Memories of Courage
April 7 - April 14, 2002
“...a memorial unresponsive to the future would violate the memory of the past”
— President’s Commission on the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel, Chairman
The United States Congress established the Days of Remembrance as our nation’s annual commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as a permanent living memorial to those victims. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has designated Memories of Courage as the theme for 2002 Days of Remembrance observances in honor of those who took a stand against Nazi barbarism toward Jews, Roma (Gypsies) and others. Today, more than ever before, individual and communal acts of heroism during the Holocaust serve as a powerful example of how our nation and its citizens can – and must – respond to acts of hatred and inhumanity.
Sixty years ago the Nazis unleashed the machinery of the Holocaust across Europe. Despite the indifference of many and outright collaboration of others in the murder of Jews, thousands of individuals, both Jewish and non-Jewish, took a stand against the persecution and killing of innocent people. The efforts to save the Jewish community in Denmark, for instance, remain a shining example of what was possible. In October of 1943, a German diplomat alerted Danish authorities to the impending deportation of the country’s Jews. The Danish resistance then organized a dramatic rescue operation. Over several weeks, local fishermen ferried more than 7,000 people, almost the entire Jewish population, to safety in neutral Sweden.
Although few countries or institutions acted to help Jews, particularly once World War II began, ordinary people across Europe risked imprisonment and even death to come to the aid of those in need. In France, Protestant pastors André Trocmé and Edouard Theis worked with the local villagers of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon to shelter several thousand Jews, most of them refugees. In Louvain, Belgium, Father Bruno, a Benedictine monk, hid more than 300 Jewish children in foster homes. In Amsterdam, Holland, a member of the Jewish council, Walter Susskind, worked with the Dutch resistance to smuggle children awaiting deportation to hiding places in the provinces. In Bellaria, Italy, Ezio Giorgetti housed forty Jewish refugees, mostly from Yugoslavia, in his vacant hotel. In Budapest, Hungary, diplomats from neutral countries including Raoul Wallenberg (Sweden), Carl Lutz (Switzerland) and Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian businessman posing as a Spanish diplomat, provided tens of thousands of Jews with falsified "protective passes," thereby saving them from deportation. In Poland, Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist, established an enamel works outside Krakow, helping his Jewish workers avoid the ghettos and killing centers. Members of "Zegota," a Polish underground organization, provided false papers, hiding places and other support for Jews. In Zborow, Ukraine, Anton Suchinski, a struggling peddler, hid a Jewish family in the basement of his modest home. In Veyvis, Lithuania, Mykolas Simelis, a forester, dug a shelter beneath his house for Jewish refugees from the Kovno ghetto.
Others followed their conscience by trying to arouse public opinion against the Nazis. Members of the White Rose, an underground student group paid with their lives for distributing anti-Nazi literature on the campus of the University of Munich. Jan Karski, a young courier for the Polish government-in-exile, publicized Nazi plans for the extermination of the Jews after secretly visiting the Warsaw ghetto and the transit camp at Izbica, where he witnessed firsthand the horrors suffered by Jews under the Nazi occupation. Gerhart Riegner, representative of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, cabled the American Jewish Congress confirming Nazi plans for the murder of Europe’s Jews. And Arthur Szyk, a Jewish artist in the United States, called attention to the plight of the Jews through political cartoons lampooning the Nazis and highlighting the need for action. These individual and collective efforts show us that compassion, courage and morality were not totally extinguished in those dark years.
Throughout Europe, many of those targeted by the Nazis took action to resist oppression and genocide. In the Warsaw ghetto, hundreds of lightly armed Jews rose up against the Germans, fighting street by street and house by house for nearly a month before they were defeated. In the forests of occupied Europe, Jewish partisans banded together to carry out acts of sabotage and provide safe haven for those who fled the ghettos. Jewish prisoners staged mass uprisings inside three killing centers in occupied Poland, attacking guards with stolen weapons at Sobibor and Treblinka and blowing up one of the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. For many, survival itself became an act of resistance.
In remembering those who took a determined stand against Nazism, we honor the memory of those who perished, and we are reminded that individuals do have the power, and choice, to make a difference in the fight against oppression and murderous hatred.