Commemorating the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. The History of a Unique Program
Cinquante ans en arrière, Yad Vashem, le Mémorial de l’Holocauste à Jérusalem, s’est lancé dans un projet unique, au nom du peuple juif et de l’État d’Israël, destiné à conférer le titre de Justes à des non-juifs qui prirent de grands risques pour sauver des juifs pendant l’Holocauste. Le titre, qui a depuis conquis un renom mondial, symbolise la réaffirmation des valeurs humaines et l’espérance dans le futur de l’humanité. L’article retrace l’histoire de ce programme.
1On Holocaust Remembrance Day, 1 May 1962 , a ceremony took place at Yad Vashem, on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem, to dedicate the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations. Golda Meir, Foreign Minister of Israel, represented the Israeli government, and the first eleven trees were planted in honor of rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust. Photos show the Foreign Minister shaking hands with an old slightly bent woman, her head covered with a scarf. It was Maria Babicz, a Polish nanny who rescued the child in her care – one of the persons honored in the ceremony.
Photo 1. Maria Babicz and Golda Meir 1 may 1962/ Maria Babicz et Golda Meir 1er mai 1962.
2The ceremony marked the launch of a unique program which has since won worldwide renown. In the fifty years since the program’s establishment, Yad Vashem honored over 24,500 men and women from 47 countries, and the term Righteous Among the Nations has become a universal symbol for humanitarian conduct and for the moral imperative to act in the face of evil. In Jewish tradition, the term Righteous Among the Nations - Khassidei Umot HaOlam - signifies non-Jews who stood by the Jewish people during times of hardship. Maimonides, the Jewish scholar and philosopher of the Middle Ages, referred to the Righteous as non-Jews who observe the seven Noahide commandments, i.e. who share the basic tenets of Jewish moral and ethical code, including the prohibition of bloodshed. It was therefore only natural that this term was later used to define the non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
3Such mention of the term “Righteous Among the Nations” is found among the many documents preserved in the “Oneg Shabbat” underground archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, headed by Dr Emanuel Ringelblum. A report by one of the Zionist underground’s couriers, Lonka Koszybrocka, described the help the underground movement in Vilna (today in Lithuania), received from an Austrian sergeant by the name of Anton Schmid. Schmid was in charge of the Versprengten-Sammelstelle – the army unit responsible for reassigning soldiers who had been separated from their units. His headquarters were situated in the Vilna railway station, and like all people in the area, he had became witness to the murder of the Jews. Soon, rumors spread in the ghetto that an Austrian soldier was friendly towards Jews, using every possibility to help them. He employed them as workers for his military unit, provided papers to some, got others released from the infamous Lukishki prison, used his army trucks to transfer them to less dangerous places, and went as far as to shelter Jews in his apartment and office. When Lonka Koszybrocka’s report was added to the clandestine archive, a heading was inserted saying that the report was part of the “series of Khassidei Umot HaOlam [the Righteous Among the Nations]”1.
4In her report Koszybrocka described a meeting of Jewish underground members in Schmid’s apartment on 31 December 1941. To express their gratitude to the soldier who was putting his life at risk, the Zionist activists told him that after the war they would invite him to the Land of Israel and give him a golden Star of David. «I will wear it with pride», was Schmid’s response. Unfortunately none lived to see that day. Soon after, Schmid was caught and executed; most, if not all of the Jews present at the meeting perished in the Holocaust. It is however symbolic that the promise was fulfilled by Yad Vashem twenty three years later, even though no one in the institution at that time was aware of the wartiure promise. Thus, in 1964 Yad Vashem, on behalf of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, bestowed the title of Righteous on Anton Schmid, and his widow planted a tree in the Avenue of the Righteous.
- 2 Mordechai Shenhabi, Yad Vashem – Mifal Hantzacha Lagola Hanechrevet [Commemoration Endeavor for the (...)
5Mordechai Shenhabi, a kibbutz member, also used the term Righteous Among the Nations when in the end of 1942 he began drawing up plans for the commemoration of the murdered Jews of Europe. Three years later he presented a detailed program of what would become Yad Vashem – the institution to commemorate the Shoah and its victims. One of the projects he proposed was to create “a list of Righteous Among the Nations who saved souls or belongings of communities»2.
- 3 Yad Vashem Law, 1953.
6Yad Vashem was formally established in 1953 by a law of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. This was a mere eight years after the end of World War Two, but even though the wounds were fresh, paying tribute to the non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust was included in the Remembrance Authority’s mission. Struggling with the enormity of the loss and grappling with the impact of the total abandonment and betrayal experienced by Europe’s Jews – the young State of Israel resolved to remember the rescuers, and Yad Vashem was also tasked with commemorating “the Righteous Among the Nations who risked their lives to save Jews”.3
- 4 First World Conference of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem, 1947, Yad Vashem Archive, AM 1/237, quoted in (...)
- 5 Primo Levi, If This Is A Man, New York, 1959.
7The motivation was no doubt a sense of moral duty and deep gratitude towards the rescuers, but this clause in the law also responded to a strong and profound need, which was expressed by Dr. Friedbaum as early as July 1947, at the first World Congress of Jewish Studies, when he said: “We will not be able to live in a world which is entirely dark, and we shall not be able to rehabilitate ourselves if we will be surrounded only by a dark world”.4 Living with the realization that Auschwitz had become a real possibility, survivors felt that it was essential to emphasize that Man was also capable of defending and maintaining human values. This notion is echoed by Primo Levi when he described his rescuer in Auschwitz, Lorenzo Perrone: “I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving […] But Lorenzo was a man; his humanity was pure and uncontaminated, he was outside this world of negation. Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.”5
8It is in this respect that the honoring of the Righteous by Yad Vashem is unique. This program is an unprecedented attempt by victims to pay tribute to people who stood by their side at a time of persecution and great tragedy, and to single out within the nations of perpetrators, collaborators and bystanders, persons who bucked the general trend and protected Jews from death and deportation. This is by no means self-evident and it certainly required enormous moral strength to honor Germans, Austrians and members of nations that collaborated in the attempt to destroy the Jewish people and to raise them to the status of Israeli national heroes. In this respect the Righteous Program is not only a commemoration of the rescuers’ courage and humanity, it is also a testament to the resilience of the victims, who despite their having come face to face with the most extreme manifestation of evil, did not sink into bitterness and revenge, but affirmed human values. In a world where violence more often than not only breeds more violence, this is a unique and remarkable phenomenon.
9No other nation that suffered genocide or fell victim to a colossal crime established a similar program. As Dan Michman put it, it is unprecedented that a nation creates a special category commemorating the heroism of “the other”. The Israeli Pantheon of heroes therefore comprises not only Israelis, but Lithuanian priests, German Wehrmacht soldiers, Polish housewives, French farmers, etc. In this respect the Righteous program differs from projects such as the honoring of German rescuers of Jews by the Berlin Senate in the end of the 1950’s and the beginning of the 1960’s that honored German rescuers or the awarding of medals or other awards bestowed by other countries on their own nationals who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
- 6 Kobi Kabalek, “The Commemoration Before the Commemoration – Yad Vashem and the Righteous Among the (...)
10In the first years of Yad Vashem’s existence, the institution’s first chairman was Prof. Ben-Zion Dinur, a university professor and scholar who also served as Minister of Education, and the Remembrance Authority focused on research, amassing archival documents and testimonies, as well as on the registering of the victims’ names. No progress was made with the commemoration of the Righteous and other projects outlined in the Yad Vashem Law. This was due not only to the orientation of Yad Vashem’s leadership, but also to the very modest means of those days, which strongly limited the possibilities, as well as to the fact that the institution was in the very early stages of its development. Thus the directorate’s decision to prepare and publish a comprehensive publication about the deeds of the Righteous was not implemented, although a number of articles about rescuers were published by Yad Vashem, for example two accounts about Anton Schmid, the Austrian soldier in Vilna. In 1955 Rachel Auerbach, a Holocaust survivor from Warsaw, who worked at Yad Vashem and was in charge of gathering survivor testimonies, asked Arie Bauminger, Yad Vashem’s managing director, to bring the subject up in the directorate meeting. She suggested to plant trees in the Righteours’ honor. According to researcher Kobi Kabalek, Auerbach got the idea to plant trees in honor of rescuers because a year earlier she had represented Yad Vashem in a ceremony in memory of Jop Westerweel, who had rescued members of the Chalutz movement in the Netherlands and was executed in 1944. The ceremony took place in a small forest that had been planted in honor of Westerweel.6
11Planting trees has a special significance in Israel. It was a part of the comprehensive forestation and reclamation of land projects conducted by the Jewish National Fund on behalf of the pre-state Jewish settlement and later of the State of Israel. Planting forests in the arid country and creating a green landscape was one form of Zionist activity to develop the country. Within these campaigns, planting trees or forests became a form for commemorating persons or events. Thus the Martyrs Forest was planted in the 1950’s on the road to Jerusalem in memory of the six million Jews who had perished in the Holocaust, and school children were involved in the planting of trees in memory of the murdered children. Planting trees in memory of the victims of the Holocaust had also been included in the first plans for Yad Vashem.
- 7 Minutes of the fifth Yad Vashem Council, 1960.
12In 1960 Dr. Arieh Kubovy, who had replaced Dinur at the head of Yad Vashem, announced to the fifth Yad Vashem Council meeting that «we have received most touching letters from old ladies requesting to be honored for the compassion they had showed to our people or from survivors begging us to invite those who risked their lives to visit Israel.» He went on to say that even though the previous Yad Vashem Council meeting had decided to document the deeds of the Righteous, this could not be achieved without appropriate funding7. Requests from survivors continued to come. In letters to Israeli leaders and to Yad Vashem, some survivors related to the capture of Adolf Eichmann in May 1960 and his trial in Jerusalem. Thus for example, Julian Aleksandrowicz (who had been rescued during the Holocaust by Alesksander Roslan) wrote to Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, on 10 November 1960: “I propose that especially now, as we approach the opening of the Eichmann trial, the Israeli government – the most appropriate body – should launch a campaign to honor those who risked their lives to save Jews during the German occupation...The purpose would be to show youngsters worldwide…that the main goal of Mankind should be that the strong help the weaker…. We know that the future of the world depends on the wisdom of co-existence and on the values we instill in the young generations…”.
13Finally on the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day on 1 May 1962, Yad Vashem dedicated the Avenue of the Righteous and 11 trees were planted in honor of rescuers who had been chosen by Yad Vashem.
Photo 2. The Mount of Remembrance in the 1960s with the first trees/Le mont du souvenir dans les années 1960 avec les premiers arbres.
Photo 3. Tree planting in honor of Helene Capart from Greece, 1972/ Plantation de l’arbre en l’honneur d’Hélène Capart (Grèce), 1972 [Hélène Capart était une religieuse belge, installée en Grèce].
- 8 File of Oskar Schindler, Righteous Among the Nations Department, AM 31.2/20.
14According to the plans, a twelfth tree was to be planted by Oskar Schindler who was visiting Israel at the invitation of his survivors. A week before the ceremony, Julius Wiener, a Holocaust survivor from Krakow, protested against the planned honoring of Schindler. Although Wiener admitted that he too had been saved by Schindler, he claimed that the rescuer was a Nazi, that he had treated him and his family with excessive brutality when he first arrived in Krakow, and that only after he realized that Nazi Germany was going to lose the war, did Schindler decide to save Jews and establish an alibi for himself. In order to prevent a scandal, it was decided to ask Schindler to refrain from attending the ceremony. The newspapers reported that he had to stay in his hotel due to illness, and he was invited to plant his tree a week later.8
15This incident was probably decisive in the realization that there was need for a structured procedure for deciding who would receive the title of Righteous Among the Nations and the right to plant a tree at Yad Vashem. It was therefore decided to establish an independent commission, and – in order to ensure due process – to appoint a Supreme Court Justice as its chairman. In the fifty years of the program’s existence the Commission and its sub-commissions have been convening regularly and successive retired Justices of the Supreme Court have served as Commission Chairmen. The Commission members are mostly Holocaust survivors – some were rescued by Righteous, others had only encountered indifference or hostility on the part of their neighbors. Since its first meeting in February 1963, the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous has examined thousands of files, and developed a series of regulations and criteria based on the definition of the Righteous in the Yad Vashem Law. This definition of the Righteous as those “who risked their lives to save Jews» delineates a small group of people within wider circles of people who helped the Jews during the Holocaust. The Righteous not only extended help, but were willing to leave their relatively safe positions as bystanders and, if necessary, to pay a dear price for their stand and even share the victims’ fate. Faced with ultimate evil, the Righteous did not satisfy themselves with mere manifestations of sympathy. Extraordinary circumstances required extraordinary responses.
16Thanks to the systematic procedure and the strict adherence to the Commission’s criteria, the Righteous title won worldwide renown, and the trees that were planted in honor of the Righteous became symbolic moral icons. Some trees were planted by the Righteous themselves, others by their relatives, and in a few cases, it was the survivors, on visit to Yad Vashem, who planted trees to honor their rescuers. With few exceptions, three kinds – carob (otherwise known as St John’s-bread), pine and olive trees – were planted, each with a plaque with the names of the Righteous and their country of origin.
17As time went on more Righteous were recognized, and by 1989 close to 2,000 trees had been planted all over the Mount of Remembrance. Consequently, on 12 February 1990, Yad Vashem chairman Yitzhak Arad informed the Board that there was no more place for planting trees and that it was proposed from that moment on to affix the names of the Righteous on a stone wall. To this end a wall was erected on the slope of the Mount of Remembrance, and in the following years plaques were put on the wall in the course of ceremonies. Eventually, it was decided to create a proper memorial on the very same site – the Garden of the Righteous - and to engrave the names of all the Righteous who had no trees planted in their honor. The garden was planned by landscape architects Lipa Yahalom and Dan Tsur, who had also planned the Valley of the Communities, which had been dedicated in 1992, further down the road. Yahalom and Tsur created a most serene site of impressive simplicity. Integrated into the natural surroundings of the forested hill, the Garden consists of a series of walls creating open rooms, with the names of the Righteous engraved on the walls according to their countries of origin. By the time, the Garden was dedicated on 7 August 1996, close to 14,000 Righteous had been honored by Yad Vashem. Since then new names are being added every year, and in 2011 the Garden was expanded and new walls were constructed. Although most of the ceremonies presenting the certificates of honor and medals to the Righteous or their heirs are organized by the Israeli diplomatic representatives in the recipients’ countries of residence, some of the families choose to come to Yad Vashem, to have the ceremony on the Mount of Remembrance and to personally unveil the name of their Righteous relatives on the wall.
18In the quest to impart the stories of the Righteous, in addition to the physical memorials of the trees and the Garden of the Righteous, Yad Vashem published the Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations and is presently engaged in a comprehensive project to create a virtual database on the internet with information about the Righteous. The trees and the engraved names on the walls of the Garden of the Righteous constitute an external aspect of a comprehensive and multi-layered program of research, documentation and commemoration of the Righteous Among the Nations. These memorial sites at Yad Vashem symbolize the Jewish people’s resolve and deep commitment to perpetuate the memory of the rescuers who stood at our side during the dark days of the Shoah.
Photo 4. The Avenue of the Rigtheous, Yad Vashem/L’avenue des Justes, Yad Vashem.
Photo 6. Wall in the Garden of the Righteous with names of French Righteous/Mur dans le Jardin des Justes avec des noms de Justes français.
Photo 7. Unveiling of the name of Louise Roger, Garden of the Righteous, with French Ambassador to Israel, survivor, grandchildren of Louise Roger, Commission Chairman and Yad Vashem Chairman/Dévoilement du nom de Louise Roger dans le Jardin des Justes, avec l’ambassadeur de France en Israël, un rescapé, les petits-enfants de Louise Roger, les directeurs de la Commission des Justes et de Yad Vashem (27 octobre 2009).
2 Mordechai Shenhabi, Yad Vashem – Mifal Hantzacha Lagola Hanechrevet [Commemoration Endeavor for the Destroyed Diaspora], Central Zionist Archive, S53/1671.
3 Yad Vashem Law, 1953.
4 First World Conference of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem, 1947, Yad Vashem Archive, AM 1/237, quoted in a yet unpublished article by Dan Michman.
5 Primo Levi, If This Is A Man, New York, 1959.
6 Kobi Kabalek, “The Commemoration Before the Commemoration – Yad Vashem and the Righteous Among the Nations, 1945-1963”, in Yad Vashem Studies, 39/1, 2011.
7 Minutes of the fifth Yad Vashem Council, 1960.
8 File of Oskar Schindler, Righteous Among the Nations Department, AM 31.2/20.Haut de page
Table des illustrations
|Titre||Photo 1. Maria Babicz and Golda Meir 1 may 1962/ Maria Babicz et Golda Meir 1er mai 1962.|
|Titre||Photo 2. The Mount of Remembrance in the 1960s with the first trees/Le mont du souvenir dans les années 1960 avec les premiers arbres.|
|Titre||Photo 3. Tree planting in honor of Helene Capart from Greece, 1972/ Plantation de l’arbre en l’honneur d’Hélène Capart (Grèce), 1972 [Hélène Capart était une religieuse belge, installée en Grèce].|
|Titre||Photo 4. The Avenue of the Rigtheous, Yad Vashem/L’avenue des Justes, Yad Vashem.|
|Titre||Photo 5. The Garden of the Righteous/Le Jardin des Justes.|
|Titre||Photo 6. Wall in the Garden of the Righteous with names of French Righteous/Mur dans le Jardin des Justes avec des noms de Justes français.|
|Titre||Photo 7. Unveiling of the name of Louise Roger, Garden of the Righteous, with French Ambassador to Israel, survivor, grandchildren of Louise Roger, Commission Chairman and Yad Vashem Chairman/Dévoilement du nom de Louise Roger dans le Jardin des Justes, avec l’ambassadeur de France en Israël, un rescapé, les petits-enfants de Louise Roger, les directeurs de la Commission des Justes et de Yad Vashem (27 octobre 2009).|
|Titre||Photo 8 Plan for the Expansion of the Garden of the Righteous, 2010/Plan de l’extension du Jardin des Justes, 2010.|
Pour citer cet article
Irena Steinfeldt, « Commemorating the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. The History of a Unique Program », Diasporas, 21 | 2013, 82-90.
Irena Steinfeldt, « Commemorating the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. The History of a Unique Program », Diasporas [En ligne], 21 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2013, consulté le 29 avril 2017. URL : http://diasporas.revues.org/261 ; DOI : 10.4000/diasporas.261Haut de page
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