In among the many terrible and painful stories of the Holocaust, there are also moments of light, of heroism, of people who put themselves in inordinate danger to save Jews.
Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Authority, Yad Vashem, was founded in 1953, but it was not until 10 years later, in the aftermath of the Eichmann trial, that its world-renowned Righteous Among the Nations programme was thoroughly launched.
As Dr Joel Zisenwine, director of the Righteous department at Yad Vashem, explains, there is “no exact science” about naming someone for the honour, often mistakenly shortened to Righteous Gentile.
But there are several criteria which always apply. “The actual recognition is not made by Yad Vashem itself, but by an independent Israeli public commission, which is headed by a retired Supreme Court judge”.
The scheme only applies to non-Jews, and the documentation that supports an application should reflect an element of risk. “It doesn’t mean that there weren’t noble efforts or that we are belittling those, but unless there was personal risk, those deeds do not belong in the Righteous programme.”
There is also, Dr Zisenwine says, a guideline about “active involvement or participation. A person won’t receive recognition simply for knowing, for example, that a Jewish person hiding in their house. The rescuer has to have been actively involved in aiding or rescuing Jews.”
Additionally, there is the issue of the “initial motivation” of the rescuer. “We have had cases where someone saved someone and only after the war found out that the person they saved was a Jew. We need to know that, due to the pervasive conditions during the war, and the risk involved in helping Jews, that the candidate knew what they were doing.”
And again, that leads to another ‘red line’ for the Righteous programme: the aid must be given “out of pure altruism, and not for financial profit”. The Righteous programme requires first-hand testimony from the recipients of the aid: either written, or recorded or discussed within their family, so that the action of rescue is corroborated.
These are tough conditions to satisfy, but based on these guidelines, 27,362 people have been recognised worldwide as of the beginning of last year. In that year alone, despite the passing of years, the Commission recommended that close to 400 people be named Righteous Among The Nations. Twenty-two British citizens hold the nominations, and about 260 Righteous are thought to be still alive worldwide, though Yad Vashem cannot confirm that figure.
Based on the criteria laid down, Yad Vashem’s department for the Righteous will typically undertake painstaking detective work, matching the rescuer’s story with the recipient’s, and then hand the material to the commission for consideration. The process, says Dr Zisenwine, is “semi-legal”, adding to the authority and credibility of the award.
TWIN GIRL WAS HIDDEN
One of the most recent awards made was in June 2019, to a Dutch couple, Cornelis and Hendrieka de Groot, and their daughter Coby.
A young Jewish couple, Markus and Zilla Gurfein, he from Poland, she from Germany, had settled in Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, just before the war. In 1942, with the Nazis occupying the country, Zilla gave birth prematurely to twins: Robert and Ria.
Immediately after giving birth, Zilla went into hiding with Markus and her parents. Nuns cared for the twins in the hospital in Eindhoven. When they were strong enough, the twins were hidden separately by the Dutch resistance in January 1943.
Ria was taken in by Cornelis de Groot and his wife Hendrieka, or Riek. The de Groots had a 15-year-old daughter, Coby. Riek de Groot’s sister was active in the resistance and also hid Jews, and it was she who asked her sister and brother-in-law to hide the little girl.
It was not easy to bring up a baby during the war, and the risk of betrayal made it very dangerous. Coby de Groot kept a moving diary for Ria’s parents, as a souvenir of the time their daughter had spent in hiding. The de Groots’ name for Ria was ‘Moeke’. The diary contains pictures and anecdotes about her and her development as a baby and toddler. Coby herself took on much of Ria’s care, regarding her as her little sister.
With liberation in May 1945, the de Groots learned that Ria’s parents had survived the war in hiding, as had her twin brother, Robert. Ria was returned to her parents. To make the transition a little easier, the teenage Coby de Groot even lived with the Gurfeins for a while.
Markus and Zilla Gurfein had two more children after the war: Murry in 1947, and Sonja in 1949. The diary Coby wrote about Ria remained in the family. Ria died aged only 27, and so the diary was held and cherished by her younger sister, Sonja.
Sonja Gurfein restored contact with Coby de Groot and applied for all the de Groot family to be recognised as Righteous Among the Nations, for saving her sister’s life.
On 18 June 2019, Yad Vashem recognised Cornelis and Hendrieka de Groot and their daughter Coby as Righteous Among the Nations.
FIRST MUSLIM RECIPIENT
Dr Mohamed Helmy was born in Khartoum in 1901 to Egyptian parents. In 1922 he went to Germany to study medicine and settled in Berlin.
After completing his studies, he went to work at the Robert Koch Hospital in Berlin (later called Moabit Hospital), where he became head of the urology department, and witnessed the dismissal of Jewish doctors from the hospital in 1933.
Dr Helmy himself was not initially dismissed, but according to Nazi racial theory, as a non-Aryan he was fired from the hospital in 1938, and was unable to marry his German fiancée, Annie Ernst. In 1939 and again in 1940 he was arrested, together with other Egyptian nationals, but released a year later because of health problems.
Despite being targeted by the regime, Dr Helmy spoke out against Nazi policies, and notwithstanding the great danger, risked his life and helped his Jewish friends.
When deportations of the Jews from Berlin began, and Anna Boros (who became Anna Gutman after the war), a family friend, needed a hiding place, Dr Helmy took her to a cabin he owned in the Berlin neighbourhood of Buch, which became her safe haven until the end of the war. At times of danger when he was under police investigation, he would arrange for her to hide elsewhere, introducing her as his cousin from Dresden.
The doctor also helped Anna Gutman’s mother, Julie, her stepfather Gerog Wehr, and her grandmother, Cecilie Rudnik. He provided for them, looking after their medical needs. He arranged for Rudnik to be hidden in the home of a friend, Frieda Szturmann. For more than a year, Szturmann protected Rudnik and shared her food rations with her.
All four family members survived the Holocaust. After the war they emigrated to the United States. In the 1950s and early 60s thety wrote to the Berlin Senate so that their rescuers would be honoured for saving Jews.
Dr Helmy remained in Berlin and was finally able to marry his fiancée. He died in 1982. Frieda Szturmann died in 1962.
Like many other cases, this story did not end with the official recognition. Following media reports about the honouring of Dr Helmy, an Israeli relative of Anna Boros-Gutman contacted Yad Vashem and connected the authority to Anna’s daughter, Carla. Carla provided photos showing her and her mother visiting Dr Helmy and his wife in Berlin in 1969, and documents she had found in her mother’s belongings revealing that Dr Helmy had used every possible means to protect Anna: he even got her a certificate from the Central Islamic Institute in Berlin, headed by the Mufti of Jerusalem, attesting to her converting to Islam, and a marriage certificate (in Arabic), saying she had wed a fellow Egyptian in a ceremony held in Dr Helmy’s home.
A few months after the recognition, Frieda Szturmann’s grandson, who had read about the award in a German paper, contacted Yad Vashem. He said his grandmother had never wanted to talk about her courageous act, and that during the entire period, his father, Frieda’s son, was serving as a German soldier at the front.
On 18 March 2013, Yad Vashem recognised Dr Mohamed Helmy and Frieda Szturmann as Righteous Among the Nations. Dr Helmy was the first Arab to be given the title.
TEN BRITISH POWs
In one extraordinary story, 10 British prisoners of war saved the life of a 16-year-old Jewish girl. In January 1945, Sarah Matuson (later Hannah Sarah Rigler) was among the inmates of Stutthof concentration camp who were taken on a death march towards the Baltic coast.
The group of 1,200 women, including her sister, Hannah, and mother, Gita, were staggering in the snow, dressed in rags, with only clogs on their feet, with no food and under the heavy blows of the SS guards. Hundreds of women died on the way and only about 300 reached the village of Gross Golmkau (Golebiewo in Polish) 19 miles south of Gdansk.
Sarah’s family was from Lithuania. Her parents had travelled to Palestine, where her older sister Hannah was born in 1925. But their immigration did not work out and the family moved back to Lithuania. They settled in Shavli (Siauliai), where Sarah was born in 1928.
Sarah’s father was arrested with a group of other Jews soon after the German occupation in the end of June 1941. He was never seen again.
The mother and two daughters were forced into the Shavli ghetto.
Despite the difficult conditions and the continued killing operations, they managed to survive until the summer of 1944, when they were taken with the remaining Jews of Shavli to Stutthof. As the Soviet army approached, they were taken on the death march.
Sarah’s mother pleaded with her daughter to try to escape. It was painful to leave her mother, but finally Sarah decided to look for food for them. She managed to leave the line of prisoners unnoticed and found refuge in a barn, where she collapsed.
It was here that she was found by the group of British prisoners of war. The men had been captured in 1940 in France, and had been transferred to the east, interned in a camp close to the Baltic coast, where they were engaged in various tasks in the German farms of the area.
Finding Sarah, who was starved and exhausted, one of the prisoners of war, Stan Wells, gave her some food and then brought her to the other prisoners wrapped in an old army coat. Shocked by her poor physical condition, they decided to help her.
The British POWs smuggled Sarah into their camp – Stalag 20B in Gross-Golmkau — where they hid her in a hayloft. They took turns to care for her. They brought food, tended her frostbite, applied paraffin to her hair against lice, and nursed her back to health. The danger of discovery was great: just outside their living quarters was a police station. The horses used by the police were housed in the same barn, and Sarah was hidden in the hayloft above them.
Eventually, the POWs were moved. On the eve of their evacuation into Germany, they arranged for a local woman to take care of Sarah until the arrival of the Red Army.
After liberation, Sarah found she was the only member of her family to have survived. She eventually settled in the US. In memory of her sister, she added the name Hannah to her own. For many years she tried to find her rescuers, but it was only 25 years after the end of the war that she managed to renew the contact.
On 2 November 1988, Yad Vashem recognised Stan Wells, George Hammond, Tommy Noble and Alan Edwards as Righteous Among the Nations; on 15 March 1989, it recognised Roger Letchford; on 11 October 2011, it recognised Bill Keeble, Bert Hambling, Bill Scruton, Jack Buckley and Willy Fisher.
The Mandil family came from Yugoslavia, where Moshe owned a photography shop. When the Germans invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941, the family fled to the Kosovo province that was under Italian control, where Jews were relatively protected.
Towards the end of the summer of 1942, the fugitives were moved deeper into the Italian-controlled area – into Albania – where most of the population was Muslim.
The family – Moshe and Ela Mandil and their children, Gavra and Irena – settled in Tirana. As he was looking up photography shops, Mandil chanced upon a store owned by one of his former apprentices, Neshad Prizerini. Not only did Prizerini offer Mandil work, but he also invited the family to stay at his home.
In the shop, Mandil met Prizerini’s apprentice, 17-year-old Refik Veseli, who had been sent by his parents from their village, Kruja, to learn the trade of a photographer. After the German invasion of Albania the situation became dangerous for Jews, and Veseli suggested that the Mandils should move to his parents’ home in the mountains. Four of the Veselis would be honoured for their actions.
Veseli and the Mandils set out on a long journey by mules over rocky terrain. They took side roads, moving at night and hiding in caves during the days to avoid detection by the German military. In Kruja, Moshe and Ela were hidden in a small room above the barn, while their children mingled with the Veseli children.
Later, Refik’s brother, Xhemal, brought another Jewish family from Tirana: Ruzhica and Yosef Ben Yosef, and Yosef’s sister Finica.
The two families stayed with the Veselis in their mountain village until liberation in November 1944.
After the war, the Mandils returned to Yugoslavia, where Moshe reopened a photography shop. They invited Refik to live with them and to continue his training as a photographer. He stayed with the Mandil family until their emigration to Israel.
In 1987, Gavra Mandil, Moshe’s son, wrote to Yad Vashem with his story. He said he felt an obligation in the name of all those saved in Albania to pay tribute to the Albanian people and to his rescuers in particular.
The remarkable assistance afforded by Albanians to the Jews was grounded in the Albanian cultural concept of besa. Besa is a code of honour which means “to keep the promise”. One who acts according to besa is someone to whom one can trust one’s life and the lives of one’s family. Apparently this code sprang from the Muslim faith as interpreted by the Albanians.
On 23 December 1987, Yad Vashem recognised Vesel and Fatima Veseli and their son, Refik, as Righteous Among the Nations. They were the first Albanians to be recognised. On 23 May 2004, Yad Vashem also recognised Hamid and Xhemal Veseli.