What Do We Owe the Righteous Gentiles

Moment, April 1988

In Israel recently, I interviewed 21 “righteous gentiles” -those who reached out to us, those who saved Jewish lives, those who were not silent when even God could not be heard.

Some saved one life; some saved hundreds. I listened to stories of death, loss and courage, and by the end I was exhausted, overwhelmed from trying to absorb so much personal history against the backdrop of the Holocaust. One thing was clear to me: Just as we cannot forget the Holocaust, we must never forget those courageous individuals whose humanity transcended it.

The most distressing question to me was why these people were now living in such poor conditions. Their apartments in Israel were small, shabby, often in bad neighborhoods. Some of the people were isolated and alone. Each of them had been acknowledged by Yad Vashem as a righteous gentile, a rescuer of our people. But Yad Vashem’s connection with these good people ended once they had been awarded a certificate and had a tree planted in their honor on the Avenue of the Righteous. Yad Vashem’s province is to honor the hero and the deed, not to provide welfare. Its archives don’t even include up-to-date records of where the rescuers live or whether they are still alive.

Because they aren’t Jewish, the rescuers weren’t entitled to the benefits given to Jews who immigrate to Israel. Nor were they encouraged to come to Israel; many had to wait several years before they were allowed to immigrate. When they did arrive, they knew no Hebrew and had to struggle to find work and a place to live.

Two years ago, an Israeli television program revealed their plight. As a result, the government increased its meager financial assistance so that the rescuers now receive the same welfare payments as Jewish citizens.

A few of the rescuers I talked to were bitter that they had not received the same help as Jews, but all stressed that what they did for Jews was not for payment.

I found the rescuers through Danny Rogovsky, a young bus driver who became interested in the rescuers after seeing them on the Israeli TV show. One of the people on the programs was Shoshana Rocynski, a Jewish survivor who had been rescued in Poland by her husband, Stefan. Shoshana was outraged over the way the rescuers had been treated in Israel. Danny contacted Shoshana and together they tried to track down rescuers who were in Israel. In four months, they found 40 righteous gentiles.

Danny arranged a picnic in Herzliya for the rescuers. This gave them a chance to meet one another. It also gave them the feeling that they had not been forgotten. Through the network established as a result of this meeting, rescuers who have a problem can call Danny or a fellow rescuer. They no longer feel alone. Nevertheless, many of them are still in need.

Michael Michalov lives in Jaffa on the ground floor of a decrepit building in a working-class area. Neighborhood children torment Michalov because he is a Christian. His neighbors are unaware that when he was honored at Yad Vashem, 20 Jews testified to his rescue efforts in Bulgaria. Michalov wants to move but doesn’t have the large down payment required to change apartments. Ivan Vranitic, a Yugoslavian rescuer who lives nearby, often visits Michalov; “Hang on,” Vrianitic tells Michalov, “someone will help soon.”

Whether anything is “owed” to the rescuers is a difficult question. Indeed, are they owed anything, or is the good deed itself the reward? If something is owed, who owes it? Perhaps all of us-because the rescuers redeemed our faith in humanity by demonstrating that goodness does exist.

The rescuers themselves don’t feel the Jewish community owes them anything. Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Temple Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, feels differently. Last year, Schulweis established the Foundation to Sustain Righteous Christians in order to “retrieve the meaning of their act, discover their fate, and sweeten the remainder of their lives.” The stories I heard from the rescuers tell what lies behind the rabbi’s efforts. Janina Pawlicka worked as a maid for a Jewish family in Poland before the war. During the war, Pawlicka remained in Warsaw and helped dozens of Jews in the ghetto. When the war ended, Pawlicka couldn’t get a job because many Poles wouldn’t hire someone who had helped the Jews. She had no family to turn to, and those whom she had saved had left for Israel or America. A Jewish survivor whom she met after the war offered to take Pawlicka to Israel with his own family. Pawlicka accepted the offer, grateful to have a new home and a new family in Israel.

Henryka Kowalska, another rescuer, told me that she had hidden a young couple in a farmhouse in Poland, and while they were in hiding, the couple had had a child. To Kowalska, this seemed a miracle; she had saved three lives, not two. The child, now a man, lives in Haifa. When Yad Vashem honored Kowalska, she sent him an invitation to attend her tree-planting ceremony. His parents, still living in Warsaw, couldn’t afford to come, but she dreamed of their child’s coming to see the honoring of the rescuer to whom he owed his life. He couldn’t come, he said, because he couldn’t leave work.

Not all survivors have ignored the righteous gentiles, however. The Foundation to Sustain Righteous Christians steadily receives mail from survivors wants help in finding their rescuers. They worry that their aged rescuers need help.

Sometimes a survivor was present at my interview of his or her rescuer. Somehow, the survivor’s presence gave added meaning to the rescuer’s words. In Haifa, Sofia Wieczorek calmly told how she and her mother took in six Jews, one of whom was a little girl. As she described how she tried to amuse the child with books and by knitting lessons, the “little girl,” now a woman in her late forties, sat nearby, her eyes filling with tears.

One theme was repeated by almost all the rescuers. If you yourself didn’t live through the Shoah, you can’t know what it was and what it did to the human spirit. This may explain why some survivors have chosen to separate themselves from the rescuers. Perhaps it is simply too painful to remain connected to someone who knew you when you were most vulnerable, frightened and weak: the rescuer is a living reminder of those dark, many survivors, only by closing the door on the unbearable past can they create new lives for themselves.

One rescuer told me that she would be satisfied if the person she had saved simply remembered what had been done and occasionally called or wrote. But the rescued person may not be able to go even that far. How can one repay another for saving his or her life? The burden of the debt is immeasurable. Yet because the survivor may feel there is no way to make reparations, he or she may feel a need to escape the past-to try to forget it and its hurts.

Children are naturally dependent upon adults, and maybe that’s why a child-turned-adult can look back more easily upon the nightmare time without rejecting the rescuer. The Christian governesses I interviewed spoke warmly and gratefully about the children they saved. Veronika Perochi, now 80 years old, is living in Ramat Gan with Yitzhak Grossman, the person she rescued, and his family. Perochi was Grossman’s nanny in Budapest before the war. When the Germans took him to a work camp, he was only 14. He escaped but couldn’t find his family, so he naturally ran to Perochi, his “other” mother. She hid him for more than a year in the hospital where she worked. Although Grossman’s mother survived the war, he never forgot Perochi, his “other” mother. In 1962, he brought her to Israel to live with him.

“He’s the best son in the world,” 86-year-old Gertruda Pablinska proudly says of Mickey Stolowitzky, whose photographs fill her room in an old-age-home in Haifa. Pablinska worked for Stolowitzky’s family in Poland before the war. When Stolowitzky’s parents were deported, his mother asked Pablinska to take Stolowitzky and raise him as a Jew. Stolowitzky was seven years old when his parents were killed. Pablinska not only took on the responsibility of supporting and caring for Stolowitzky by herself, she brought him to Palestine after the war. Pablinska, a Polish-speaking Catholic, cleaned houses and lived in a Jerusalem garret without a toilet for 18 years so that she could raise Stolowitzky in his homeland. Ironically,16 years ago Stolowtizky moved to Miami. He tells Pablinska that he will return to live in Israel one day, and he does visit twice a year. But she is lonely without him; Stolowitzky was her reason for being in Israel, and she never made a personal connection to the country.

There have been several marriages between rescuers and survivors. Such marriages, in which one person save another, possess a special quality that is stronger than affection-the partners cherish one another. They can never take their lives for granted. During several interviews of rescuers married to Jewish survivors, the survivor supplied the emotion often missing in the rescuer’s account of what had happened. Despite their financial need, these rescuers were fortunate: by saving someone whom they loved and who loved them, they were the beneficiaries of their good deed.

Peotr Budnik stands out as a rescuer who is living a full life. I visited him at his moshav, Kfar Warburg, where he has lived since 1957 with his wife Adela, whom he rescued; his son Yossi, and his grandchildren. He looks every inch a Gary Cooper hero-tall, handsome, blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked, with a shy smile. He settled himself in a large recliner in the center of the room, and began to talk. Gradually the family joined us. First his wife, then his 11-year-old grandson, then a granddaughter. Soon he was surrounded by family members listening intently to his stories. Adela’s brother, Zev, a young boy during the war, also owed his life to Budnik. Zev left his chores on the moshav to join us for a time, as did Budnik’s son Yossi. We sat eating grapes frown on the moshav, still frosty with yeast and enjoyed the sweet air of the country.

Budnik told us how he had taken Adlea’s family from the Warsaw ghetto and hidden them in the forest. Budnik now has a heart condition, and he still has nightmares and awakens screaming; for him, nothing can ever erase the past, with its terrifying risks that now seem so difficult to imagine. Still, Budnik said, life for him in Israel has been “more than good.” Sitting on his porch with his lifelong mate beside him, and watching his children and grandchildren work and play in his fields is a satisfying life for him.

Wilhelm Tarnavski, a Catholic, married Maria, a Jew, in a civil ceremony in Warsaw in 1928, before the war. Because she was married to a non-Jew she was somewhat protected, but this protection didn’t extend to her family. When I asked him why he was willing to harbor Maria’s entire family-18 Jews-he replied, “If I was going to die for having a Jewish wife, I might as well try to save many people.” Neither Wilhelm nor Maria was safe, but together they became courageous partners in hiding Maria’s family for two years.

When the war ended, most of Maria’s family went to the United States, but the Tarnavskis decided to stay in Poland. The Poles, however, helped to change their minds. Anti-Semitism didn’t vanish when the war ended, and their young daughters encountered it repeatedly. Finally, Wilhelm said to Maria, “We have to leave Poland so the children don’t grow up with this.” They came to Israel because they knew it was the one country that wanted them and their Jewish children. Of all the couples I interviewed, they seemed the least marked by the war. Perhaps the past was less haunting for them because they survived together as partners sharing the fear and hardship.

But the Tarnavskis deeply mistrusted religion, perhaps a mark of their wartime experiences. They told me they believed that religious differences were responsible for the persecution they had witnessed. Wilhelm told me that the Nazis inscribed their belt buckles, “God is with us.”

Many of the people I interviewed told me religion was not important to them. One couple, a survivor and a rescuer, described themselves as two nations who live in peace. Agnieszka Budna-Widerschal was a peasant woman from northern Poland, with a nominal Catholic upbringing typical of the rescuers I interviewed. When the occupation began, the Nazis forced her to work as a maid. She later married a Jew and then went to the ghetto to get her husband’s five cousins out. For three years they lived together and survived the war. In the fall of 1945, Budna-Widerschal gave birth to a daughter. Her husband died a few months later. In 1947 she remarried, again to a Jewish man. They lived in the same village where Budna-Widerschal grew up. When her child was nine, a wave of anti-Semitism swept through the village. One afternoon, the young girl failed to come home from school. She had been pushed onto a train track by some older children and was killed by a passing train. At the funeral another mother told Budan-Widerschal, “It’s better it was your child than ours.” After the death of her child, Budna-Widerschal and her husband despised Poland so much they decided to immigrate to Israel.

Many rescuers risked not only their own lives, but the lives of their children. Although I always asked that the rescuer’s children sit in on my interviews, only in a few cases did they attend, so it was difficult to draw conclusions about them. However, Irena Landau’s altruism served as an example not only to her daughter but to her grandchildren. Irena, who lives with her daughter, Chava, didn’t remember much of her own story, but Chava and her three sons, who grew up with stories of the war, helped the elderly Irena to piece together fragments of memory.

Even though Chava was born after the war, she knew of her mother’s heroism. Irena’s father had worked for a Jewish family, the Landaus. Irena tried to save the entire Landau family, but succeeded in saving only the son and his father, who married her after the war. The mother and daughter were killed. Irena, her husband, his son and their daughter Chava immigrated to Israel in 1957. Chava converted to Judaism, but not Irena: her husband said that she had already “sacrificed enough.” Although she never came to feel at home in Israel, what matters most to Irena is that she is near her family. She attends church every Sunday, and her family occasionally goes with her out of respect and love.

Despite the diversity of the rescuers, they shared a common characteristic. it wasn’t so much that I was in the presence of exceptionally virtuous “good” people; in fact, they were quite ordinary people. It was more what Eva Fogleman has described as “the ability to transcend fear…and the ability to tolerate risk.”* As one rescuer said when asked whether she had been afraid, “At such times it is normal to be afraid.” Once the rescuer knew what was happening to the Jews, the rescuer was compelled to help, even if it meant risking his or her own life.

I grew up in the 1960s and was part of liberal Jewish youth movements. Saving the world was part of my agenda; the civil rights movement claimed me. In fact, I did little but participate in a few sit-ins and frequently sing “We Shall Overcome.” In their youth, the rescuers had done what I had dreamed of doing. When the whole world was mad, they knew what was right and had the courage to carry it out. Although it was thrilling to meet them, it was also disquieting-they reminded me of what I have yet to do.

*Eva Fogelman, “The Rescuers: A Social Psychology Study of Altruistic Behavior During the Nazi Era,” unpublished doctoral thesis, 1987