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