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The righteous: They risked their lives to save Jews

One would think that someone who grew up in the US and spent three years travelling thousands of miles overseas and pouring through tens of thousands of documents and conducting more than two dozen interviews to research a book about non-Jews who had saved the lives of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe is probably the child or grandchild of Holocaust survivors.

Richard Hurowitz is the author In the Garden of the Righteous.

One would be wrong.

No members of Richard Hurowitz’s immediate family were victims or survivors of Hitler’s “Final Solution.”

A resident of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Hurowitz’s forbears have lived in the US since the early 20th century. He dedicated a major part of his time in 2019 to 2022, which he otherwise could have devoted to his career as a freelance writer, investor and founder of The Octavian Report (octavianreport.com, “the quarterly journal of ideas”), to the topic of Righteous Gentiles because of communal, not familial, motivation.

Righteous Gentiles is the title that Yad Vashem gives to non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust, the best-known of whom include such figures as Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg.

These people’s lives, which they always risked and sometimes sacrificed to help Jews, fascinate and inspire him.

“It’s such an important topic,” he says. “The world owes them a debt of gratitude.”

“I’ve always been interested in rescue and resistance,” he says, sitting in a quiet hotel lobby near his home.

He speaks slowly, without emotion, often pausing to search his memory for details that aren’t on the tip of his tongue.

“Maybe it’s the optimist in me. I was always fascinated by the kindness and courage that came together in individuals . . . It certainly gives hope for mankind that even a few people were willing to not give in to the darkest side of our nature.”

He was intrigued by the account of the White Rose group of Christian medical students in Munich who took an active stance against the Nazi oppression of Jews during WW II (some of the students were executed by the Nazis), which he learned about while visiting the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, some three decades ago.

“The White Rose were beautiful souls in a time of nightmare, a breath of fresh air sweeping through the hellish landscape of the Holocaust. I took them with me when I left the museum.”

Next came more learning about other non-Jews who took a stand against Hitler’s genocidal designs on European Jewry.

The result of his work is the recently published In The Garden of The Righteous: The Heroes Who Risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust (Harper, $28.99). The 452-page book has brought Hurowitz, who was a history major at Yale University (he also has a law degree from Columbia), a spate of favorable reviews and a busy schedule of speaking engagements, often in conversation with prominent Jewish figures like the ADL’s Abe Foxman and Park Avenue Synagogue’s Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove.

His speeches have drawn unanticipated capacity crowds, which he attributes to people looking for examples of unity and solidarity during the current climate of civic unrest in this country. His book has the advantage of being issued by a major publisher, which has the resources to promote it on a wider basis than earlier books on the topic, whose smaller publishing firms had smaller budgets.

Hurowitz’s book is the latest in a series of books and movies and documentaries devoted in recent decades to the men and women whose acts saved an estimated few hundred thousand lives during the Shoah.

As the last members of that generation — and of the survivor generation — dies, In The Garden of the Righteous is likely to become among the best-known introductions to the topic for readers coming of age eight decades or more after the end of WW II.

The book’s title is a nod to the section of Yad Vashem where Righteous Gentiles were originally honored, six decades ago, by carob trees planted in their honor. As the number of people recognized by the Holocaust memorial and research center subsequently increased, rows of trees, marked by plaques, were planted along an “Avenue of the Righteous” elsewhere on the Jerusalem grounds of Yad Vashem. Most of the people profiled in Hurowitz’s book were honored in some way by Yad Vashem over the years, he says.

Hurowitz’s book documents what Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum calls stories that “balance our despair . . . one person can make a difference.”

In the Garden of the Righteous features ten stories (cut down from his original goal of 15) of individuals or groups of people about members of various Christian denominations (a few Muslims were also honored by Yad Vashem) who worked to assure the survival of people threatened by the Third Reich’s Final Solution.

Among the men and women in Hurowitz’s pages are Portugal’s Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Japan’s Chinue Sugihara, Poland’s Irena Sendler, France’s Le Chambon-sur-Lignon village, Germany’s Adolf and Maria Althoff, and Greece’s Price Alice (mother of the UK’s Prince Phillip, late husband of the late Queen Elizabeth II) — many of them known in survivors’ and historians’ circles, but not so well-known among the general public as figures as Schindler or Wallenberg.

“The extraordinary stories of the rescuers are too little told and too little known,” Hurowitz writes in the introduction. “The very existence of the rescuers offers proof of the Holocaust to counter any who would deny it or diminish it. Every rescuer is a rebuke to them.

“It is,” he adds, “a historical injustice if the names of Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering remain more well-known than those of Wallenberg and Schindler.”

The number of people honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem is more than 28,000; Yad Vashem continues to hold ceremonies to honor people whose heroic action are newly documented.

How did Hurowitz choose the stories, intended to “offer a broad spectrum,” on which he would focus? His final choices “particularly spoke to me,” he wrote. “Any anecdotes or stories that I believed were suspicious – and there were some – I have not included. It is important that all historical evidence be carefully studied, weighed and analyzed without any prior agenda.”

Hurowitz interviewed the descendants of rescuers and survivors, combed through archives, and consulted documents in several foreign languages, often aided by translators (the only foreign tongue in which he claims fluency is Italian).

He accumulated, an editor told him, enough background to write an entire book on each of the stories that ended up in a single chapter.

What is the unique offering of Hurowitz’s final product?

“It’s not an academic book,” he answers. Unlike many earlier ones on the topic, which were written primarily for scholars or historians, Hurowitz’s voluminous collection of facts and vignettes is conveyed in an accessible style, aimed at a general audience of readers, not necessarily experts on the Shoah.

Hurowitz says In the Garden of the Righteous contains much new background and historical context about the men and women in its pages, based on his extensive archival research and interviews.

An example is, his chapter on the disproportionate Jewish role in Europe’s little-known, pre-war circus industry.

The people he profiled shared a few common traits, he says: All had a strong parental figure or some other influential role model while growing up; all expressed the feeling that they did what basic decency required; though not all were conventionally “religious,” all shared an ethos of overwhelming altruism; all were modest about their deeds, rejecting the description of themselves as “heroes.”

“I did nothing special,” they would typically say.

Not all of them were saints, Hurowitz says; some were outright anti-Semites. But all stepped up when most of their fellow citizens looked away.

Did his grown children, and members of their generation, appreciate and absorb the lessons of selflessness in Hurowitz’s book?

Yes, he says. “The stories of rescue and the lessons they give are particularly impactful on young people. These lessons are universal, and there is no better place to look than the rescuers.”

Copyright © 2023 by the Intermountain Jewish News



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IJN Contributing Writer


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