One hundred and twenty: that’s the number of Righteous Gentiles, most of them in their 90s, mostly living in Europe, who each received a special Christmas gift from the West Orange-based Jewish Foundation for the Righteous this year.
The check was for the equivalent of $3,000 in their own countries’ currency. And these funds couldn’t have come at a more propitious time for their recipients. Many live on small monthly governmental pensions. Some have no family. Add to that the war in Ukraine, which reminds them of a time they’ve lived through before, a time of terrible memories. (Some of the rescuers live in Ukraine.)
The money that came to them before Christmas will help them buy food, medicine, and heating for their houses — essentials some of those Righteous Gentiles can’t always afford.
Why these people and why this organization?
These 120, who live in 12 countries, are the last of the men and women who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust at great personal risk to themselves and their families. They did it because it was the right thing to do. They didn’t expect thanks.
The organization is the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis — the well-known, well-respected, well-loved head of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, from 1970 until his death in 2014 — founded in 1988. Its mission has been to send funds to thank those heroes.
Rabbi Schulweis founded JFR — known in the beginning as the Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers — after realizing there were thousands of Christians who had helped rescue Jews during the Holocaust and by then were living in straitened circumstances on small governmental pensions. He recognized that those rescuers themselves were in need of rescue. This is an incomplete sentence. How about this: He decided that the situation demanded they thank these good people. Jewish tradition — the value of hakarat hatov, gratitude — required it.
When it was founded, JFR was part of the larger and better known Anti-Defamation League. In 1996, the JFR parted ways with the ADL and rented space in the American Jewish Committee’s Manhattan headquarters.
Though it had become apparent by then, more than 40 years after the war ended, that they needed financial help, many Righteous Gentiles — JFR also calls them rescuers — were reluctant to ask for it. That meant that Rabbi Schulweis and the foundation had to reach out to them to offer aid. At the beginning of the effort, JFR was able to identify eight rescuers; that number grew eventually to 1,800. In the meantime, the foundation moved to its own offices on Seventh Avenue and then, 20 years later, to West Orange, where it is today.
According to Stanlee Stahl, JFR’s executive director, the $3,000 awards the group sent in December represented its largest Christmas gifts to date. “We decided it was time to do it,” she said. “Most of our Righteous Gentiles live in Eastern Europe.” (The countries that now are home to the rescuers are Australia, Belarus, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, Ukraine, and the United States.)
“They are older, and older people have needs now that are greater,” Ms. Stahl continued. “They need more medicine. They can’t afford to go without heating oil for their houses. We had the money, and this was the way we felt we, as klal Israel, the Jewish people, needed to spend it, in support of and thanks for those who saved Jewish lives.
“Inflation in Europe is much higher than it is here in the U.S., so those 3,000 U.S. dollars are of greater help than it might seem,” she added. In Ukraine, for example, $3,000 is the equivalent of $30,000 here.
The Christmas award is not the only money JFR sends to Righteous Gentiles. Every four months, each rescuer gets a check, wired through Western Union, for $1,000, so each rescuer gets a check four times a year. “It’s very sad that because of the war in Ukraine, we can’t transfer any money to the nine Righteous Gentiles who live in Belarus and Russia,” Ms. Stahl said. “It’s one of the byproducts of the war. When their banks get unsanctioned, these people will get their money. We are holding it for them.”
Ms. Stahl stays in contact with the rescuers and often receives notes from them and their families. In response to the Christmas award, she received this note from the son of the woman she calls Aunt Kati. (JRF keeps recipients’ full names confidential.) Aunt Kati lives in Budapest.
In a note he sent to Ms. Stahl in December, Aunt Kati’s son wrote: “please be informed that Mom has received the sum you sent her. [With it we will] buy a new medical aid ‘w&w/o wheels—’ a wheelchair “—and create some financial reserve for the expected high price of energy and food in our country, the same to cover medical care.” He included a photo of Aunt Kati with the note.
Aunt Kati, who is 94, became a Righteous Gentile in June 1944, when she was a young teen. Her father, Istvan, managed a timber factory and storehouse, which was next door to a Jewish cemetery. After the cemetery’s caretaker, Mr. Brief, was taken to a forced labor camp — from which he never returned — Aunt Kati and her family took in Mrs. Brief and her two children, Goldy and Marton. At first the Briefs lived in Aunt Kati’s house, but when it became too dangerous the family built a bunker in their backyard. The Briefs lived there until January 1945, when they were liberated. Goldy Brief recalls Aunt Kati bringing them food every day and taking care of their daily needs. She also recalled that Aunt Kati told her that her only wish was to save Goldy and her family.
Ms. Stahl also is in touch with Egle in Lithuania. Egle, who is 94 lived on a farm with her sister, brother, and widowed mother. The family risked their own lives in helping Israel and Berta Katz and their daughter, Mary. Mr. Katz knew Egle’s mother. They were friends. When the Nazis invaded Lithuania, the country’s authorities helped round up its Jews. After the Katzes’ son Liebel was killed, his family asked Egle’s mother for help. The family hid their friends for three years, and then all were betrayed. They could have been killed, but Egle’s mother bribed prison officials with all the money she had to keep the two families alive. The bribe worked. Both families spent the last six months in prison until the Soviet army liberated the area. Like Aunt Kati, Egle is 94.
Egle’s daughter, Ida, wrote to Ms. Stahl. “Thank you very much for the award. My Mom never forget Katz family, which my Mom’s family saved during WW II. It was terrible time.” She added, “Because war is in Ukraine, the price of energy has increased. This is reflected in everyday life.” Ida then commented on the price of food and medicine, and finished with, “This is a very big boost for my mother. Big thanks to JFR and to you personally, dear Stanlee.”
Ms. Stahl knows many stories of the Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews. Many of those stories are posted on JFR’s website, jfr.org. The stories are always about the risks the rescuers assumed to help Jews, some of whom they knew, and some of whom they didn’t. There is, for example, the story of Bela Gyula, his father, and his brother, Sandor, who hid, fed, and protected the Schlezingers (Mom and toddler Peter), Endre Edinger, the four-member Reisz family, and the five-member Lowinger family from June to December 1944. Bela Gyula and Sandor delivered food to Jews hiding in various places around Budapest during the Soviet battle for the city. That was doubly dangerous. They could have been shot for helping Jews or killed in a bomb explosion. But Bela Gyula is still alive, at 95.
Bela Gyula, Egle, Aunt Kati…there are just a few more than 100 of these extraordinary people left to be honored. JFR not only helps to repay a debt of gratitude on behalf of the Jewish people to the Righteous during their lifetimes, but also helps preserve their legacy for future generations.