On Chanukah, my parents gave me a book called The Righteous, by Martin Gilbert. At first, I regarded it as a grown-up book, and I ignored it. Then, I thought, maybe I should pick it up. I'd like to say that my life was changed forever at that one moment, and it was, in a way. I knew that there were Righteous people that had hidden Jews, but I had never realized before just how many there were. Compared to the number of Jews that died, there were very few Righteous, but still enough to make a difference.
Not many people were willing to risk their lives and the lives of their families to save a Jew. So, why did they do it? One answer is, religion. Many people felt that it was their duty as good Christians to shelter Jews. However, some paid the ultimate price for their kindness. While some people felt the need to shelter Jews, others wanted to betray them. If a non-Jew was found guilty of even contacting a Jew, he or she would be beaten, or, more often, killed. Obviously, if a Jew was found in hiding, the Jew would be immediately killed.
Usually history revolves around men, but I wanted to do something else. I decided that I would talk about women for a change. So I combined my two ideas and came up with my speech subject, Righteous Women in the Holocaust. Rather than try to talk about everything in eight short minutes, I decided to focus on a few women who stood out from the rest.
I decided on "Women of Valor" for my title because it means a courageous woman, one who is willing to risk for others, one who "extends her hands to the destitute." The verses describing "The Woman of Valor" are found in Proverbs 31 of the Bible. In our society, a "Woman of Valor" has generally had a negative press, because it can imply that a woman is subservient to men. However, it need not have that interpretation. I see that Righteous Women can be positively seen as "Women of Valor."
One of the most interesting stories of Righteous women that I found was of Mother Superior Beata Bromislawa Hryniewicz. The Mother Superior was the head of the Heart of Jesus Catholic convent near the village of Skorzec, Poland. Around 1941 she was put in charge of two Jewish girls, Ester, age eleven, and Batja, age five. The Mother Superior stood out in my mind because she did more than just hide the girls. She prepared them for later life, when she would not be around to shelter them. In an effort to strengthen their self-confidence, she sent Ester on errands, especially when the German guards were on duty. This allowed the hidden children to have more freedom of mobility, which was very uncommon. Usually the hidden Jews were kept in a small or confined place, so as not to be noticed. But in this case, the children were allowed to move freely, within the boundaries of the monastery. Another interesting fact about her relationship with the girls is that for years they kept in contact. In 1945, the girls left the monastery. From 1946 until the Mother Superior's death in 1969, they were in correspondence. Strange as it may seem, Batja refused to leave the monastery, but was forced to.
Another woman that intrigued me was Emilie Schindler. We know about her husband, Oscar Schindler. Ever since Steven Spielberg created the movie Schindler's List, "Schindler" has been a household name. But it is always associated with Oscar, never with his wife.
Emilie and Oscar met in 1928, when Oscar was working as a door-to-door salesman, selling motors. They were married on March 6, 1928.
Emilie aided Oscar in the saving of 1300 Jews. Oscar had a factory (that he stole from a Jew) which made shells for the German army. At first, he employed the Jews just because they were the cheapest labor. But then he began to see them as fathers and mothers with families. He started to realize that they were human beings who were being unjustly slaughtered. He, along with Emilie, decided to do all they could to save the Jewish workers. Thanks to Oscar's connections and massive bribery, they managed to actively protect their workers. Emilie managed to persuade the Germans that the Jews were "essential workers", a status that protected them from transportation to the death camps. For the seven months that the Jews worked at the factory, not one usable shell was produced. Not a single bomb passed military quality tests! The Schindlers were influential indeed! This was probably because Oscar had been a visibly active supporter of the Nazi party.
Near the end of the war, Emilie, alone while Oscar was in Krakow, saved 250 Jews. She stopped a Nazi transportation of Jews to a death camp from Golechau. She managed to persuade the Gestapo to send the Jews to work in the factory "with regard to the continuing war industry production." In her book A Memoir Where Light and Shadow Meet, she recalls:
"We found the railroad car bolts frozen solid... the spectacle I saw was a nightmare almost beyond imagination. It was impossible to distinguish the men from the women; they were all so emaciated—weighing under seventy pounds most of them, they looked like skeletons. Their eyes were shining like glowing coals in the dark..."
Often she did more than just feed and shelter the Jews. She also provided them with individual necessities. One day in the factory, a Jewish boy, Lew Feigenbaum, broke his eyeglasses and could not see, therefore Emilie arranged for a prescription for the glasses to be sent to her for the boy. She also managed to provide extra food and fresh fruit for the sick and the old. In the words of one of the survivors, "There is an old expression: behind the man, there is the woman, and I believe she was the great human being."
Emilie and Oscar emigrated to Argentina after the war, where she died on October 5, 2001, 17 days before her 94th birthday.
Another Righteous Woman I found interesting was Malka (sometimes known as Malvina) Csizmadia. She was born in 1927 in Hungary and was seventeen when she began helping the Jews. A few years earlier, the boundary of Malka's backyard had been transformed into one with a ghetto for the Jewish men. One day, she was climbing in a tree that overlooked the barbed-wire fence when she spotted a man inside. They engaged in conversation, and she soon found out that he was a Jew named Szarany. Malka asked him if there was any way she could help him, and he responded that she could carry letters for him. Soon Malka was passing newspapers, letters, and other things over the fence to Szarany. However, one day her mother became suspicious of why she was spending so much time in the tree. Malka had to let her mother in on the secret. To her surprise, her mother was glad to help, and soon Malka's sisters were involved too.
Near the end of summer, the Csizmadia family received the news that the Russians were approaching and the ghetto would be liquidated. They sprang into action, smuggling Szarany and about twenty more men out of the ghetto. As they did, Malka distracted the soldiers with cigarettes so Szarany and the other men could pass unnoticed.
On January 2, 1945, the Russians liberated Hungary, and the men were finally free. But they never forgot Malka, the seventeen-year-old who saved their lives.
Malka stood out in my mind for two reasons. First of all, this is the story of a young Righteous, not an adult, which is much more common. The other reason is that for a while, she helped the Jewish men without the help from her mother. Until her mother discovered her, she was able to handle the whole operation secretly.
During spring break, my family and I went to Israel. While we were there, it was decided that we would go to see Yad Vashem. After leaving the welcome area, the first place we visited was the Avenue of the Righteous. What we saw was a small section of, maybe, thirty plaques, each at the base of its own tree. We thought, "Oh, that's not so many. I thought there were more." Then we went under a small arch, and gasped. There, stretching out as far as the eye could see, and then further still, were rows and rows of trees and plaques. I knew that there were Righteous, but I never imagined there were so many. I was impressed, but actually overwhelmed by the sheer number to be seen.
I would like to thank my Mom for inspiration and guidance in preparing this talk. I would also like to thank my family for making it possible to go to Israel where I could see with my own eyes the honor paid to the Righteous. I would also like to thank my teachers at Peretz for supporting my love of learning throughout the eight years on my path towards graduation. I would like to conclude with a thank you to Ira Mintz for his special role in nurturing my love for Judaism and Jewish culture.
Gilbert, Martin. The Righteous. Henry Holt & Company, 2003.