In 1933 the Nazi (National Socialist German Workers) Party, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, came to power in Germany. A dictatorship was established on the principles of control over all cultural, economic and political activities of the people, belief in the supremacy of Hitler as Fuhrer, anti-Semitism, and the establishment of Germany as a dominant world power.
Millions of people were persecuted under Nazi rule because of their race, political conviction, religious belief or social behaviour. Among them were Jews, Jews of mixed descent, non-Jews who stood up for the rescue of Jews, communists, political dissidents, anti-fascists and other resistance fighters, rebellious juveniles, “anti-social individuals”, Gypsies, criminals, homosexuals, the intellectually and physically disabled, forced labourers and prisoners of war. Over eleven million people were killed including six million Jewish children, men and women. This systematic annihilation by the Nazi regime. which took place between January 1933 and May 1945 is known as the Holocaust or Shoah.
Righteous Among the Nations or Righteous Gentile is the name given to those non-Jews who aided and saved Jews during the Holocaust. They are people who had the courage to care for others, and risked their lives for the sake of what was right. There were Righteous Among the Nations in every country under Nazi occupation and those who chose to do so displayed monumental bravery. These extraordinary people usually discount notions of heroism and make light of risking their lives and the lives of their families. Many have now died but, since 1953, over 8000 Righteous Among the Nations have been recognised, honoured and rewarded by Yad Vashem, a Jewish organization based in Jerusalem. Among the most famous are Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler.
Raoul Wallenberg was a young Swedish aristocrat who was chosen to head a Swedish diplomatic mission to help rescue Jews living in Nazi occupied Hungary. Based in Budapest, he issued Jewish people with certificates with a yellow and blue flag and a Swedish crown. The holders of these “Wallenberg passports” were protected from the Nazis and saved from being deported to Auschwitz concentration camp. Wallenberg also set up soup kitchens, hospitals, orphanages and schools for the remaining Hungarian Jews.
He established a “safe zone” of 31 houses and special hostels which absorbed 33 000 Jews. He personally pulled people from trains and tried to ease the suffering of others on marches with truckloads of food, water, blankets and medicine. Once he even secured the release of 70 000 people by having Nazi orders reversed. In the last days of the war he foiled Nazi plans to blow up two ghettos, an act which alone saved 100 000 Jews.
Raoul Wallenberg disappeared into Soviet custody in 1945. At one time the Soviets claimed that he had died in custody in 1947, but we may never know what really happened to him. Books, films, memorials, street names and honorary citizenships keep this incredible man’s name alive.
In 1939, Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who had a passion for women, liquor and motorbikes followed the German Army into Krakow, Poland. He befriended and ingratiated himself with the officers of the SS, but after seeing an Aktion (mass execution of Jews), was heard to say: “I am now resolved to do everything in my power to defeat the system.” Schindler set up a factory called “Emalia” which produced (very poor quality) enamelware and shell casings for the military. By 1942 he had 500 Jews ‘working’ for him there. Bribing German officials, Schindler insisted that his factory site be protected and when they liquidated the Krakow ghetto in 1943, he paid them for 900 more Jews. Even those actually unfit or unqualified to work he housed safely in his compound. Although “Schindler’s Jews” worked very long shifts, they suffered no beatings or executions and were provided with food and medicine.
With the Russian advance in 1944, Schindler moved his factory to Brunnlitz in Czechoslovakia. Paying massive bribes to the SS, he took with him 800 Jewish men and 300 women as his ‘workers’. The men had been destined for Gross Rosen concentration camp and the women for Auschwitz. One group of women ended up in Auschwitz by mistake, but Schindler miraculously got them out, saving all from certain death.
In 1962 Oskar Schindler was honoured by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. Australian author Thomas Keneally wrote a book telling Schindler’s story, which was turned into the film Schindler’s List by Steven Spielberg.
After the Second World War many Europeans made their homes in Australia. Among them were over twenty heroes who have been honoured as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Visham including Adrianus and Bertha Van As, Olga Nowak, Lydia and Johannes Huygens and Maria Prow.
Adrianus and Bertha Van As
Adrianus Vanas has always fought injustice. When he saw the Nazi persecution of Jews in Holland, he and his wife, Bertha, immediately joined the underground. In 1942, when Jewish deportations began, his role was to find out what happened at the end of their journey and so they went to Westerbork, which became the largest Nazi transit camp in Holland. Adrianus, an employee of the Dutch government, was in charge of food distribution in the camp, ensuring that rations were fairly distributed. However, his major work was for the underground, removing names from deportation lists, supplying false papers and finding safe houses. Bertha hid documents under her corset and smuggled them out of the camp. They knew that the Nazis suspected them and Adrianus was threatened more than once. Assurances from the underground that their two children would be cared for, gave them the courage to continue.
On 12 April 1945, the Germans fled the camp and Adrianus became Camp Commander, on the orders of the Dutch Government-in-exile. He stayed on after liberation, until August, when he had escorted the last Jews from the camp. He had saved nearly 1000 lives.
In 1955 the Van As family came to live in Australia and later both Adrianus and Bertha were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. A true hero, Adrianus has never lost his passion for justice nor his willingness to fight for it and, as part of the Courage to Care program, continues to be an inspiration to countless Australian school students.
Under the floor, behind cupboards, in tunnels and under cow sheds, these were some of the places Olga Nowak found to hide Leszek Nadler (Nowak), his mother Cyla, sister Alka, aunt and uncle Aniela and Gustaw and cousin Dodek. Between 1941 and 1944, at any one time, one or more members of the family would find sanctuary with this remarkable woman.
In the Polish town of Boryslaw – now the Ukraine – Olga was working at the Town Hall when the Germans invaded in 1941. Her job provided her with precious food rations, which she supplemented with food from her parents’ farm 120 km out of town, enabling her to feed the group, without arousing suspicion. Olga fully understood the risks she took in hiding Jews, but she simply never thought she would be caught. When Leszek needed her help, she knew in her heart that she should do what she could.
After the war, Olga and Leszek married and in 1951, came to Australia. Today, Olga is surrounded by a loving family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who exist because of her courage to care. In 2003, Yad Vashem honoured her as Righteous Among the Nations.
Lydia and Johannes Huygens
Just opposite the Nazi SS headquarters in Utrecht in Holland, five Jews were hiding. Hyman and Miep Degens with their twelve year-old daughter, Lenie, occupied one room and, later, Miep’s sister, Beppie Dresden, and her husband, Barend, the other. Under these rooms, were Lydia and Johannes Huygens’ apartment and their hairdressing business.
From 1942-4, Johannes and Lydia lived dangerously. During the day, it was business as usual downstairs. Johannes and his staff worked in the salon, while Lydia looked after the apartment and her infant daughter. The three families spent the evenings together, but with the blinds closed, so that the Gestapo across the street could not see in! In case of danger, Johannes had created 2 secret hiding places, one in the cellar through a false panel in the wall and the other through the back of a wardrobe.
Johannes’ hairdressing skills proved to be invaluable. He dyed young Lenie’s hair red to hide her Jewish appearance, allowing her to go to the beach with the Huygens family and later, on a brief holiday to Lydia’s parents. More importantly, he would exchange haircuts for the extra food now required.They knew full well the risks they were taking, but at no time felt fear.
After the war they made Australia their home. Their courage and bravery have seen them honoured as Righteous Among the Nations.
In the small town of Otinya in Poland – now Ukraine – Maria Sulikowska, a young deserted wife with an infant daughter, was a tenant in the Prow household. After the Nazis came she moved to a small room in another house nearby. From this modest base, she would help many Jews, providing food, shelter and comfort and saving lives. She remembered her own childhood, growing up in an orphanage and felt deep compassion for those who had been abandoned.
George Prow spent the war years hiding, being caught, escaping and hiding again. In the early years, he was with his brother and a friend; later he was on his own. It was the support from Maria which kept him alive. During the warmer weather, he hid in barns, visiting Maria at night for food. By 1943, with winter at hand, he moved into Maria’s room. They pushed a wardrobe across the corner of the room, creating a hideout in the space behind. George built a false ceiling above the space, which Maria covered with potatoes. She also bought a few rabbits, which she kept outside on her verandah, so that if neighbours heard noise, they would think it was rabbits running around.
Soon after liberation they were married and came to Australia. Maria was honoured as Righteous Among the Nations and more than 50 years later, George still called her “Maria, my saviour”.
Theme: International racism and anti-racism