Students of history should be forgiven if their faith in humanity is sometimes deeply shaken. Given our collective past is so rife with mass atrocities, it’s easy to despair about the darkest sides of the human condition. No event makes people shudder at the human capacity for evil more than the Holocaust.
Next week, on one of the most solemn dates on the Jewish calendar, Israel and Jews around the world will mark Yom HaShoah, in memory of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis during World War II.
If the Holocaust brought out the worst in far too many people, it also brought out the best in far too few people. Among the latter are heroic individuals the Jerusalem-based Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center officially designates as Righteous Among the Nations for having saved Jews at great personal risk to the rescuers and their families.
In 1963, Yad Vashem began this program of recognition. Since then, it has honoured nearly 28,000 people from 51 countries, in connection with more than 10,000 authenticated rescue stories.
New cases continue to come to light. Last month, the Israeli Consulate in Toronto presented the Righteous Among the Nations medal and certificate to the family of the late Stanislaw Kolodziejski, whose descendants live in Canada. He rescued a Jewish woman and her young daughter from the Warsaw Ghetto.
The Righteous are the focus of a powerful new documentary film produced by the Canadian arm of the March of the Living, a Holocaust-related educational program. Its title, “Saving the World Entire: Rescuers During the Holocaust,” is derived from the Talmud in which it’s written, “Whoever saves a single life, saves the world entire.”
Early in the 24-minute film, an elderly, white-haired woman, Czeslawa Zak, refers to what her late parents did during the Holocaust in risking their lives to save three Jewish families from the Nazis, who threatened to kill anyone helping Jews.
“It was just a normal human impulse,” says Czeslawa, who was a teenager when her family hid 14 Jews in their modest apartment in central Warsaw. “It was obvious we had to save them.”