About the Book by Richard Hurowitz Titled “In the Garden of the Righteous: The Heroes Who Risked Their Lives to Save Jews During the Holocaust”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Diane Cole of the book by Richard Hurowitz titled “In the Garden of the Righteous: The Heroes Who Risked Their Lives to Save Jews During the Holocaust”:

In June 1940, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Portugal’s consul general in Bordeaux, France, watched from his office window as a stream of Jewish men, women and children flooded his sidewalk. Hitler’s army had conquered France with shocking speed, and the Jews, now made stateless by Nazi racial laws, were at the consulate to plead for transit visas to Portugal—and to freedom.

Sousa Mendes wrestled with their desperate appeal. His prime minister, António de Oliveira Salazar, had ordered him to deny all such requests, trapping the refugees in place as targets for Nazi arrest and deportation to concentration camps. Sousa Mendes knew that the visas were their only chance of escape but knew also that defying Salazar would mean the end of his career and his ability to support his family of 15 children.

His dilemma—whether to obey the dictates of conscience and risk personal harm or to follow orders that would endanger others—is central to the lives of the individuals profiled in Richard Hurowitz’s “In the Garden of the Righteous: The Heroes Who Risked Their Lives to Save Jews During the Holocaust.” Mr. Hurowitz, an independent historian, chronicles 10 remarkable rescue stories, including one in which 10 British POWs banded together to save a 16-year-old concentration-camp escapee.

All of these rescuers have since been honored by Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, with the title Righteous Among the Nations. The most widely known of those so honored, of course, are Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg, but Mr. Hurowitz focuses instead on figures with whom most readers will be less familiar. None of them was Jewish, yet each one faced great peril to save Jews. We have much to learn from their acts of courage.

What motivated them to act rather than stand by, as so many others did, in silent complicity? Religious belief was one catalyst for compassion. Having decided to spend his last weeks in France signing as many visas as he could, Sousa Mendes, a devout Catholic, publicly declared to the crowd of refugees outside his consulate: “I would rather stand with God against man than with man against God.” He then proceeded to issue approximately 1,575 visas (by some counts, the number was much higher), thus saving many who would have otherwise perished in the Holocaust. In punishment, Salazar stripped him of his position and his property. Sousa Mendes died penniless but never wavered in his belief that “the true lesson of Christianity is to love one’s neighbor.”

Faith also fueled the efforts of Athens’s Archbishop Damaskinos, “the only head of a European church,” Mr. Hurowitz tells us, “to formally condemn the Nazis for the Final Solution.” The archbishop urged his country’s congregations to hide Jews and actively worked with the Athens police chief, Angelos Evert, to issue thousands of Greek Orthodox baptismal certificates and forged identity cards. Only 5,000 of the country’s prewar population of 79,000 Jews survived the Holocaust; Damaskinos and his network saved many of them.

For the European circus owner Adolf Althoff, it was not religious belief that prompted him to provide aid but a sense of moral responsibility. From 1941 until the end of the war, Althoff sheltered the Jewish circus performer Irene Danner and members of her family among his traveling troupe of some 90 acrobats, clowns, animal tamers and others. “I couldn’t simply permit them to fall into the hands of the murderers,” Althoff said of Danner and her family. “This would have made me a murderer.” Despite an itinerary across Nazi Europe that included a Gestapo inspection at every stop, Althoff regularly arranged temporary hiding places for the endangered family among the circus animals, behind bales of hay or inside caravan cabin closets. He was also adept at distracting Gestapo officers from their search of his company, using good liquor and charming tales of circus life. These were high-stakes performances, putting both the hideaways and Althoff himself at risk of arrest and execution. Yet he didn’t perceive his behavior as anything beyond the ordinary. “I have only done my duty,” he said, “and protected the human beings that were entrusted to us.”

That deeper sense of duty to humanity also infuses the story of Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic nurse and social worker. Appalled by the rampant disease and severe food shortage in the tiny Warsaw ghetto into which 400,000 Jews had been forcibly crammed, she set about organizing a team that smuggled out an estimated 2,500 Jewish children via whatever means possible, from hiding them in garbage bags to sedating them in hearses to sending them through the sewage system. Sendler’s team would then provide the children with false papers under assumed names and place them with new families or at various orphanages, convents and other religious institutions. Sendler kept a coded list of the children’s original names so that they could one day reclaim that part of themselves, and she assured the list’s survival by stuffing it into a milk bottle that she then buried in a colleague’s garden.

The Nazis arrested, tortured and sentenced Sendler to death; she was only freed from execution at the last moment by a bribed prison guard. Her injuries stayed with her the rest of her life, as did her sense of moral purpose. Her father had taught her, she recalled, that “when someone is drowning, give him your hand. And I simply tried to extend my hand to the Jewish people.”

The conviction shared by these men and women was the belief that every human being deserves respect. Althoff put it this way: “We circus people see no differences between races or religions.” It’s a timely, and timeless, motto for us all.

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.”

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