“We saw a child in mortal danger. We knew that we had the possibility to take her and to protect [her], and it was beyond our feeling or thinking that we would reject it,” Andrzej Sitkowski thought back to when he was 15 and his entire family mobilized to save two Jewish girls and later their mother. It was the height of World War II in Germany, and the Jewish family certainly would be caught if Andrzej’s family did not intervene. But taking them in meant certain death if the Nazi’s found them out. “I thought that what we did was normal…we did not say we wanted to save Jews. It came by coincidence. But in this coincidence, we found ourselves to be ‘menschlich’ [human].”
Their example and those of many others should be a lesson to the world. This week, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference), in partnership with Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, is launching #DontBeABystander: Those who Risked Everything to Save a Life.” Our goal is to highlight people like Andrzej—a group of people we must learn from while we still have their first-hand accounts—those who were recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem for their heroic wartime actions.
The title Righteous Among the Nations, has, over the past sixty years, become one of the most esteemed titles of modern history. At the core of the word “Righteous” is the basic human value, the right to live. These rescuers recognized this and stood up in the face of immense danger to protect the right to live of their Jewish neighbors. They refused to be a bystander and risked everything, including their own lives and the lives of their families, to save Jews during the Holocaust. Like so many of the “ordinary people” who did nothing to stop the Nazis, and in many instances willingly—even eagerly—joined the Nazis in their cruel and murderous campaigns, the Righteous Among the Nations were also “ordinary people”—yet they chose to undertake extraordinary actions. Yad Vashem describes them: “Some acted out of political, ideological or religious convictions; others were not idealists, but merely human beings who cared about the people around them. In many cases they never planned to become rescuers, and were totally unprepared for the moment in which they had to make such a far-reaching and fatalistic decision. They were ordinary human beings, and it is precisely their humanity that touches us and should serve as a model.”
Throughout the past 77 years, since the end of World War II Holocaust survivors have not only have sought a measure of justice for the horrors they and their loved ones endured, but they have also dedicated their lives to telling the world what happened. They do so to offer their testimonies as much as their moral authority, urging us all to remain on high alert so that such atrocities never occur again. And they do so to remind us that the Holocaust wasn’t inevitable. It happened because— as the late Nobel Laureate Prof. Elie Wiesel so memorably told us—the world knew, but remained silent.
While the number of collaborators in Nazi Germany’s murderous campaign was all too high, far more people simply stood by as six million of their Jewish friends, neighbors and citizens were marginalized, ostracized, stripped of their homes and livelihoods, forced into ghettos, enslaved and murdered. Prof. Wiesel—who survived the Auschwitz death camp and whose entire family was slaughtered in the Holocaust—vowed to “never be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.” He made it his life’s mission to teach us all that “neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” Where individuals or groups are persecuted, “that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.”
Sadly, many have forgotten (and many never even knew) who Elie Wiesel was, or what he stood for. Recent surveys conducted by the Claims Conference on Holocaust awareness in the United States, France, Canada, Austria and the U.K. have shown troubling gaps in knowledge of basic Holocaust facts. More recently, we have seen how far too many people now question whether the Holocaust happened at all or believe that its catastrophic events have been widely exaggerated. And maybe it is such willful ignorance that helps ease a conscience that might otherwise be troubled by inaction in the face of modern-day persecution and oppression.
But many Holocaust survivors know firsthand that they are here today—as are their children, grand-children and great-grandchildren—because a Righteous rescuer chose to act upon a troubled conscience and extend a lifesaving hand. Rescuers like Andrzej Sitkowski who, with his mother, Helena, saved many Jews including the Kosak sisters, Marion and Hadassah, forging a bond that still exists between the two families today. And rescuers like the Krynskis, farmers who saved Sidney Zoltak’s family from certain death by hiding them in an underground bunker for 14 months.
On this International Holocaust Remembrance Day let us listen to these survivors and to their rescuers, who have honored us by sharing their painful memories and who, simply put, knew how important it was not to be a bystander.
All of us have asked ourselves whether we would act with grace, kindness and selflessness in the face of oppression, hatred and danger. May we find the courage to learn from the actions of these rescuers—Righteous Among the Nations—the innocent lives that they saved, and the generations who were allowed to flourish because of their brave actions.
To see testimonies from these rescuers and survivors, please visit DontBeABystander.org
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