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Righteous Among Nations

March 18, 2003, Tuesday


The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust
By Martin Gilbert
Illustrated. 529 pages. Henry Holt. $35.

Hitler intended to exterminate European Jews without exception, and he almost succeeded. Nevertheless, thousands survived in Nazi-occupied Europe, hiding or using false identities. They could not have survived without the help of non-Jews; the helpers were a minority but not an insubstantial one.

Some Jews hid in the sewers of big cities, others in isolated farmhouses; some found refuge in forests, others in convents. Help was extended even by courageous inmates inside Nazi camps, which often made the difference between survival and death. All the hidden Jews faced the constant danger of discovery or betrayal and would have been lost without the friends who were protecting them.

As Martin Gilbert shows in his new book, ''The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust'' (and as many authorities have argued before him) sometimes up to 30 or 40 helpers were involved in saving a single life, for the survivors had to change their hiding places frequently, and they needed money, false papers and food. Some children were saved by their nannies, some students by their teachers; friends provided false certificates of baptism.

In parts of Europe even the criminal underworld played a role in hiding Jews.

Such brave people were found in every European country, even inside Germany and Austria, where controls were the strictest. A special department in the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem has collected, over several decades, the evidence of such humanitarian help given at great risk during one of the darkest periods in the annals of mankind. After thorough investigation, thousands of the helpers were designated as ''Righteous Among Nations,'' and their memory has been preserved for posterity in various ways. It was exceedingly difficult to find these unsung heroes after so many years; many shied away from publicity for a variety of reasons.

In my own search for the German industrialist who in 1942, at considerable risk to his life, was the first to convey to the outside world the information about Hitler's plan to murder European Jewry, I soon came to realize that he had done everything in his power to obliterate his tracks, and it took a whole battery of scholars a number of years to identify Eduard Schulte. Schulte's story is not mentioned in Mr. Gilbert's book; nor are the stories of some others who played leading roles, and there is hardly any mention of those who helped Jews escape to neutral countries, where they lived in relative safety.

Generally speaking Mr. Gilbert gives considerably more space to the fate of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe than those in Central Europe in the West. But this is probably justified because those communities were far more numerous.

Other ''righteous gentiles'' (a biblical but unfortunate term) disappeared without a trace. They had been killed or died soon after the war, and their children had no knowledge of their activities. Thus Yad Vashem faced an uphill struggle to find and honor these heroes. Claims were made that were quite unsubstantiated, and on the other hand many who deserved to be remembered were no longer there to have their good deeds recorded.

Thus many questions remain: How to explain that 20 times as many ''righteous'' were found in Ukraine as in Russia, or more than three times as many in Belgium as in the Netherlands, even though many more Jews perished in the Netherlands than in Belgium. How to account for the fact that more than 500 ''righteous'' were located in Lithuania but only 17 in Denmark, even though the great majority of Jews in Lithuania were killed, whereas most of the Danish Jews were saved?

Mr. Gilbert's book is based in the main on the material assembled in Jerusalem, but he also engaged in further searches in other archives and contacted hundreds of survivors or their offspring. As a researcher and collector of historical source material, Mr. Gilbert has no peer among contemporary historians; a man of awe-inspiring initiative and indefatigable productivity, he will leave no stone unturned in his searches.

His enterprise is admirable, for while many of the stories told in his book have been told before, only a few have reached a wider public. In the early postwar period, interest in the Holocaust was small, and even fewer people were interested in those who had tried to help the victims. By now we have ''Schindler's List'' and many hundreds of books and television documentaries and the publication of a five-volume encyclopedia of the ''righteous'' is under way. Mr. Gilbert's book is a work of deep commitment; more than that, a labor of love. It deserves to be read side by side with the studies claiming that there were no rays of light, no manifestations of humanity and goodness in those dark days.

But there is a downside to Mr. Gilbert's industry. His books have frequently been criticized for the disproportion between the assembly of facts, moving and interesting as they are, and their interpretation, and this book is no exception. Mr. Gilbert seems to believe that facts speak for themselves. This is sometimes the case, but very often it is not. There is in this book an almost unending flow of stories and anecdotes, ranging from Albania to Norway, of moving and often startling cases of help extended.

But readers would also like to know who these helpers were, from what sections of society they came, whether in the main they helped friends and neighbors or also strangers, whether they acted alone or in groups, what their motives were, what were their politics (if any).

In some countries the church, or to be precise, individual churchmen played a leading role in saving individual Jews. The reader would like to know more about the risks these helpers were running; this varied greatly from country to country, which is not made sufficiently clear.

In brief, this is a book that, with all its merits, leaves many questions open. One should be grateful for Mr. Gilbert's Herculean labors, but for a definitive work on this very important topic we shall have to wait a bit longer.

Walter Laqueur is the editor of The Holocaust Encyclopedia.

Published: 03 - 18 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section E , Column 3 , Page 1

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