The Righteous Amid Horrors of the Holocaust

Interview With a Yad Vashem Commission Member

ROME, FEB. 22, 2006 ( Holocaust Memorial Day, observed Jan. 27, was dedicated to the memory of the “Righteous among the Nations,” those who saved Jews destined for the Nazi death camps.

In order to know the meaning of the highest recognition to non-Jewish individuals, ZENIT interviewed Nathan Ben Horin, a member of the Designation Commission of the “Righteous among the Nations.” The commission is under Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority.

Born in Germany, Horin arrived in Rome recently to present a book on the subject. He lived in France and participated in the Resistance. He has represented his country diplomatically and, in Italy, worked in the Holy See from 1980-1986, when there were still no diplomatic relations with Israel.

Q: Why remember the Righteous with stories of more than 60 years ago?

Horin: It is a sign of great hope and much faith in human nature, to place at the center of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day the experience of the Righteous among the Nations. Their action is the only ray of light in the abysmal blackness of the years of the Shoah [Holocaust].

With their decision, they attest that man was not all wickedness, sadism, bestiality, but that he was also capable of love of neighbor, human solidarity, and abnegation to the point of sacrificing his life.

In the testimonies of those saved, there is often the affirmation that those who helped not only saved them physically, but gave back to them faith in man; a faith that was very beaten by the torments and horrors of the war.

Primo Levi, the writer who survived Auschwitz, in the famous book “If This Is a Man,” recounts how in the camp an Italian civilian worker brought him, every day during six months, a piece of bread and the leftovers of his mess, gave him his jersey full of patches, wrote a card for him and also gave him the reply.

“For all this,” wrote Primo Levi, “he did not ask for or accept any compensation, because he was good and simple ….”
<br> “I think,” added Levi, “that precisely to Lorenzo I owe my being alive today, and not so much for his material help, but for having reminded me constantly with his presence, his plain and easy way of being good, that a just world still exists outside of ours, something and someone still pure and honest, not corrupt or savage, a stranger to hatred and fear. Thanks to Lorenzo I myself did not forget I was a man.”

This man, Lorenzo Perone, was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous among the Nations in 1998, at the request of Renzo, Primo Levi’s son.

Q: From where did the concept “Righteous among the Nations” come?

Horin: In the Jewish tradition, the concept of righteous occupies a central place.

One of the Talmudic treatises teaches that the world exists thanks to the merit of the righteous. Another text states that God will not destroy the world, so long as there are 50 righteous.

In the Middle Ages, the cruelly persecuted people in the whole of Europe extended the term Righteous among the Nations to the Jews who did not behave in a proper way.

Following the experience of the Shoah, it was chosen as title of honor to designate non-Jews who risked their lives and that of their relatives to save their Jewish brothers.

Q: What is the relationship between the “memorial” and the Righteous?

Horin: The Jewish people are often called the people of remembrance. The imperative “remember” and “do not forget” is repeated many times in the Bible. It is a mandate that refers to the observance of the precepts of God and his action in history.

With reference to recent history, this imperative refers not only to the evil suffered, but to the good received.

When the Knesset, the Jewish Parliament, instituted the Yad Vashem Memorial in 1953 to perpetuate the memory of the 6 million Jews, victims of Nazi ferocity, it also entrusted it with the task of paying homage to the Righteous among the Nations.

By doing so, the Knesset affirmed that not only the saved, but the whole Jewish people have a debt of recognition and honor vis-à-vis the Righteous.

Q: What are the criteria and procedures to recognize a Righteous?

Horin: In 1962 Yad Vashem created an independent public to designate the Righteous among the Nations according to three criteria: the one giving help knew the Jewish identity of the one persecuted; his action exposed him to risk his life, safety and freedom; the help given was not conditioned by any material advantage.

The commission, under the chairmanship of the judge of the Supreme Court, is made up of qualified personalities among volunteer jurists and historians. In principle, they were survivors of the Shoah.

Today, another generation is coming in. The commission has three subcommissions and decisions require a majority. When the latter is small or is an especially complex case, it is referred to the plenary.

The dossiers of requests for recognition are collected in the Department of the Righteous of Yad Vashem which charges a member of the commission, competent in the history and language of the respective country, to direct the instruction and act as speaker.

It corresponds to him to collect direct testimonies from the saved or, if they are no longer alive, from the relatives or other persons able to provide trustworthy data. Also desirable is a statement of the savior or, failing him, of his relatives or another individual knowledgeable and contemporaneous to the events.

The recognition Righteous is made on a personal basis and never to groups or associations.

The recognized savior is given an ad hoc medal and an affidavit of honor. The medal bears the inscription of the Talmud’s phrase: “He who saves a life, saves the whole world.” This ancient teaching affirms that every man is himself a world.

The ceremony to award the honor, the only one conferred by the state of Israel to civilians, takes place in Jerusalem, at the Yad Vashem Memorial, or in the country of the one honored by the Israeli diplomatic mission.

Until recently, the recognition included the right to plant a tree on the avenue of the Righteous of Yad Vashem. This custom has been substituted by the placing of a plaque with the name of the Righteous on the Memorial’s Wall of Honor given the lack of space.

To date, 21,000 people have been recognized as Righteous among the Nations. Sadly, the identity of many Righteous is unknown; they are remembered in a trail dedicated by Yad Vashem to the memory of the Unknown Righteous.

Q: What can the history of the Righteous teach us?

Horin: the Righteous to whom we render homage were generous persons, whose interior life did not seem to have predisposed them to assume the role of heroes, nor to make crucial life and death decisions. In most cases, their decision was spontaneous, arising as response to a perverse reality, unacceptable to the moral code anchored in their conscience.

In acting this way, they knew that they were violating the law and placed themselves in a situation of illegality, to which they were not accustomed, with all the risk that their choice entailed for themselves and for their families.

Impressive in many episodes of salvation is the genius of the stratagems which these persons used in times of crisis, essentially honest, to oppose Nazi aims. Innumerable are the cases in which help to the persecuted was offered spontaneously without being requested.

Where others pretended not to see, or worse still, consciously accepted the inhuman norms of the Nazi New Order, or even collaborated with the persecutor, the Righteous found the moral strength to face the dangers of reprisals. Some paid for it with the supreme sacrifice of their lives. Blessed be their memory!

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