At a time when Jews were being hunted by Nazis and neighbors alike, a “precious few Christians” were risking their lives to become rescuers.
The story of these Righteous Gentiles and their courage during the Holocaust will be highlighted in word, film, and music during the State of New Jersey commemoration on Yom Hashoa, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Sunday, May 1, at Middlesex County College in Edison.
Stanlee J. Stahl, executive vice president of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, will be keynote speaker at “The Rescuers: He Who Saves a Life, It Is as if He Saved an Entire World” — cosponsored by the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education, the Office of the Governor, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County.
Musical tributes will be presented by Makhelat HaMercaz, the Jewish Choir of Central New Jersey, and the J.P. Stevens High School Ensemble of Edison.
Stahl, in a phone interview with NJJN from the New York offices of the foundation, said her talk would focus on Polish rescuers. Although most Jews killed in the Shoa were Polish, she said, it was also the country with the most Righteous Gentiles.
The foundation provides financial support to more than 850 non-Jews who took efforts to save Jews during the Holocaust and preserves their legacy through a national education program.
“I will talk about the precious few Christians who became rescuers and why they did it,” she said. “Their motivations were all different. Some saved strangers and some people saved neighbors. Some saved children because they couldn’t stand the thought of children being killed. Others were anti-Semitic but thought ‘my Jew’ is different. Some were religious, some altruistic, and others never thought much about it, but only knew it was the right thing to do.”
While remembering victims during Yom Hashoa programs is important, Stahl said, people tend to overlook that Righteous Gentiles “were part of the choreography, part of the suffering, part of the narrative,” and that many more Jews would have died had they not risked their lives to step forward.
“The Holocaust was very complex,” said Stahl. “You could do a program on liberators, rescued Jews, communities destroyed during the Holocaust, the camps. The Holocaust was not just box cars to Auschwitz. It is important to honor and remember those who saved Jews — and in Eastern Europe if you were caught saving Jews you were killed.
“There are thousands of Jews alive today because gentiles saved them.”
Organizers of the annual event “always try and keep in mind that our most crucial mission is education and the telling of the horrors of the Holocaust so hopefully this will never happen again,” said program chair Dr. Peter Schild of Old Bridge.
Part of that educational mission will be evident as more than 70 student essays and videos submitted to a contest will be on display before the program. The program committee found one of those videos — from East Brunswick High School — so moving, it will start the program.
Students who sent in what Schild called “terrific” material were from schools throughout the region and represented public, Jewish, and Catholic schools. A middle school in Perth Amboy has told federation officials they are renting two buses to bring students to the commemoration.
Schild said this year for the first time, Second Generation, a group representing children of Holocaust survivors, has been added to the program committee, bringing a fresh perspective. He himself was born on Kristallnacht — 10 days after his German parents arrived in Havana after fleeing Berlin. He came to the United States in 1940 at age two.
The program is also being sponsored by the Middlesex County College Center for the Study of Prejudice, Genocide and the Holocaust; the Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission; Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders; and the New Jersey Historical Commission/Department of State.