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The Righteous Amid Horrors of the Holocaust

2/23/2006 - 5:30 AM PST

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Interview With a Yad Vashem Commission Member

ROME, FEB. 23, 2006 (Zenit) - Holocaust Memorial Day, observed Jan. 27, was dedicated to the memory of the "Righteous among the Nations," those who saved Jews destined for the Nazi death camps.

In order to know the meaning of the highest recognition to non-Jewish individuals, we interviewed Nathan Ben Horin, a member of the Designation Commission of the "Righteous among the Nations." The commission is under Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

Born in Germany, Horin arrived in Rome recently to present a book on the subject. He lived in France and participated in the Resistance. He has represented his country diplomatically and, in Italy, worked in the Holy See from 1980-1986, when there were still no diplomatic relations with Israel.

Q: Why remember the Righteous with stories of more than 60 years ago?

Horin: It is a sign of great hope and much faith in human nature, to place at the center of this year's Holocaust Memorial Day the experience of the Righteous among the Nations. Their action is the only ray of light in the abysmal blackness of the years of the Shoah [Holocaust].

With their decision, they attest that man was not all wickedness, sadism, bestiality, but that he was also capable of love of neighbor, human solidarity, and abnegation to the point of sacrificing his life.

In the testimonies of those saved, there is often the affirmation that those who helped not only saved them physically, but gave back to them faith in man; a faith that was very beaten by the torments and horrors of the war.

Primo Levi, the writer who survived Auschwitz, in the famous book "If This Is a Man," recounts how in the camp an Italian civilian worker brought him, every day during six months, a piece of bread and the leftovers of his mess, gave him his jersey full of patches, wrote a card for him and also gave him the reply.

"For all this," wrote Primo Levi, "he did not ask for or accept any compensation, because he was good and simple ."

"I think," added Levi, "that precisely to Lorenzo I owe my being alive today, and not so much for his material help, but for having reminded me constantly with his presence, his plain and easy way of being good, that a just world still exists outside of ours, something and someone still pure and honest, not corrupt or savage, a stranger to hatred and fear. Thanks to Lorenzo I myself did not forget I was a man."

This man, Lorenzo Perone, was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous among the Nations in 1998, at the request of Renzo, Primo Levi's son.

Q: From where did the concept "Righteous among the Nations" come?

Horin: In the Jewish tradition, the concept of righteous occupies a central place.

One of the Talmudic treatises teaches that the world exists thanks to the merit of the righteous. Another text states that God will not destroy the world, so long as there are 50 righteous.

In the Middle Ages, the cruelly persecuted people in the whole of Europe extended the term Righteous among the Nations to the Jews who did not behave in a proper way.

Following the experience of the Shoah, it was chosen as title of honor to designate non-Jews who risked their lives and that of their relatives to save their Jewish brothers.

Q: What is the relationship between the "memorial" and the Righteous?

Horin: The Jewish people are often called the people of remembrance. The imperative "remember" and "do not forget" is repeated many times in the Bible. It is a mandate that refers to the observance of the precepts of God and his action in history.

With reference to recent history, this imperative refers not only to the evil suffered, but to the good received.

When the Knesset, the Jewish Parliament, instituted the Yad Vashem Memorial in 1953 to perpetuate the memory of the 6 million Jews, victims of Nazi ferocity, it also entrusted it with the task of paying homage to the Righteous among the Nations.

By doing so, the Knesset affirmed that not only the saved, but the whole Jewish people have a debt of recognition and honor vis--vis the Righteous.

Q: What are the criteria and procedures to recognize a Righteous?

Horin: In 1962 Yad Vashem created an independent public to designate the Righteous among the Nations according to three criteria: the one giving help knew the Jewish identity of the one persecuted; his action exposed him to risk his life, safety and freedom; the help given was not conditioned by any material advantage.

The commission, under the chairmanship of the judge of the Supreme Court, is made up of qualified personalities among volunteer jurists and historians. In principle, they were survivors of the Shoah.

Today, another generation is ...

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