European Day of the Righteous 2021

Mateusz Szczepaniak, Joanna Król, English translation: Andrew Rajcher, 2nd March 2021
On 6th March, we commemorate the European Day of the Righteous, established in 2012 by the European Parliament, to remember those who, in the 20th century, defended dignity and human rights. This concept also refers to the title of Righteous Among the Nations as conferred by the State of Israel. On this date, the History Meeting House announces the names of those who have been honoured by the Committee of the Garden of the Righteous in Warsaw. This year POLIN Museum invites you to take part in the online commemorations. See what we have prepared, to mark this occasion, on our Polish Righteous website.

“The Righteous saved Europe’s honour during the Holocaust and ensured that we did not lose our faith in humanity. [...] Today, we also consider as ‘Righteous’ those who opposed the Armenian genocide and those who provided aid to the victims of war in Rwanda, Cambodia and during the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. Those who defended dignity and freedom in totalitarian regimes also deserve the title of ‘Righteous’ [...]. The world within which we live is not free of conflicts, something which should especially encourage us to remember the deeds of the Righteous” – the Committee of the World Garden of the Righteous to the European Parliament, 2011.

The Universal Concept of Righteous

Since 1963, the Yad Vashem Institute has honoured non-Jews, who selflessly saved Jews during the Holocaust, with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. In 2012, a resolution of the European Parliament extended the concept of “Righteous”, making it universal.

Using this approach, the “Righteous” are people who, “motivated by a sense of personal responsibility, opposed crimes against humanity and opposed totalitarianism”. They include both those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust and those who also risked their lives or freedom, in various countries and during periods of recent history, to defend dignity and human rights. 

In many countries, including Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, France, Ruanda and Italy, local Committees and Gardens of the Righteous have been established in order to award this title. In Poland, the one and, to date, only Garden of the RIghteous was established in Warsaw in 2014, located at Jerzy Jura-Gorzechowski Square in Muranów, not far from POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

The Garden of the Righteous in Warsaw

So far, twenty-one people have been honoured in this Garden. They include Jan Karski, Marek Edelman, Anna Politkowska, Nelson Mandela, Władysław Bartoszewski, Natalia Gorbaniewska, Jan Jelinek, Roberto Kozak, Armin Wegner and Raul Wallenberg. We present their stories in our virtual exhibition Righteous Without Borders – Acting for the Sake of Dignity and Human Rights.

Names of the people honoured by the Warsaw Committee of the Garden of the Righteous are announced annually, by the History Meeting House, during European Day of the Righteous on 6th March. That date is another link to the title of Righteous Among the Nations. This date is the anniversary of the death of Mosze Bejski (1921–2007), the initiator of the Garden of the Righteous in Jerusalem and co-author of the definition of “Righteous Among the Nations”.

This year, the European Day of the Righteous is an opportunity for POLIN Museum to present recent discussions on the subject of Jews helping other Jews during the Holocaust. We thank Joanna Sobolewska-Pyz, long-serving Chair of the Association of the “Children of the Holocaust” in Poland, for the inspiration for this. She owes her survival to, among others, the actions of Stanisław Gombiński, a policeman of the Jewish Police Service in the Warsaw Ghetto.  

The Yad Vashem Institute does not honour such people with the title of Righteous Among the Nations, because, as already stated, it is awarded only to non-Jews. To see what we have prepared, please see below.

Remembrance Day 2021: Jews Helping Other Jews

In almost every account about hiding during the German occupation, we find information about help which Jews, hiding on the "Aryan side", provided to each other. They helped others to find a flat or job, they lent them money, they provided information and also shared thei experiences. They created formal (within underground organisations) or informal help networks, including family members, friends or even complete strangers. 

We wish to remember those Jews who helped other Jews on the “Aryan side”. This is reason why we have created a new section on our Polish Righteous website [online from 6th March].

There, we present nine selected stories of aid, including those of Stanisław Gombiński, Feiga Peltel-Międzyrzecka (Vladka Meed) – Jewish Fighting Organisation couriers, Maria Hochberg (Miriam Peleg) and Helena Merenholc – liaison officers of the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews, Maurycy Herling-Grudziński (brother of well-known writer Gustaw) – founder of the “Felicja” codenamed cell, which included helping 20% of all Jews hiding in occupied Warsaw, and Janina Rechtleben-Wojciechowska who, contrary to German orders, did not move into the Warsaw Ghetto, remained on the “Aryan side” and helped other Jews in hiding.

An important supplement to these nine stories of the historical study by Prof. Barbary Engelking, in which the phenomenon of Jewish self-help on the “Aryan side” is discussed in terms of problems, distinguishing and characterising both organisational and individual.

As Prof. Barbara Engelking notes:

“The cases of Jews coming to the aid of other Jews are also worth documenting in order to challenge the stereotypical view of Jews passively trying to survive the war and to undermine the prevailing narrative of Jewish people ‘sitting in their wardrobes,’ assisted by a flock of selfless Poles. In reality, many Jews were coming to the rescue of others; they were resourceful, inventive, courageous, and determined. Though death was awaiting them at every turn, they were willing to risk their lives to save other Jews.”

Contributors to this project include Karolina Dzięciołowska, Prof. Barbara Engelking, Dr. Marta Janczewska and Joanna Sobolewka-Pyz. Authors of the stories of aid also include Dr. Aleksandra Namysło and Dr. Marcin Urynowicz.

To date, Jews who helped other Jews during the Holocaust have been honoured only by the B’nai B’rith organisation, through its Jewish Rescuers Citation project. Established in 2011, the award has been presented to 172 rescuers from France, Greece, the Netherlands, the former Yugoslavia, Lithuania, Germany, Poland, Russian, Slovakia and Hungary. Among those honoured is Maria Hochberg (Miriam Peleg), whose story we present on our new website section.

» See the new section: Jewish Helping Other Jews on the “Aryan Side” [online from 6th March]