours and colleagues, and supported Jewish businesses; others had no Jewish friends, neighbours or colleagues. 

On rare occasions, even enemy soldiers would disobey orders knowing they could be killed if they were caught saving Jews. Some soldiers would tell the Jews that they were opposed to Hitler’s “final solution.” 

The Italians, even though they were Germany’s ally in the war, refused to cooperate with the Nazis, and did not kill their Jews, nor did they allow them to be sent to the concentration camps. It was only after the Nazis occupied Italy that the Jews were killed and sent to the camps. 

Many religious authorities, pastors and priests, etc., issued baptismal certificates and false identity documents to save Jews. Some of them protested adamantly to the Nazis authorities and were willing to sacrifice their own lives to save Jews. 

Many of the Jews who were saved by “the Righteous” did their best to show their gratitude to them—sometimes keeping in touch with them all of their lives, and even providing financial support to them. They also publicly honoured them as “the Righteous” at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. 

Several of the stories shared in this volume are indeed heart-warming, highlighting the love, humanity, and benevolent care of “the Righteous” in a time of violent evil, hatred and destruction. 

This volume will remain a helpful and instructive one for Holocaust historians in particular, as well as a general audience. The detailed, extensive Bibliography is most impressive, and will serve as an important reference for readers who wish to study the history of the Holocaust further. Highly recommended! 

70th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen

Today, April 15, 2015, marks the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp by the British army. Last night on PBS, there was an historical film of that event. There were dead, emaciated bodies that numbered in the thousands, and were left out in the open for all to witness. How some were able to survive such raw evil is amazing, yet they did, even though their lives were changed and deeply wounded forever.

The Holocaust Educational Trust has produced a 13 page PDF on the subject, which is available online here. I encourage readers to read it, as there are several Holocaust survivor accounts included in the document.

Book Review: Where Was God?

wherewasgodWhere Was God? The Lives and Thoughts of Holocaust and World War II Survivors

Author: Edited by Remkes Kooistra

Publisher: Mosaic Press, Oakville, Ontario, 2001

204 pages, ISBN 0-88962-757-6, CDN $20.00, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

 

This volume, as the title suggests, is both a history and memoir of Holocaust and World War II survivors, edited by Rev. Dr. Remkes Kooistra. It is based on oral interviews of survivors, conducted by Rev. Dr. Kooistra and others. It is dedicated to the nation of Israel in memory of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.

Rev. Dr. Kooistra, a Dutch survivor of World War II, was a theologian, linguist, sociologist, professor, chaplain and pastor. He was educated in the Netherlands, graduating from the Dutch Reformed Church seminary at Kampen, and earned a doctorate in theology and sociology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He was pastor of congregations in both the Netherlands and Canada. He also taught at various post-secondary institutions, and was chaplain at the University of Waterloo.

The work consists of three parts: Part I provides the Dutch historical context and briefly traces the history of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism over the past 2000 years. Part II consists of the actual interviews and stories of the Holocaust survivors. Part III is titled Beyond Survival, and includes Rev. Dr. Kooistra’s reflections on his life during the war years.

Volumes of this nature of course are usually very somber and emotional. It is not easy to re-live and tell the story of such horrific events—one can be re-victimized and re-traumatized by such a process. Even readers who have not survived such cruel experiences as those interviewed here may feel somewhat traumatized; as one of the recurring themes is the senseless violent acts committed against the Jewish people.

From a historical perspective, this is a valuable work, since it provides readers with an inside view of how Dutch Jews were persecuted and deported by the Nazis; as well as how Dutch citizens hid and helped their Jewish people survive.

In relation to the volume’s title, those who survived provided a wide range of answers concerning their understanding, doubts, confusion, etc., of the question, “Where was God?” during the Holocaust.

Here is a sample of one survivor couple, Jack and Miriam Somer. When answering the following questions said: Do you still believe in God? Miriam answered: I do, but I don’t understand God. Was the holocaust a punishment from God? Jack answered: A punishment for little children? I can’t believe this. Miriam answered: I don’t know. Punishment for what? There are enough guilty people among us. The Nazis are not the only ones. The whole world is guilty. We all let it happen. Should we all be victimized by a holocaust? (p. 138)

This volume is a worthwhile read for those interested in Holocaust and World War II history as well as Jewish-Christian relations.