What was the moral motivation of gentiles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust? During a recent conference at Yad Vashem, Prof. Wolfgang Bialas of the Hannah Arendt Institute, Dresden, Germany presented some research findings on the mindset of non-Jewish Berliners who sheltered Jews and helped them survive. Apart from “the usual mix of motives,” some common factors distinguish the psychological profile of the rescuers. First of all, they were Independent people who set their own rules and priorities and were not easily influenced by propaganda. In addition, they were righteous, empathic individuals, guided by an innate sense of morality and sound values. They found it a moral imperative to oppose cruel, humiliating treatment and not to reject people in distress. Many didn’t see a choice. Despite the risks, they simply did what they felt they had to do and considered it their duty.
Chiune Sugihara, Japanese vice-consul in Lithuania during World War II, shared the traits of these righteous gentiles. He issued thousands of Jews with transit visas to Japan against the direct orders of his superior in Berlin. It is estimated that he saved between six and ten thousand Jewish Polish-Lithuanian refugees. He was aided by his first wife in this frenetic task, while some yeshiva students pitched in with the pen work, and did not flinch from the unfamiliar Japanese script. Rabbi Eli Hecht explains how the students laboriously copied a visa in its entirety, including the name, so that “All 300 Mirrer Yeshiva students were thus named Rabinovitz as far as the visas were concerned. Yet, inexplicably, the Japanese border guards let the visas pass -- a ‘strange conspiracy of goodness’” (www.eilatgordinlevitan.com/kovno-pages).
Sugihara is quoted as saying, “I have decided of my own accord to help these people. If that will result in punishment from my government, then I will have to live with that. I had to go through with my faith and beliefs as a human being.”
Some refugees arrived in Shanghai before the war broke out. A majority had to leave their temporary dwellings in Japan and was confined to the Shanghai ghetto from 1941 until 1947 when most left for other destinations. Though conditions were difficult and crowded, the Jews organized a full spectrum of religious and cultural community activities, and on the whole came through the experience without undue harm.
Working in conjunction with Sugihara was another contemporary hero, the acting Dutch Consul in Kovno or Kaunus, Lithuania. As word spread like wildfire, part-time consul Jan Zwartendijk, director of the Philips’ plants in Lithuania, issued over 1,400 transit visas to Curaçao and Surinam — islands in the Dutch West Indies — during three hectic weeks in the summer of 1940. One visa could cover an entire family. These lifesaving documents declared that no visa was necessary to enter Curaçao, a true statement, but deliberately omitted the standard caveat that entry was contingent upon the permission of the governor of Curaçao. It is estimated that Zwartendijk, the ‘Angel of Curaçao,’ saved at least 2,139 Jewish lives. This nonconformist hero never spoke publicly about his actions.
A second oriental rescuer of European Jews was Dr. Feng Shan Ho, the Chinese Consul General in Vienna. Ho saved the lives of thousands of Jews in Vienna during WWII by issuing them with Chinese visas. He issued the visas for two years after the German Anschluss or annexation of Austria, despite explicit instructions to the contrary. Not every Jew arrived in China, but all desperately needed a visa of some kind, any kind, to leave Austria. Merciful Ho’s perspective on supplying these documents was: “I thought it only natural to feel compassion and to want to help. From the standpoint of humanity, that is the way it should be.”
These three rescuers of the Jewish people were all honored posthumously by Yad Vashem. In addition, the Chiune Sugihara Memorial in the town of Yaotsu (his birthplace in Japan) was built by the townsfolk in Sugihara’s honor. However little we knew about these rescuers previously, we were certainly updated on their activities in Shanghai.
During our recent visit to China, when Expo was still on, we spent several days in Shanghai. Our apartment hotel was conveniently situated inside the Chabad complex though a little outside the center. Rabbi Shalom Greenberg and his wife Dina are very accommodating to all guests. Shabbat meals are also available downtown at the Chabad Jewish Center of Pudong and at the restored Sephardic synagogue, Ohel Rachel, distinguished for its elegant architecture. Shanghai is a city of extremes — showing a marked contrast between the older, poorer areas outside the tour bus routes and the elegant high rise buildings downtown and along both river banks. The riverside boulevard known as the Bund is brilliantly lit up at night as packed tour boats ply the waterway.
On Friday morning we explored the former Jewish quarter or Hongkou District (once the Hongkew Ghetto) of Shangai. Lintong Road off Changang road is a poor area of town, still lacking indoor plumbing. A man shampooed his hair in the alley, a woman vigorously brushed her teeth at an outdoor sink beside a kiosk, while another sat knitting on a kerbside stool. Through an open doorway came the smell of fish cooking. An old woman sat at a plain wooden table in the dim interior eating her rice porridge. On Zhonshan Road are tall brick European style buildings. Metal wash lines with laundry are strung across the building facades below the windows, between the lampposts and even attached to the traffic light poles.
We walked on Haimen Road, the former site of the Refugee Café, now full of Buddhist restaurants and stores peddling incense sticks and other paraphernalia. The Japanese wartime authorities converted the small, crowded area of Houshan Park to a de facto ghetto to restrict the residence and business activities of the stateless Jewish refugees.
A main attraction is the recently renovated Ohel Moshe synagogue on Ward Road in Hongkou. When it was built in 1927 it could accommodate a thousand worshippers. A small museum focusing on the Jewish experience has been set up adjacent to the synagogue. The Beth Aharon synagogue, a splendid edifice on Museum Road near the Bund, was also established in 1927 but destroyed by the authorities in 1985. Its complex included a Talmud Torah and a mikveh. Sir Silas Hardoon, an eccentric though colorful figure who gradually estranged himself from the Jewish community had financed the entire complex. Legend has it that Aharon Hardoon appeared to his son Silas in a dream, ordering him to build this sacred structure and name it after him. Beth Aharon formerly seated 400 and served as an ideal study hall for the Mir Yeshiva in wartime Shanghai.
Our next Shabbat was spent in Guangzhou where we heard another wartime rescue story. After a bracing excursion to the Yellow Mountains, we flew into the large commercial city of Gangzou late Thursday night. Standing in the usual crowd, it was a hassle to find a taxi to the hotel. We finally boarded one with our luggage only to discover that the driver didn’t know English — a common pitfall — and couldn’t read Chinese! Luckily he was resourceful enough to find a policeman who read him our destination with the properly sibilant Chinese intonation. As the annual Canton fair was on, the town was packed with visitors. Chabad on Shabbat was inundated with importers, buyers and business people.
Our friends the Greenfields, formerly of Raanana, live in a compound very close to Chabad and had kindly invited us to eat with them. During the lively conversation our gracious hostess, Adina Greenfield, related the following story of survival. Though not connected to China, it shows the same qualities of mercy and empathy that characterize other rescuers.
‘Every year in the springtime a woman called Ada would appear on our doorstep in Givatayim near Tel Aviv. Invariably she carried a large bouquet of flowers and would loudly proclaim, “Happy Birthday” with a broad smile on her face.
When I got to the age of reason, and this scene repeated itself year after year, I asked my mom, Sara Goldstein of blessed memory, what this annual visit was all about. Even though my mother always understated her deeds out of modesty, over the years Ada filled in the details for me. The story that follows reflects my mother’s sterling character and her concern for others:
Sara Jozik was born to a religious Jewish family in Lodz, Poland in 1910. She grew into a beautiful young woman with curly hair. Sara went to university to study literature, while working in a garment factory to finance her studies. At age 22 she married a man called Epstein.
When the Nazis invaded Poland, Sara was 29 years old. Though she was already married for seven years, the marriage had produced no children. All the doctors that she visited in the hope of finding a solution told her that she was infertile. She supported her husband, his six brothers and her old, sick father-in-law in the difficult conditions of the ghetto by working in a garment factory as a machinist.
In 1943, when Ghetto Lodz was liquidated, Sara was deported, first to Auschwitz, then to Bergen Belsen, where she worked in the munitions factory. At night she would receive a small piece of stale black bread for supper. One night, collapsing on her bunk from fatigue, she still held the piece of bread in her hand. Too overwrought to eat, she dozed off briefly, and when she came back to herself, she realized that her precious piece of bread had disappeared.
On the bunk immediately below her lay Ada in an almost lifeless condition. As Ada was too sick and feeble to work or even to get off her bunk, she was considered a goner. Her body was all swollen from malnutrition. Clearly, her days were numbered, and all believed that she would soon end up in the crematorium.
Sara knew that her neighbor below had eaten the bread but told nobody about it and uttered not a word. She had made a decision that she implemented from that night on. Every night she took the trouble to soften her hard slice of black bread by dipping it into some water or into the murky liquid that passed for soup. She would then pretend that she was too fatigued to eat and dangle her arm over the side of the bunk. Sara repeated this action faithfully, sharing her meager rations with Ada. In this selfless way she sustained the young woman below and gradually restored her to life. Her own belly soon swelled from malnutrition, but she had saved a Jewish life in Israel.
The woman who appeared at our house every year bearing flowers was that young girl — dear Ada, we called her. This special day that she celebrated so regularly was not her actual birthday, but the day when she came back to life and was finally able to get off her bunk. She considered mother her rescuing angel and greatly appreciated and loved her.