The Other Schindlers
Steven Spielberg's epic film focuses on only one of many unsung heroes
Schindler's List has been searing the souls of moviegoers, and next week Steven Spielberg's epic film about the German who rescued 1,200 Jews from Nazi death camps could garner as many as 12 Academy Awards.
But there were other Schindlers, other courageous non-Jews whose sense of outrage and decency moved them to risk their own lives to try to save European Jews from the furnace of hatred that was the Holocaust. They are the subject of Tzedek (Righteousness), a four-hour French documentary to be premiered at this May's Cannes Film Festival.
Written, directed and movingly narrated by prize-winning French author Marek Halter, himself a childhood survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, Tzedek focuses on 36 courageous lifesavers--a number Halter chose because of the Talmudic belief that the world's fate rests on the shoulders of 36 righteous souls.
No one knows just how many rescuers there were. Using the testimony of grateful survivors, historians at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial have carefully preserved and honored the stories of some 11,000 "Righteous Gentiles." Many are celebrated by Washington's Holocaust Memorial Museum and at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. There may well have been more.
The 36 chosen for Halter's film are Christians and Muslims, French farmers, Dutch housewives, Spanish diplomats, Polish nuns, even German soldiers. "The ultimate question Tzedek raises," says Halter, author of the 1986 novel The Book of Abraham, "is not why these righteous showed such humanity but why others didn't, why so many remained silent, why so many did worse. Anne Frank, after all, was betrayed by a Dutchman, not a German."
Elementary compassion, says Halter, was the most powerful unifying strength that enabled these quiet heroes to battle evil: "Jewish tradition has no saints, only humans. Our sages teach that those whose merits surpass their vices, they are the righteous; that when you save one life, you have saved a universe."
Some of the heroes of Tzedek: POLAND BERTHOLD BEITZ, OIL EXECUTIVE Beitz saved Jews by employing them in the Nazis' crucial petroleum business.
Like Oskar Schindler, Berthold Beitz had a life-giving list. The son of a wealthy Nazi-sympathizing family, Beitz was a 27-year-old junior executive at Royal Dutch Shell's Hamburg office when the war broke out. One evening in 1941, his grandfather, a Nazi notable, took him to dinner at the lavish home of German munitions magnate Alfried Krupp. Among the guests was Reinhard Heydrich, one of Hitler's senior henchmen. Germany had just attacked the Soviet Union, and the Wehrmacht, Heydrich noted, was taking over oil refineries in western Poland. Enthusiastically, the young Beitz offered his services and was named a director of the Karpaten Ol company in Boryslaw, Poland.
Beitz soon found that while there was relatively little oil in the mountain region, there were a lot of Jews--almost 50 percent of the population. Most were in ghetto work camps, a fact that Beitz admits didn't bother him at first. When death trains began running to Auschwitz and Treblinka, though, his conscience was stirred. It was "those children sitting in the station, with those enormous eyes, looking at you," he recalls.