In the Darkness, Heroes Are Found
A rabbi's faith in the power of goodness is rekindled by those who saved Jews from the Nazis. CHRISTIAN RESCUERS
PITTSBURGH — HAROLD SCHULWEIS began his search for moral heroes when his children sat down to a television special on the Holocaust. ``I had this strange feeling of wanting them to see it,'' he recalls in a telephone interview, but ``hoping that they would not leave totally despaired and paranoiac.''
For Mr. Schulweis, a rabbi in Oakland, Calif., the dilemma was doubly sharp.
``Here I am, preaching from a Judaic point of view that the human being is created in the image of God and emphasizing the reality of goodness,'' he recalls thinking, ``and I don't seem to have any empirical evidence of that, especially when the Holocaust is mentioned.''
So Schulweis began in the early 1960s to look for the other side of the Holocaust - the unsung moral heroes of that dark period. And, happily, he found them. Thousands of ordinary people risked their positions and often their lives to save Jews during World War II. They are people like:
Hermann Graebe, a German civilian contractor working with the German forces in the Soviet Union, who witnessed first-hand the massacre of Jews. He was so horrified that he requisitioned hundreds of Jews for work details, then got them to safety by reassigning them to a fictional branch office in the Ukraine.
Aristedes de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese consul who falsified hundreds of passports to get Jews into Portugal and then was stripped of his position and ridiculed for his actions.
Alexander and Mila Roslan, a Polish Christian couple, who harbored a Jewish child for three years. The Roslans sold their home and moved frequently to avoid detection by the Nazis. At one point, they used a sofa to smuggle the boy into a hospital for surgery and bribed the surgeon in order to keep it secret.
``It is clear that we are dealing with a considerable number - not as large as the apathetic, and it's not as large as the persecutors - but we are now beginning to speak in terms of tens of thousands,'' Schulweis says. ``And as one remarkable Dutch rescuer told me: `You know, rabbi, you talk only about the conspiracy of evil. I have not heard you speak about the conspiracy of goodness. ... Do you think it could be done without the cooperation of the Dutch policeman and the Dutch grocery and our neighbors?'''
During the early years of his search, Schulweis got little support or help. Jews feared the effort to find heroes would turn into a whitewash of the Holocaust, he says. Even Christians did not want to respond.
``Many Christians that I've tried to speak to have an understandably difficult time to absorb the Holocaust, because it's so filled with accusation and condemnation of the failures of priests and ministers. But once they ... see these Christian heroic personalities, they are then able to recognize that there is no hero without a villain and they are able to accept the darkness because there is a light at the end of the tunnel.''
Now the tide is turning: Jews are beginning to reexamine the Holocaust and support Schulweis's efforts. In 1987, his Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers (JFCR) became a project of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.
``I think it signals a certain maturity,'' says Bob Goodkind, the foundation's chairman. ``The process is really just beginning but at the same time I think we are getting a very beautiful reaction.''
JFCR's board includes Christians as well as Jews and has already raised enough money to begin providing financial aid to more than 100 needy rescuers in Europe and the United States. Many rescuers are in need, Schulweis says, because they're shunned by their own people and have not had contact from the Jewish community. Rescuers in the US, for example, receive $200 a month.
Beyond that, JFCR aims to locate and publicize the stories of rescuers as examples of moral leadership, says director David Szonyi. Next spring, the foundation plans to host a conference on moral courage.
``I think you need heroes precisely from the so-called `enemy' camp,'' Schulweis says. ``What has happened, regretfully - for reasons which are, I think, fascinating - is that goodness is buried into at best some footnotes but mostly forgotten.''
For example, he says, the Encyclopedia Judaica dismisses the rescuers of Anne Frank and her family, saying only: ``They were kept alive by friendly gentiles.''
Why this reluctance to acknowledge good? ``I have a suspicion that there's greater challenge and fear in confronting goodness than in confronting evil,'' Schulweis says. ``Compared to [Nazi Adolf] Eichmann, I'm a great guy. But compared to [Christian rescuer Hermann] Graebe ... and all these other people, I have to ask myself the challenging question: Would I unlock my doors and hide a family? It's a very important lesson for the post-Holocaust world, which has become extremely cynical and very despairing.''
``You have to want to look for goodness,'' he adds. ``And if you don't want to, you won't see it. You have to look for that spark in that impentrable darkness. And I think that's the beginning of a search. ... You know, if you look for godliness or divinity, you have to know where to look. And to be able to find it in the midst of a hell, it rekindles one's faith in the possibilities of goodness.''