Each year, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum leads the nation in commemorating Days of Remembrance.
Established by the U.S. Congress, the Days of Remembrance are to memorialize the 6 million Jews murdered in the holocaust, as well as the numerous millions of non-Jewish victims of Nazi persecution.
Millions of ordinary people witnessed the crimes of the holocaust in their city squares, stores, schools, workplaces and in their homes, but they chose to do nothing. The victims had no control over, or choice in, their fates.
The rescuers, on the other hand, made choices. They chose to risk their own lives and those of their families in an attempt to intervene and help rescue those being persecuted.
Among those who intervened:
- Emilie Schindler — She was essential to her husband Oskar’s efforts to protect Jews during the holocaust. While her husband was away, she encountered Nazis taking 250 starving Jews to a death camp. She convinced them that more Jews were needed at the Schindler factory, which already employed more than 1,000. As a result of her tireless efforts, as of 1994 there were more than 6,000 descendants of the original 1,200 that the Schindlers saved.
- Anton Schmid — An Austrian drafted into the German army, Schmid used his position while stationed in Lithuania to help Jews at every opportunity. He provided them with jobs, permits, provisions, shelter and transport to safer areas. He even hid some in his apartment and office. Despite warnings that the Nazis had heard of his activities, he continued until his arrest. He was executed for treason.
- Father Czeslaw Baran, Franciscan monk — During the holocaust, priests, nuns and monks rescued Jews by hiding them in more than 900 church institutions across Poland, the only country where providing assistance to the Jews was routinely punished by death. Father Baran and his fellow monks worked with the Sisters of Mary to hide Jewish children in a convent school near Warsaw. After the liberation, all the children were returned to the surviving Jewish community.
- Paul Grueninger — As commander of the Swiss Border Police, he chose to disregard orders to close the border to Jewish refugees. He falsified documents to allow 3,600 Jews to enter and stay in Switzerland. Fired for defying orders, he was convicted of breach of duty and left destitute. He said, “My personal well-being, measured against the cruel fate of these thousands, was so insignificant and unimportant that I never took it into consideration.”
- Henry Christian Thomsen — An innkeeper in Denmark who joined the Danish resistance, Thomsen helped hundreds of Jews escape Nazi-occupied Denmark. His inn served as a secret meeting location for fishermen who smuggled Jews to Sweden. When the growing number of Jews seeking help swamped his fellow smugglers, Thomsen bought a boat to help the effort. He was caught and died in a concentration camp.
In the days after Allied forces captured the first concentration camps, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Gen. George Patton and Gen. Omar Bradley themselves inspected a camp and saw the evidence of atrocities that, in Eisenhower’s words, were “beyond the American mind to comprehend.”
Democratic institutions and values are not simply sustained, but need to be appreciated, nurtured and protected. Silence and indifference to the suffering of others, or to the infringement of civil rights in any society, can — however unintentionally — perpetuate these problems. As concentration camp survivor Elie Wiesel said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
As you become aware of the challenges in your own community — though they may pale in comparison to the holocaust — ask yourself if you have learned anything from the holocaust. If you see or know something is wrong, will you do nothing — or will you choose to act?