January 2007 - Volume 11, Issue 6

Excerpt from Journey to the Golden Door – Epilogue

Jay Sommer

Photo of AuschwitzGoing back to Kustanovice, to Mukachevo, and to Budapest was essentially a sad experience. It neither alleviated the pain associated with those places, nor heightened the few pleasant memories of the past. But visiting Auschwitz sharpened the agony of the Holocaust for me and confirmed my sense that the Nazi abomination was beyond comprehension. To reduce to understandable terms what happened in Auschwitz and in other such places would necessitate a new set of human values. There is no precedent for such wholesale slaughter. The anguish endured by the victims of the Nazis defies imagination and stands outside of the human experience.

My ordeal cannot be compared to the horrors inflicted upon those imprisoned at Auschwitz. These I was spared by some unaccountable irony of fate. Although I escaped Hitler's death camps, I am destined nevertheless, always to live with the calamity that befell my murdered brethren. Furthermore, willingly or unwillingly, all of us survivors have transmitted some of this pain to our families.

Fortunately there is a chapter in the Holocaust story that did not totally destroy hope for mankind. That chapter belongs to the heroic souls, relatively few though they were, who opposed the evil of the Holocaust and did what they could to save Jews from the Nazi assault. These Christian rescuers, many of whom Israel honors as "The Righteous Among the Nations," were to be found in varying numbers in all of Nazi-occupied Europe. They were from all walks of life. The rescuers ranged from individuals, to religious groups, to virtually entire villages or countries. It is to these men and women that I dedicate the last pages of my book.

In Denmark, the government and the population cooperated in hiding some 8,000 Jews while arrangements were made with their neutral neighbor, Sweden, to take them in. With the exception of a few who died of natural causes all survived. The success of this effort tells us that perhaps there exists a collective sense of decency that can resist evil. In Denmark there were no individual idle bystanders. Sweden, meanwhile, took further advantage of its neutral status and sent Raoul Wallenberg as a special envoy to Budapest, where he saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from the clutches of the Arrow Cross by issuing them false Swedish passports. Tragically, Wallenberg fell victim to Soviet savagery. When the Russians liberated Budapest, Wallenberg was arrested on some trumped-up charges of espionage and sent to a Gulag. His fate remains unknown.

In Italy, despite the country's alliance with Nazi Germany, many Jews were saved because a number of civilized human beings possessed by a sense of justice became involved in a rescue effort. In the forefront of this mission stands the clergy, headed by such men as the Archbishop of Florence, the Cardinal of Genoa, and a young priest, Don Repetto. They succeeded in hiding in their convents and churches men, women, and children who were destined to be deported. Lamentably, fascist evil was more potent than the benevolence of the rescuers. Out of 40,000 Jews living in Italy when the war began, 8,000 perished in Auschwitz and in other concentration camps.

Particularly impressive were the rescue efforts of the Italian military in the occupied zones of Croatia, Greece, and southern France. The army with the cooperation of some high-ranking members of the diplomatic corps went to great lengths to circumvent orders by the Germans to hand over the Jews of these countries. In this way the Italian Army saved some 25,000 Jews in the three occupied zones. The courage of these men in challenging Hitler and Mussolini sharply distinguishes them from those who "only obeyed orders."

Side by side with these collective efforts to rescue Jews stand the deeds of individual Gentiles who overcame fear and hid Jews in the face of possible imprisonment or even death. In Bulgaria, an unwilling ally of Germany, Dimeter Peshev, the president of the parliament had the moral courage to oppose his colleagues who were prepared to ac- cede to German demands to deport Bulgaria's Jews, thus saving most of them.

In Poland, where anti-Semitism was deeply rooted, Jean Kowalyk, a seamstress, built a false wall in her house where she and her family hid several people, feeding them and caring for their sanitary needs. She held on to them despite periodic German surveillance of the house until liberation.

In Hungary, seventeen year old MaIka Csizmadia from the small town of Sátoraljaújhely, the site of a labor camp holding Some 300 Jewish men, performed her own rescue mission. What began on a small scale, sneaking out letters for the inmates, grew to a large operation involving her entire family. When Malka learned that the inmates Were due to be taken to a concentration camp, the family arranged to smuggle twenty-five men, one at a time, to a nearby farm where they Were eventually liberated by the Russians.

Photo of Yad VashemIn Germany itself, a handful of civilians defied the Fuhrer and saved their fellow citizens. Helen Jacobs hid Jews, created counterfeit ID's and raised money to buy food stamps on the black market. In 1943, the Gestapo tracked down her Operation and she was sentenced to two-and-a half years in prison. The best-known of the rescuers today is Oskar Schindler, who successfully saved over 1,000 Polish Jews from almost certain death. Since 1962, over 9,000 people have been honored at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Israel, with bronze medals bearing an inscription from the Talmud. It reads, "Whoever saves a single life is as one who has saved an entire world." There are many more rescuers whose Courageous deeds have been recorded and still others who will never be recognized for their humanitarian deeds. These are people like the Hungarian workers at Csepel who surreptitiously shared their rations with us, and the young policeman at the agricultural school who quietly secured for me identification papers that helped me to remain in hiding.

It is perhaps because of such brave souls that we Want to accept Anne Frank's view of mankind. As she expresses it in the play, The Diary of Anne Frank, "I think the world may be going through a phase... It'll pass, maybe not for hundreds of years, but Some day... I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart." I join Anne Frank in her childlike credo because her words help me to cape with my occasional despair and give me some hope for a better world.

Not just Jews, but civilized men and women everywhere should honor those who offered their humanity at a time when inhumanity reigned everywhere in Nazi Europe. They leave us a legacy of moral courage, a noble alternative to brutality that must be passed on to future generations.

Used with permission. To purchase Journey to the Golden Door, please contact Jay Sommer at 11 Lakeside Drive, New Rochelle, New York 10801. Telephone number (914) 235-0624.