Holocaust Memorial Day 2016 is themed “Don’t stand by!” so it seemed timely to update an article of mine about those who didn’t just stand by during World War 2.
The Holocaust. Surely the lowest point of man’s inhumanity to man.
Yet there were shafts of light piercing the dense clouds – individuals who found ways to stem the mesmerising genocidal tide sweeping through Europe, at least for the handful of people whose lives they could effect.
The Oscar-winning movie Schindler’s List has made Oskar Schindler arguably the best known of those who rescued Jews from almost certain death. Also widely known is Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved many thousands of Hungarians destined for the death camps*. Among those he saved was my Aunty Hilda, who celebrated her 100th birthday before passing on last year.
More recently I came across the story of a Japanese “Wallenberg”, Chiune Sugihara – a diplomat who disobeyed government orders to issue visas that allowed thousands of Jews to escape via Japan from Nazi-occupied territories.
Another diplomat who saw the writing on the wall and acted on his intuition was Britain’s Sir Nicholas Winton. Shortly before the Second World War he foresaw the danger ahead and arranged for hundreds of Jewish children to be brought to Britain.
Belated recognition of Sir Winton’s deeds led to a moving video in which he finds himself surrounded by an audience of people made up of children (now adults) that his foresight had saved. It brings tears to my eye every time I watch it – as it did to his on the night!
Many stories have also emerged of religious people who stood against the onslaught of the Holocaust.
In fact, there’s a whole chapter devoted to “rescuers with religious motives” in “The Other Schindlers” by Agnes Grunwald-Spier. The recently honoured author was herself saved from being sent to Auschwitz by an unknown official. She shares moving stories of how their Quaker, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran and Catholic faiths moved individuals to “brave torture and death to save Jews from the Nazis”, as one newspaper put it.
More recently, the Reverends Hugh Grimes and Fred Collard were added to the roll of honour of those who helped Jews escape the clutches of the Nazis. Between them these Church of England ministers baptised 1800 Jewish people to give them a better chance to cross the Austrian border and flee the Nazi threat. Not all made it, but hundreds did.
A much more modest story recently emerged as I cleared out an old file in the office I work in as the District Manager for Christian Science Committees on Publication in the Birtish Isles.
I found the report of a Polish couple from our church who had taken a young Jewish husband and wife under their wings and then spent the remaining war years hiding them as a part of their family.
It was a simple act of extraordinary love by ordinary people who felt they had to act on their faith in the power of good over evil. Even though they lived in the shadow of the brutally suppressed Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the couple they brought into the shelter of their home and prayer survived.
Perhaps there are other files like that gathering dust in the archives of churches and mosques around the world – precious pinpricks of light that had somehow pierced the seemingly solid darkness of those years.
Of course, many religious people and organisations clearly didn’t act on the moral imperative to stand up to evil. And it is hard for any of us to say with certainty what we would have done in similar circumstances.
But as The Other Schindlers shows, there were those who put their lives on the line in a display of self-sacrificing love that demonstrated just what their religious convictions were all about.
* The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel has a moving section for commemorating acts by The Righteous Among the Nations, which open with the Mishnah “Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe” (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5). It attributes to Raoul Wallenberg the saving of tens of thousands of Jewish lives in Budapest during World War II and records how he put about 15,000 Jews into 32 safe houses
Thank you for the blog post. I’m very heartened to learn of these courageous and love-inspired acts. The story of the Polish couple very much moved me; I saw them in my mind’s eye assembled at the dinner table with those they had taken in to provide safety from persecution—family at its most inspired.
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Thank you, Tony. I never tire of hearing these reminders of kindness fo strangers. I was too young to understand what was going on during WWII, but one thing my Mom did for me was to arrange after the war for me to have a Japanese pen pal when I was 9 or 10 years old. We exchanged letters for a couple of years. At the time, I was just fascinated by her culture and enjoyed our correspondence, unaware of how my Mom was erasing any sense of “the enemy” in my thinking. Until I was an adult looking back on it, I did not realize what a kindness and a healing gesture that was on my mother’s part. I am ever grateful.
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When I took my Babtist minister friend to the Schlindlers list movie, and he almost broke out in tears. Wonderful reminder. The Rise of the fourth Reich by Jim Marrs tells what happened to some of those Nazi’s they could not find. (They were hired by the US govt)
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I was fortunate to have Arno Preller, C.S.B. as my Sunday School teacher in Fort Collins, Colorado in the late 1960’s. He had many inspiring stories of his youth in a Hitler work camp, his place of assignment for refusing to join the Hitler Youth. His father was also imprisoned as a Christian Science practitioner, but his father was able to have a copy of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures and a Bible throughout his time in prison, and he received the weekly lesson every week.
One story was quite illuminating. Mr. Preller was living with prisoners from many countries, and different native languages made communications challenging. Nonetheless, as the Christmas season approached, the prisoners developed and worked on a Christmas pageant, a theatrical piece to celebrate Christmas. Shortly before the day of the Christmas pageant, the Nazi guards took all of the participants and locked them each in a solitary confinement cell. Mr. Preller said that at first he was angry that the guards would try to deprive all of them of their Christmas celebration. Then, he realized that no person, nothing, could deprive him of the Christ or a celebration of Christmas, an eternal presence in everyone’s life. He prayed concerning the eternal omnipresence of the Christ, and within a short time, he was removed from his solitary cell. He was taken to the Commandant of the camp who told him in these words, ” I don’t know what is making me do this, but you can have your Christmas pageant.” It was a very inspiring story of omnipotence of Love expressed in any situation.
This comment somewhat relates to your post.
Mother told me as a child and adolescent, that she and the family immigrated in order to escape Hitler. They ended up in Cuba till they could escape that regime and the Mason’s got them into the US. She said cousins had ended up in the German military service and were asked to shoot their friend (something to that effect as due to memory), and that’s when they awoke and realized they had been tricked. The cousin was shot for refusing to shot his friend, comrade.
Hitler, started off giving jobs to the homeless and street people and that’s the good they saw. She said the German people were NOT stupid, but had been fooled.
That’s still no excuse for the murders and incarceration of Jews and Christian Scientists and blacks…dissenters… and hatred.
Thank you for all your wonderful, uplifting posts.
Hope that has some healing effect.