Nazi Germany occupied Vilnius on 24 June 1941. The murder of the Jews began immediately, and by the end of the year, two thirds of the 55,000 Jews of that thriving community had been shot by the Germans and their collaborators in the forest of Ponary. Most people looked on as their Jewish neighbors were taken to the killing site. Some cooperated with the Germans, and only few helped the Jews. Among the few who stood by the Jews was a German soldier from Vienna, Anton Schmid.
On New Year's Eve 1942, members of the Dror underground in Vilna gathered in Schmid’s apartment. To express their gratitude to the Wehrmacht soldier who was putting his life at risk to save them, they 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," said Schmid. 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 were killed in the Holocaust. Nevertheless, the promise to honor his actions was fulfilled 22 years later, when Yad Vashem, on behalf of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, bestowed the title of Righteous Among the Nations on the Austrian rescuer, and his widow planted a tree in his honor.
THE MEMORY OF GOODNESS
When Yad Vashem was founded in 1953 by a law of the Knesset, paying tribute to the "Righteous Among the Nations who risked themselves to save Jews" during the Holocaust was included in the Remembrance Authority’s mission. Thus a unique program was established: the unprecedented attempt by victims to single out, within the nations of perpetrators, collaborators and bystanders, persons who bucked the general trend and protected Jews from death and deportation.
The program therefore commemorates not only the rescuers’ courage and humanity, but also constitutes a testament to the resilience of the survivors who, despite having come face to face with the most extreme manifestation of evil, did not sink into bitterness and revenge. In a world where violence more often than not only breeds more violence, this affirmation of the best of humanity is a unique and remarkable phenomenon. And it was the survivors who became the driving force behind the program.
Letter of Erika Mayer (saved by Gertrud Wijsmuller) to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, 25 July 1961:
“At the moment, when accounts of the Eichmann process [sic] bring again and again to our mind the atrocities committed by the Germans, it is good to know that in spite of the most horrid threats always fully carried out by the Nazis, there have been people courageous enough to stand up against them…”
The motivation for the Righteous program was no doubt a sense of moral duty and enormous gratitude towards the rescuers, but it also responded to a deep need, so well expressed by Primo Levy when he spoke of Lorenzo Perrone, his rescuer in Auschwitz, who "constantly reminded me by his presence… that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole… for which it was worth surviving." Facing life after Auschwitz, survivors felt it was essential to emphasize that human beings were also capable of defending and maintaining human values.
Letter to the Editor from Naje Israel Zeitung (translated from Yiddish), 5 May 1961:
“I could not believe that….there was a German, Mr. Otto Busse, who helped the Bialystok resistance fighters and the partisans in the forests, who risked his life and the life of his family in Germany… The faith in the human spirit is not lost, and thanks to such dear friends of mankind, the world will be saved from another flood [the destruction by God in the book of Genesis]… I believe Yad Vashem should gather all the facts of these good deeds – known and unknown….”
Letter of Julian Aleksandrowicz (who was saved by Alesksander Roslan) to Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, 10 November 1960:
I propose that especially now, as we approach the opening of the Eichmann trial, the Israeli government – the most fitting institution – should launch a campaign to honor those who risked their lives to save Jews during the German occupation... The purpose would be to show youth worldwide… that the main goal of mankind is the help offered by strong persons to those who are weaker…. We know that the future of the world depends on the wisdom of co-existence and on the values we will instill in the young generations…”
In the years after the end of the war, survivors maintained relations with their rescuers. They sent them parcels and money, invited them to come to Israel, and wrote to Israeli leaders and to Yad Vashem requesting to pay tribute to those that saved their lives. Following the capture of Adolf Eichmann, Chairman of Yad Vashem Arieh Kubovy was inundated with requests, begging Yad Vashem to show the world "that the Jewish people was not only interested in bringing the perpetrators to justice, but also wished to pay tribute to the righteous persons." Thus, on 1 May 1962, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Avenue of the Righteous was dedicated at Yad Vashem, and the first trees were planted along its path.
The dedication of the Avenue of the Righteous was attended by Foreign Minister Golda Meir. The first eleven trees were planted along the path leading to the Hall of Remembrance, situated on a bare hill. They were placed in the ground by Righteous from different countries as well as their Israeli hosts – the Jews they had rescued. One of the trees was planted by Maria Babich, the Ukrainian nanny who saved the Jewish child under her care. When the war ended and the child’s father returned, Babich joined them as new immigrants to the Land of Israel.
"We approach this mission with awe – we have an important task to fulfill," said Justice Moshe Landau at the Commission's first meeting in February 1963. "It is not an easy mission, but we are committed to act honorably on behalf of Yad Vashem, the Israeli State and the entire Jewish people." Over the years, the Commission developed a set of rules and criteria as to who may be recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. Thanks to meticulous examination of all available testimony and evidence, and strict adherence to the program’s criteria, the title has won worldwide recognition.
From the very start of the program, Yad Vashem realized that it would be highly challenging to decide who was worthy of the lofty distinction. The planned tree-planting ceremony in honor of Oskar Schindler, for example, had to be postponed when a survivor protested the recognition, claiming that even though he too had been saved by Schindler, Schindler had been a member of the Nazi party and had robbed their family business in Krakow. Wishing to establish a fair and orderly decision process, Yad Vashem established the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous and nominated a Justice of the Supreme Court as its chairman.
Since 1962, thousands of requests from all over the world, in all European languages as well as Hebrew and Yiddish, have arrived at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where they are researched and then presented to the Commission. Commission members – mostly Holocaust survivors, all volunteers – invest many hours in painstaking examination of the cases and in soul-searching deliberations before they decide whether the case complies with the program’s stringent rules.
Once a Righteous is recognized, a certificate is prepared by calligrapher Lea Zamin, a Holocaust survivor from the Netherlands, whose rescuers were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.
Ceremonies honoring the Righteous are held either in Yad Vashem or by Israeli diplomatic representatives in their countries of residence. Those being recognized receive a medal and a certificate of honor, and their names are commemorated on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem. (In the case of posthumous recognition, the Righteous' heirs are usually in attendance.) In the early years, when rescuers or their relatives came to Jerusalem, trees were planted in their honor; since then, their names are engraved in the Garden of the Righteous.
As Yad Vashem marks the 50th anniversary of the Righteous program in 2012-13, close to 24,500 men and women from 47 countries had been honored. Those recognized form a diverse group of people from all corners of Europe, coming from all walks of life (from highly educated city dwellers to illiterate peasants), professions, age groups and religious affiliation (all Christian denominations, Muslims and atheists). Hundreds of new requests reach Yad Vashem every year. With the growing distance in time, searching for evidence and putting together the pieces becomes more and more challenging, but the commitment of Yad Vashem’s workers and Commission members to fulfill this mission does not waver. Yad Vashem, the State of Israel and the Jewish people will continue to search for the few lights that shone in the darkness of the Holocaust.
Curator — Irena Steinfeldt, Yad Vashem
Curator — Gili Diamant, Yad Vashem