Comment: Holocaust Memorial Day ‘Today, as in previous ages, there are far too few rescuers among us’
Trudy Gold, executive director of education and Holocaust studies at the London Jewish Cultural Centre, reflects on the theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations, Journeys, and remembers three extraordinary individuals who saved lives, often at risk to their own safety.
On January 27, 1945 a Ukrainian regiment entered a huge camp about 45 miles from the beautiful city of Krakow and discovered the monstrosity that was Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Auschwitz was the largest of the six death camps in German-occupied Poland. People were sent from all over Europe on cattle cars to what became one of the busiest railway stations in the world. Tragically, very few journeyed onwards.
The theme of this year’s commemoration is Journeys. At the end of the war there were more than 11million displaced people in Europe, families torn apart, individuals ripped from their homes and communities, many forced to work as labourers, even more sent on journeys that ended in unimaginable suffering and death.
However, in the hell that the Nazis created, there were some individuals who not only maintained their humanity, but who stand out as a luminous example of what individuals can achieve in a time of utter darkness.
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This year, the London Jewish Cultural Centre will honour righteous individuals who journeyed themselves, or sent others on journeys to salvation.
We have chosen three men, all of whom have been awarded the title Righteous Amongst the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel.
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The first is the Pole, Jan Karski. Following the German invasion of Poland, Karski was taken prisoner in eastern Poland by the Soviets and was handed over to the Germans during a prisoner exchange, avoiding the Katyn massacre of Polish officers.
He escaped to Warsaw and joined the resistance movement, the first in Europe.
He organised courier missions sending information from the Polish Resistance to the Polish government in exile in London. He was later arrested and tortured by the Gestapo but again escaped.
In 1942, Karski was asked to deliver a report on the situation in occupied Poland, with particular emphasis on the treatment of Poland’s Jews.
To give authentic testimony, he smuggled himself into the Warsaw Ghetto where he met Jewish leaders. They begged him to inform the world of what was happening.
In November 1942, he arrived in London and reported to the Polish government in exile. He met Churchill, other statesmen and public figures.
The Karski Report persuaded the exiled Polish government to call on Allied governments to take steps to compel Germany to halt the murders.
The second individual is Chiune Sempo Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kovno, Lithuania. He granted Japanese transit visas to Polish Jewish refugees. Sugihara devoted nearly all his time to issuing visas and he was responsible for saving thousands, many of whom were rabbinic students, sending them on journeys which led them to safety.
Many years later he recalled: “I really had a hard time and was unable to sleep… I thought… I can issue transit visas… I cannot allow these people to die, people who have come to me for help with death staring them in the eyes. I knew I should follow my conscience.”
The final individual we honour is Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul General in Bordeaux in May 1940.
Thousands of refugees fled the Germans to Bordeaux, hoping to cross to Spain and Portugal. To cross Spain they needed a Portuguese entry transit visa.
On May 1, 1940, the Portuguese government banned further passage of refugees through its territories. This caused congestion in Bordeaux, the nearest major French city to the Spanish border. Thousands of Jews were stranded.
Rabbi Haim Kruger, a Belgian refugee, convinced Sousa Mendes to issue transit visas.
Sousa Mendes then devoted his time to issuing up to 10,000 visas before the arrival of the Germans.
These three men are extraordinary individuals, who saved lives, often at the risk of their own safety, during one of the darkest times in mankind’s history.
One aspect of Nazism was to indoctrinate people to overturn the moral law.
The late Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a survivor of the camps, theologised that the policy of the German state was to overturn the Ten Commandments, to create a world where people stole, murdered, coveted and dishonoured. Yet there were individuals who remained true to their conscience.
Today, as in previous ages, there are far too few rescuers among us.