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.
Beitz began to save Jews by hiring them. "I should have employed qualified personnel. Instead, I chose tailors, hairdressers and Talmudic scholars and gave them all cards as [vital] 'petroleum technicians.' "
Beitz and his young wife also hid a Jewish child in their own home. And like Schindler, Beitz often went to the train station to pull his Jewish workers off the death trains. "Once I found one of my secretaries and her aged mother," Beitz recalls. He got them out, but the SS would not be fooled. They judged the mother too old, and forced her back on the cattle car. "The daughter turned to me. 'Herr Direktor, may I [also] return to the car?' " Beitz never saw her again.
When the Nazis finally fell, more than 800 of Beitz's Jews were still alive. Now, at 81, the courtly Beitz says: "I am proud of what I did out of a sense of humanity. ... I passed through that period, as you cross through a dark forest: with self-assurance and with incredible luck." POLAND IRENA SENDLER, SOCIAL WORKER She gave nearly 2,500 children new identities, and buried their real names for safekeeping.
When Hitler built the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940 and herded 500,000 Polish Jews behind its walls to awaitliquidation, most Polish gentiles turned their backs or applauded. Not Irena Sendler. A Warsaw social worker, Sendler wangled a permit to enter the teeming ghetto and check for signs of typhus, something the Nazis feared would spread beyond the ghetto.
Shocked by what she saw, Sendler joined Zegota, a tiny underground cell dedicated to helping Jews, and took on the code name "Jolanta." The deportations had already begun, and although it was impossible to save adults, Sendler began smuggling children out in an ambulance. " 'Can you guarantee they will live?' " Sendler recalls the distraught parents asking. But she could only guarantee they would die if they stayed. "In my dreams," she says, "I still hear the cries when they left their parents."
Sendler successfully smuggled almost 2,500 Jewish children to safety and gave them temporary new identities. To remember who was who, she wrote the real names on sheets of paper, burying them in bottles in her garden. Finding Christians to hide them was not easy: "There weren't many Poles who wanted to help Jews, [even] children." But Sendler organized a network of families and convents ready to give sanctuary. "I would write, 'I have clothing for the convent'; a nun would come and pick up children."
Arrested in 1943 by the Gestapo, Sendler was tortured and sentenced to die. Underground colleagues bribed a guard to free her at the last minute and list her as "executed." She continued her work from hiding. When the war ended, Sendler retrieved the bottles in which she'd hidden her index of names and began searching for the real parents. Few had survived.
The children had known her only by her code name. But years later, after she was honored for her wartime work, her picture appeared in a newspaper. "A man, a painter, telephoned me," says Sendler, now 82 but still bright-eyed. " 'I remember your face,' he said. 'It was you who took me out of the ghetto.' I had many calls like that!" FRANCE MARY JAYNE GOLD, AMERICAN SOCIALITE A party girl ended up saving some of Europe's greatest artists and intellects.
Chicago heiress Mary Jayne Gold descended on Paris in 1930 with a hefty trust fund, a pilot's license and a private plane for holidaying in the Alps and on the Riviera. Europe was a playground. But when German troops occupied the French capital in 1940, the glamorous Gold--and tens of thousands of others--headed south for unoccupied Marseilles. There she met Varian Fry.
Fry too was an American (a "Harvard man and a bona fide WASP just like me," recalls Gold, now 84). He was also a reporter and had witnessed Nazi brutality early on. When Vichy France signed an armistice obligating it to turn over any non-French citizen the Nazis requested, Fry knew what that meant: Thousands of German, Austrian and other European exiles--many of them Jews--would be shipped back to their deaths.
As war raged around them, the dapper Fry organized Marseilles's "Emergency Rescue Committee," enlisting friends like Gold to help him. Operating out of rooms at the Hotel Splendide, then eventually from a villa called Air Bel, they procured phony passports and real visas, sheltered refugees and organized escape routes to Spain and Portugal. "Women weren't taken too seriously in those days," says Gold, who helped bankroll the operation. But when someone had to charm the commander of a French prison camp into freeing four German members of the anti-Hitler underground, Gold was sent to do the job.
Hounded by the French police and harassed by the American State Department, which feared the committee's activities would damage relations with the Vichy government, Gold finally left in 1941. Fry was deported soon afterand returned to America, where he died in 1967 at 59. Through their work in Paris, these Americans helped some 2,000 people escape the Nazis. Among them: painters Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, authors Franz Werfel, Hannah Arendt and Hans Habe, and Nobel prize-winning biochemist Otto Meyerhof. HUNGARY GIORGIO PERLASCA, SALES REP An Italian fascist used Spanish consular credentials to help the Jews of Budapest.
Italian Giorgio Perlasca was a good fascist. So good that he volunteered in 1937 to go fight on Francisco Franco's side in the Spanish Civil War.
His Madrid connection helped him become an intermediary for Spanish and Italian companies and, eventually, Budapest representative of a corporation supplying canned meat to the Italian Navy. When Mussolini fell, Perlasca remained in Hungary, acquiring a Spanish passport in 1944--by then a safer bet than his Italian one.
It was the last full year of the war. Germany was in retreat on all fronts save one--the liquidation of the Jews. A relentless Nazi official named Adolph Eichmann demanded Hungary start shipping its more than 800,000 Jews to Auschwitz. Spain, sensing the coming allied victory, withdrew its diplomatic representatives from Budapest--but not, however, before the head of mission gave businessman Perlasca a card identifying him as a Spanish consular official.
Jews were frantically begging to be placed under the protection Franco had offered Sephardic Jews who could trace their roots back to 15th-century Spain. Moved by their plight, Perlasca found a set of consular stamps and without asking anyone in Madrid began issuing his own "Spanish refugee cards" to Jews Sephardic or not. He also took steps to personally protect the more than 3,000 already sheltered in Spanish-owned "safe houses" around the city. "The Nazis would come to take them away, and I would say, 'You must leave this place. I am here. Here is the Spanish flag.' "
It was a desperate tug of war, with Eichmann on one end and Perlasca and the diplomatic representatives of four other neutral states--Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and the Vatican--on the other. "The Swede and I would go to the train station and bluff until we got Jews away by claiming they were our nationals." The Swede was Raoul Wallenberg.
Some 600,000 Hungarian Jews eventually died in the Holocaust, but tens of thousands may have been saved by the efforts of Perlasca and the other Budapest diplomats. Shortly before his death in 1993 at 82, Perlasca told Marek Halter: "These people were in danger and I asked why must someone die because they are of another faith? I had a chance to do something. I couldn't refuse." FRANCE RENE RAOUL, SHOEMAKER An entire village took up the cause of European Jews fleeing the deadly Nazi roundups.
When a trickle of refugee families began arriving in the isolated southern French village of Le Malzieu in 1942, 20-year-old shoemaker Rene Raoul and his family asked few questions. "They were people seeking shelter; we provided it."
Little by little the strangers revealed their stories. They were Jews, many of them foreign born and all desperately trying to escape the ruthless Nazi rafles (roundups) that had already resulted in tens of thousands being shipped by cattle car from Paris and Lyon to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. "The Radaczes, the Rothbards, the Brombergs, I remember them all," says Raoul, now 73.
The trickle soon became a stream. By 1943, more than 100 Jews had found sanctuary in Le Malzieu, a tiny farming town of barely 900 souls. It was a dangerous business that few French were ready to risk. But for the villagers of Le Malzieu, it became a noble conspiracy of silence and salvation. When German troops or French gendarmes neared the village, Raoul himself would make the rounds by bicycle warning Le Malzieu's "guests" to go to appointed hiding places in basements, attics and barns. Other villagers occasionally dressed Jewish children in the uniforms of the fascist Vichy youth organization, then mingled them with their own. The local priest hid families in the church belfry.
"I could not bear the idea that people who had done nothing were hunted," explains Raoul, who stays in touch with some of the families he once helped save. "My children knew Jews hid among us during the war. But I never spoke to them of my role. Why should I? What I did was natural. I would do it again for anyone." BOSNIA MUSTAFA AND ZAYNEBA HARDAGA Muslims and Jews were entangled in a skein of persecution and altruism.
The Jewish Cavilios and the Muslim Hardagas had been friends in pre-World War II Sarajevo. When German bombs destroyed the Cavilios' home in 1941, the Hardagas urged them to move in with them. "You are our brothers and sisters," Mustafa and Zayneba Hardaga told them. "Everything we have is yours; this is your home."
Even after the occupying Nazis invoked brutal antisemitic laws and a mob sacked Sarajevo's Great Synagogue, the Hardagas refused to turn away their Jewish friends. A photo taken at the time shows Zayneba wearing a Muslim veil, walking on a Sarajevo street together with Rivka Cavilio and her young daughter, Tova. Rivka is using her pocketbook to shield the yellow Jude star the Nazis forced all Jews to wear.
As conditions for Jews--and the people who sheltered them--worsened, Yosef Cavilio managed to smuggle his family to the safer Italian-occupied zone of Yugoslavia. Yosef himself, fearing for his Muslim hosts, left the Hardaga home and hid at a local hospital. He was soon arrested and scheduled for shipment to a death camp. Even then, the Hardagas refused to turn their backs. Walking in chains to prison, Cavilio saw a veiled woman staring and crying. From that day on, Zayneba Hardaga found ways to smuggle food to Yosef and several other Jewish prisoners. Not long after, her own father, Ahmed Sadik, was executed by Nazi collaborators for sheltering yet another Jewish family.
When the war ended, the Cavilios, like many other Holocaust survivors, emigrated to the new State of Israel. But they never lost touch with the Hardagas. In 1985, testimony from Yosef Cavilio resulted in Zayneba and Mustafa Hardaga's being honored in Jerusalem as "Righteous Gentiles."
Then, this year, as Sarajevo struggled under another holocaust of sorts, the story came full circle. "When I saw on television what was happening in Bosnia," says Tova Cavilio Greenberg, now a 56-year-old Israeli teacher, "I knew what I had to do." After a few frantic phone calls, the Hardagas' daughter Aida, her Serbian husband and their 10-year-old daughter were brought to safety and new homes in Israel. And last month, Zayneba Hardaga, now a widow, was evacuated to Tel Aviv. "I have come from hell to the Garden of Eden," the 76 year-old woman told the crowd greeting her. Had she not been afraid to do what she had done during World War II? "Compassion," Zayneba Hardaga said, "knows no fear."
This story appears in the March 21, 1994 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.