Jerusalem Working Group
for Recognition of Major Jewish Rescuers during the Shoah
POB 23718 Jerusalem 91236
Larry Pfeffer - Jerusalem Working Group
Presented at the Fifteenth International
Conference in Jerusalem, Israel
"RESCUE AND RESCUERS: DIFFERENT FORMS AND ACHIEVEMENTS"
Welcome to the “Rescue and Rescuers: Different Forms and Achievements” international conference.
I am dedicating this introduction and my talk later in the day to my departed parents, Theodora and Armin Pfeffer, my sister, Eva Pfeffer, who died a year ago, and to my relatives murdered during the Holocaust. May their memories be blessed as well as the memories of six million innocent Jewish victims of Europe’s recent murderous dark age.
Conferences on the Holocaust usually deal with the darkest corners of the collective soul and with consequent immense suffering to our families and our people. This conference focuses on the best in humanity, when light and kindness emerged in the context of darkness and evil. Today's discussions are dedicated to this side of this coin of history.
We call the lights of that dark age “rescuers” the best known of whom was Raoul Wallenberg.
For many of us he is a symbol of the Holocaust era rescuer who snatched large numbers of us from the murderers' claws. Often we forget that he is also the symbol of the over ninety million victims of international Communism of which we rarely if ever hear about. He was able to rescue us from the death marches and the trains to Auschwitz but could not be rescued from the Russian dungeons and the Gulag. It is indeed puzzling that he could rescue large numbers of us Jews from the Nazis and vicious Hungarian Fascists and antisemites but that apparently such rescues were not possible from the Communists. For many the Communist legacy still has a positive after-glow despite monumental crimes. In today's historical narrative Mao Tze Tung, Lenin and Stalin are unfortunately not placed in the same league of vicious murderers as Hitler and many see them as positive figures and not the mass murderers they were.
Wallenberg stood up for us, but we did not stand up for him. Despite considerable lip service there was and is little place in our heart for him and people like him.
Other major non-Jewish rescuers, like Carl Lutz and Aristides Sousa Mendes, are even more forgotten by us. In Jerusalem we have a noisy passage way with a banged up street sign bearing Wallenberg's name. We have no public place in Jerusalem named for other major rescuers some of whom saved tens of thousands of us. Despite unending streams of words about the Holocaust this apathy is a litmus test of our collective self.
There were also people like Wallenberg, Lutz, Mendes and others, but with Jewish names and Jewish countenance. Some worked at the strategic level and had great impact on rescue. Their inspired activism was critical to rescue of hundreds of thousands of us. The activism of some of them enabled the Wallenberg mission. Names like George Mantello (nee Mandl Gyuri), Hillel Kook (alias Peter Bergson), Rabbi Michael Ber Weissmandl and Gizi Fleischmann, Recha Sternbuch and Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld are not part of mainstream Holocaust memory. Our collective historical narrative also excludes groups like the Jewish youth rescue underground in Budapest, despite their many important achievements.
Despite many efforts especially by the Jerusalem Working Group and the very active “Association of Jewish Resistance in the Holocaust” led by Chaim Roet, to date the major Jewish rescuers are not appropriately recognized by the State of Israel and its organs and major Jewish organizations and Holocaust centers internationally
We also sweep under the carpet the frequent and tragic phenomenon of apathy, lack of imagination and obstruction of rescue by Jewish leaders, including those in the Yishuv. Today’s ritualized Holocaust dialogue excludes the names of major Jewish rescuers and also of major Jewish obstructors.
The subject of the Holocaust inevitably links to Yad Vashem. It has the following sign in its visitors' building: “Remembering the Past, Shaping the Future.” Do we intend to live up to that statement or we prefder a culture of slogans? Are such slogans mindful or mindless? Do we passively or cynically walk by such signs or do they provoke probing questions and action? Are we risking the future by failing to remember the past, just as it was – without makeup?
The future is indeed important and lessons learned or not learned from the past shape the future – especially thru the collective memories and distilled conclusions inherited by future generations.
We architect luxurious Houses of Pat Answers to complex matters related to the Holocaust. Instead, we need Houses of Troubling Questions from which visitors walk out as life long questioners, learn to cope with complex reality and to juggle multiple perspectives.
Since this conference is taking place in Jerusalem it is appropriate to ask what does Judaism teach us about activism and rescue. The messages are clear.
We are responsible for one another – arevim ze le ze.
It is said Bamakom she ein ish tihje ish – Where there is no man be a man.
For the sake of justice and to save lives we are required to struggle even with God as did Abraham who is recorded as one of the early rescuers followed by Moshe and later Queen Esther and Mordechai. In contrast to Abraham, Noah was reprimanded by God for not being an activist and failing to intercede to save the world from the flood.
In times of trouble Pikuach Nefesh requires us to break much of Jewish law to save someone’s health or life.
In context of rescue we fail to understand and convey that Holocaust era rescue is the story of the failure of the organization man and victory of inspired, maverick innovative individual - much as in technology, where innovation is fueled by start-ups.
The major Jewish and non-Jewish rescuers were distinguished not only by their achievements but by their individualism and the extraordinary scope of their aspirations and activism. Judaism has much to say on this as well – starting with the concept of man created in God's imagine – Be Tzelem Elokim - as an individual and a potential giant. The Kotzker Rebbe and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik said much about this theme.
At this conference rescue and to some extent obstruction and lost opportunities will be presented from various vantage points. We will not agree on all. The subject matter is far too complex and for many of us also very emotional.
I ask each of you to imagine the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies in our Temple. He had to be absolutely pure to enter - including purity in his heart. Let’s enter the discussion with a pure heart and an inquisitive mind seeking to understand an important part of our history.
Inasmuch as possible let's park our individual group affiliations outside and in this discussion be affiliated only with the truth seekers and truth tellers.
Let’s teach each other and patiently and respectfully learn from one another.
Let's proclaim with clarity that we don't accept an Elastic Theory of History where the record of the past can be stretched, filtered, made up with cosmetics and re-cast to suit our tastes.
Let’s assure that this is the start of sober and principled dialogue on rescue and obstruction and hope that soon there is a critical mass of questioners and discussants on this topic with diverse approaches and seeking only truth.
Let’s remain loyal to the children we were not so long ago and exclaim “The Emperor in Naked!”
Instead of an expanding centrally planned and heavily orchestrated intellectual monopoly of the Holocaust we need a restructured marketplace of ideas with considerable distributed thinking. In recent correspondence with Prof. Alan Dershowitz of the Harvard Law School he wrote: “Your work sounds interesting. The best way to break a monopoly is to compete with it in the marketplace of ideas. There is no monopoly on truth or history.”
Let's remember Victor Hugo's statement: "A stand can be made against invasion by an army; no stand can be made against invasion by an idea.”
Let’s resolve that we will assure that as soon as possible rescue by Jews is appropriately dealt with in Israel and in Jewish communities world-wide.
Each of us can speak at length about rescue and rescuers. Let’s resolve to also act on the lessons learned and let each of us ask of himself in his own realm of concerns “What would Raoul Wallenberg, Rabbi Weissmandl, Carl Lutz, Hillel Kook, Aristides Sousa Mendes, George Mantello, Giorgio Perlasca, Recha Sternbuch and others like them do in my time in my place? What do I have to do for today's burning problems?”
Welcome to the Grown-Up Version of History - to the modality of thought and dialogue where reality is not black and white, where the good is sometimes blemished and the blemished often includes much that is good. Welcome to Metziut Murkevet: Complex Reality.
Let the discussion begin.