I love this designation, “Righteous Among the Nations.” Almost as good as, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” Almost.
While we were in Poland, Matyas was the young Jewish tour guide who lead us through Krakow’s historical Jewish Ghetto. He is also working in education at the Jewish Community Centre of Krakow, shown behind him. His ancestors lived in the Jewish Ghetto here, but were able to escape before being moved to the concentration camps.
This staircase if from a scene in Schindler’s List, and we were able to see the factory at the end of the tour. However, sadly, Matyas wasn’t a huge fan of Oscar Schindler. He seemed concern that many others who helped the Jews during this time in Poland were overshadowed by his story and the film. He also shared that, as usual, the movie was quite romanticized, and that actually he played a much less personal role in saving his workers. Most had to pay to be put on his list; and later when he ran away to South America at the end of the war, his business went bankrupt. Then, he actually wrote to many of the Jews he had helped save, asking for money in repayment, since now he had met hard times. That story was hard to stomach.
But he also told us a story of a Roman Catholic pharmacist who asked the Nazis to be allowed to stay in the Ghetto and continue operating. They agreed when he convinced them with warnings of possible disease spreading into the German portion of town. Tadeusz Pankiewicz operated his “Pharmacy Under the Eagle” free of charge, providing much needed medicines; hair dye to help the elderly look younger and fit for work, as well as to disguise escapees; and even sedatives to help keep hidden children quiet during Gestapo raids. He also kept Torahs and other religious material safe for the Jews in a secret vault. He and his staff were the only non-Jews in the Ghetto. You can see his pharmacy on the corner above.
He and other Gentiles who helped the Jews during the Holocaust have been named “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Schindler is also in this group. These people are described as those who risked their lives, freedom, or position to help Jews during the Holocaust. Many would also suffer concentration camps and lose their lives. As of January 1, 2016, Yad Vashem recognized 26,120 “Righteous Among the Nations” from 51 countries. Corrie Ten Boom, one of my favorites, as well as her father and sister are among this list. The United States has five honorees, Varian Fry was the first, who was an American journalist running a rescue network in Vichy, France that helped approximately 2,000 to 4,000 anti-Nazi and Jewish refugees to escape. Two others were from a Unitarian family, another a Mennonite woman, and the last Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, an army officer who rescued Jewish servicemen at a POW camp; and he is from Knoxville, TN!
This is a small portion of wall left that encircled the Ghetto in Krakow, Poland that survived WW2. As you can see, it would be easy to escape over, but most knew this would end in certain death or torture.
As long as I can remember, I have prayed that if I had been in the same place as these men and women, that I would have also stepped up to the challenge and sacrificed my life if necessary. I am always wary that we are privy to similar injustices today and stand idly by and do nothing. But lately, I realize with overwhelming shame, that I am undoubtedly as evil as the next guy. I have no confidence I would have done the right thing. Would I be the Samaritan or the priest or the Levite? Yes, my heart breaks for stories I hear of the oppressed, and I seethe with righteous anger at those who practice hate crimes; but give me a few days traveling on little sleep and grumpy kids and husband, and you would be shocked at the venom I can spew. We are all hopeless without the Spirit.
Galatians 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” So I keep looking to Him, remembering I am hopeless to save myself or to do any good work. Only in Christ do I find hope.
This picture hurts my heart, but also reminds me of the good in people, how we all hope and strive. Matthias told us that the people of Poland had wanted one of these bridges similar to those in other European cities, where those in love come to demonstrate their commitment to each other with a lock on the bridge. But, he told us in the last several years it had become a big problem, because so many returned with wire cutters later to cut them off when the relationship fell apart. This obviously left large holes in the bridge after a time. Sigh… but we still love, we haven’t given up on it all together. We still reach out for connection and hope to find another to love and be loved by. There is good in each of us, that glimmer of God that helps us know this world was meant for better. It reminded me of a quote from an old movie I love (but definitely not an award winner), Where the Heart Is. One of the characters has just been brutally beaten by a boyfriend while trying to protect her children who were assaulted by him. She is asking what will she tell them one day when they ask why this happened to them, her dear friend responds:
“You tell them that our lives can change with every breath we take… and tell ’em to hold on like hell to what they’ve got: each other, and a mother who would die for them and almost did… You tell them we’ve all got meanness in us, but we’ve got goodness too. And the only thing worth living for is the good. And that’s why we’ve got to make sure we pass it on.”
It’s simple, but simple is good sometimes when life is hard.
Please read Christianity Today’s article Easter’s Blow to My Social Apathy. The title’s not my favorite, but it says so much that I am feeling right now in light of my own experience of WWII and the Holocaust during our travels. Hope you have a Happy Easter surrounded by those you love!