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Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust

2/11/2007 - 7:00 AM PST

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"Persons Who Simply Followed a Call of Conscience"

ROME, FEB. 11, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is the address given by Lisa Palmieri-Billig, liaison of the American-Jewish Committee to the Holy See, and Rome correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, on the occasion of the presentation of the Italian translation of Martin Gilbert's book, "The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust."

Gilbert's book, originally published in English in 2002, has just been translated into Italian under the title: "I Giusti, gli eroi sconosciuti dell'Olocausto," by the publishing house Città Nuova. The presentation took place Jan. 24.

* * *

When the black clouds of Nazism covered the skies of Europe and sank to earth as a poisonous fog that infiltrated the privacy of people's lives in the form of near total physical and spiritual dominion, everywhere and despite everything -- single stars of disobedience began to shine, of resistance to the mad orders aimed at exterminating the Jewish people.

These stars to which we pay tribute today, were individuals, persons who simply followed a call of conscience: Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Evangelical, Baptist, Lutheran Christians, but also Muslims, non believers and atheists. They came from all social levels and all nations. They were farmers, doctors, diplomats, princesses and kings. They were simple religious and papal nuncios. They came from the political left and the fight, even from the fascist right.

And perhaps we could add a category that is never mentioned -- the Jews themselves who consciously offered their lives to save those of the brothers and sisters of their people, and sometimes even the lives of non-Jews. According to the Jewish tradition these were acts of "Kiddush Hashem," the sanctification of the name of the Lord. Here are three examples, but most certainly there are many others to be found. Research in this field has yet to be done.

Janus Korczak, a Warsaw physician and educator, stayed with the orphans of the Warsaw ghetto until the very end. He refused offers to escape into security in order to stay with "his" children and go with them on the train to Auschwitz so they would not be left alone with their desperation. The same choice was made by the chief rabbi of Genoa, Riccardo Pacifici, grandfather of today's spokesman of Rome's Jewish community, who bears his name.

In full awareness that he was risking his own life, Rabbi Pacifici chose to stay on in Genoa to take care of the last Jews of his community, rather than escape in time. And then there was that soldier of the Jewish Brigade who landed up in Naples. Finding that the Nazis were holding a little boy hostage in retaliation for a partisan action, he organized an ambush and freed the child -- who was the father of a friend of mine. These are stories that are yet to be told.

What all these people had in common was the capacity to choose, to react against injustice out of conviction. They refused to close their eyes and hearts to the suffering around them. At the cost of risking their own and their families' lives, they refused to succumb to conformity or to the dulling of the soul through the drumming of evil. "It is better that our children grow up as orphans rather than with the knowledge that their parents did nothing" said one of the righteous women in Gilbert's book.

Martin Gilbert writes that these men and women were fully aware of the dangers they were facing "often of the execution of their relatives and themselves" but "they made their choice with serenity, deliberately, in full awareness of the risks -- risks they faced and accepted for months and even years."

When, later, they were asked why they did what they had, they replied with great simplicity and some amazement at the question. "But it was the normal, decent thing to do. Wouldn't you have done the same?"

This was the reply given by Giorgio Perlasca, the Italian who found himself in Budapest working on the exportation-importation of meats in 1944. A magnificent impostor, he presented himself as the new Spanish consul when Ángel Sanz-Bris fled, to continue his life-saving work of producing identity cards and false Spanish passports for Jews who were suddenly transformed into "Sefardis" -- of Spanish origin -- finding rooms for them in protected housing.

There were about 25,000 of these apartments set aside through the influence of the papal nuncio, Archbishop Angelo Rotta, and administrated by the consulates of Switzerland (Carl Lutz), Sweden (the famous Raoul Wallenberg who later disappeared into thin air), and Portugal.

Through this strenuous and desperate work, Giorgio Perlasca, with unique bravado, succeeded in rescuing at least 5,000 Jews. Once he even managed to tear two twins off a train destined for Auschwitz. That day, Perlasca growled loudly at the SS commander -- who he ...

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