Recently I found a copy of The Righteous by Martin Gilbert, who among other things is Winston Churchill’s official biographer and a world respected authority on Jewish history. This book is a collection of stories about those gentiles who aided the victims of the Holocaust, often risking their lives and that of their families to save others. The book is fascinating, uplifting, horrible, and sad, sometimes at the same time. One thing it does do is to show how great and humane ordinary people can be. Another thing it does is to show bravery, humour, and sheer chutzpah. The term used for such people is Righteous among the nations, and include ordinary citizens, religious figures, and even some German camp guards and S.S. members
While I was familiar with people such as Oskar Schindler and his List, Ambassador Wallenberg, and Stanislaw Zelent, the Angel of Majdanek, I found some other stories that I had either forgotten or never read.
Rescue of the Danish Jews
There’s an apocryphal story that the Nazis ordered Danish Jews to wear yellow stars. King Christian, in response, started wearing one, followed by all the Danes. While this story is a myth (the Nazis didn’t dare to give the order), it is representative of how the Danish people felt. When the Danish people were warned about imminent deportations of the Jews, most were hidden away fairly quickly, and some were smuggled across to Sweden in small vessels and rowboats. Eventually this became so organised that about 8000 Jews were evacuated. The remaining 450 were captured and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Denmark somehow persuaded Germany to accept food and medicines for the prisoners, and furthermore to keep them out of the extermination camps in Poland. Both of these accomplishments are unique, at least to my knowledge. While about 50 people died in the camps (mostly the elderly), the rest were able to return home after the war.
They saved about 99% of their Jewish citizens, and lost fewer people than any other country in Occupied Europe.
Italy versus Germany
From previous reading I had known that a fair number of deaths had occurred in Italy. I also thought that, given the alliance between Italy and the Third Reich, as well as the Fascist government, that the Italians were enthusiastic collaborators in the extermination. Boy, was I wrong!
As Germany’s major Axis ally, Italy occupied part of France, Yugoslavia, and Greece. Before the war Italy was fairly anti-Semitic and well integrated into Italian society. Under pressure from Germany, in 1938 some anti-Jewish legislation was enacted, including relocating foreign Jews into internment camps. However, the camps included such amenities as schools, cultural activities, and social event; definitely not modeled on the Nazi model.
When Mussolini joined the War in 1940, there was increasing pressure on them to deport Jews from both Italy proper and the occupied territories to the Nazi concentration camps. Italians of all ranks either resisted or disobeyed all such efforts, refusing to give up Italian, French, Yugoslav, or Greek Jews to German authority. Even direct pressure on the Duce was ignored. So until Mussolini fell in 1943, no Jewish person under their authority was sent to a camp, and lived fairly save lives. As well, refugees started to trickle into Italy from nearby regions in Southern Europe.
In late 1943, German forces occupied north and central Italy, where the majority of Jewish citizens and refugees were trapped by Nazi forces. Then they started the roundups, but citizens, government workers, resistance fighters, the Vatican and the Italian churches all resisted. By the end of the war, the Nazi’s had killed about 7600 people, but more than 40,000 were saved. Italy managed to save about 83% of its people.
The Vatican has been criticised for its silence before and during the war, but Gilbert’s books was somewhat more charitable. He mentions the Christmas message of 1942, which, while not specifically naming the Jews, was clear enough to incense the Nazis. When German forces tried to gather up the 5000 Jews in Rome, “the Vatican clergy opened the sanctuaries of the Vatican City to all ‘non-Aryans’ in need of refuge”. False identification papers were handed out, and hundreds of children hid under St. Peter’s. They managed to hide 80% of the people targeted. The Vatican also supported, albeit somewhat erratically at times, resistance and assistance during much of the war, and the papacy and clergy contributed to saving hundreds of thousands of lives. The papacy also protested many of the Nazi abuses and behaviour before the war. Finally, the Vatican, via John Paul II, apologised for being too silent and ambiguous in its message during World War II.
There were two stories here that would make me proud to be a Greek.
First, on the island of Zanythos, Mayor Carrier was asked to give a list of Jews currently living there. Bishop Chrysostomos returned with a list of two names; his and the mayor’s. Meanwhile the 275 Jews hid among their neighbors, and all the Jews survived.
Second, Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens frequently clashed with the Quisling government and the Nazi occupiers. At one point he wrote an open letter protesting the deportation of Greek Jews to concentration camps. It was signed by many important citizens, and is considered unique in its courage, dignity, and respect for common humanity. It also royally ticked off the Nazis, and is well worth reading.
SS Police Leader Stroop (in charge if the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto) was enraged by the letter and threatened the Archbishop with a firing squad. Damaskinos’ response was, “Greek religious leaders are not shot, they are hanged. I request that you respect this custom.” Stroop backed down.
He also did an amazing amount to help and protect the Jews, including inciting the Greek Orthodox church to aid and abet the Jews, signing thousands of birth certificates for the Jews, allowing them to be hidden in monasteries and convents, and working with Rabbis, local police, and the Greek Resistance to help the Jews.
Given that the Holocaust was one of the most inhumane acts in history, with 6 million dead Jews and 5-6 million others exterminated, Gilbert’s book about people like the above make you proud to be human. While there are new holocausts occurring in the world, there are also people out there like the Danes, the Italians, and Demoskines. Rwanda has produced its share of horror, but it also reminds us of decent people like Romeo_Dallaire, the hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, and BBC reporter Mark Doyle. As Rwanda was less deadly than the Shoah, may Darfur be less deadly than Rwanda, and may people start getting involved.
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