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Section: Responses to the Holocaust

Righteous among the Nations

The avenue of the Righteous among the Nations, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel
The avenue of the Righteous among the Nations, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel © 2011 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

Yad Vashem was established in Jerusalem in 1953, as the world centre for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust. Yad Vashem means a memorial and a name. As a living memorial to the Holocaust, the organisation has as its objective: safeguarding the memory of the past and imparting its meaning for future generations.

In telling the story of the Holocaust, it has recognised a group of people known as ‘the righteous’. The term ‘Righteous among the Nations’ is used by the State of Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis.

These men and women of all ages and from 44 countries around the world were of different beliefs, social background, level of education, nationality, and from all walks of life. Their common goal was to save life. Many of the righteous became rescuers as a result of having Jews ask them for help. Others simply witnessed the actions of the Nazis and their collaborators and decided to act.

Rescuers lived in constant fear of the consequences of their actions. In Eastern Europe the penalty paid for being caught helping or sheltering Jews was not only the death of the individual, but also of their entire family. The Nazis would post notices to this effect in order to deter locals from providing assistance to Jews.

The righteous helped Jews in many ways. Some provided shelter for Jews for just a night; others hid them in or around their homes or property for some time and would often take care of every need of those they rescued. Help might take the form of providing false papers and identities, smuggling Jews out of the country or assisting escape in some other practical way.

The following pages highlight several of the Righteous among the Nations. Read their stories, reflect and learn how you might use their example as a model for your own actions.

Frank Foley

Frank Foley helped 10,000 people escape the Nazi terror
Frank Foley helped 10,000 people escape the Nazi terror Image Wikimedia Commons public domain

Frank Foley was a World War One veteran who was recruited into the British Secret Intelligence Service. He became a successful spy and was stationed in Berlin from 1922 to 1939.

Foley used his cover position as a passport officer at the British embassy to save thousands of Jews. Although he did not have diplomatic immunity, he entered concentration camps and issued visas to Jews so that they would be free to travel out of Germany. On more than one occasion Foley entered Sachsenhausen concentration camp to issue visas and travel documents.

By November 1938, Foley and his wife were sheltering Jews in their Berlin apartment. One of these people was Leo Baeck, chairman of the Association of German Rabbis. Before returning to England at the outbreak of war, Foley left a pile of visas and instructions for their distribution to Jews who were fleeing Germany.

Foley risked his own life to save the lives of others. Had he been caught he would have suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Foley’s actions enabled over 10,000 people to escape the Nazi terror.

Frank Foley was recognised as Righteous Amongst the Nations on 25 February 1999.

Jane Haining

Jane Haining, who was born in 1897, was a Scottish Christian woman.

Haining was appointed as matron of the Girls’ Home of the Scottish Mission in Budapest, Hungary, in 1932. She cared for around 400 children from aged six to 16 years. Most of the girls were Jewish.

In 1940, as the situation within Hungary became dangerous, the Scottish missionaries were ordered to leave. Haining refused to leave and give up the children.

In March 1944 the German army occupied Hungary and began deporting Jews. On 25 April 1944, two Gestapo men appeared at the mission where Jane Haining worked. They searched her office before giving her just 15 minutes to gather her belongings. She was taken for interrogation.

Haining was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She wrote postcards to her friends. Her last message asked for food. She ended her letter with the words: “There is not much to report here on the way to heaven.”

Haining died of starvation in July 1944. She was just 47 years old.

Yad Vashem recognised Jane Haining as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ on 27 January 1997, the 52nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Nicholas Winton

Nicholas Winton was responsible for saving the lives of 669 children. He never spoke of this episode in his life and certainly did not think of himself as a hero
Nicholas Winton was responsible for saving the lives of 669 children. He never spoke of this episode in his life and certainly did not think of himself as a hero © 2011 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

Nicholas Winton was born in London in 1909 of German-Jewish parents. As an adult he became a banker, working initially in Hamburg, Germany and then Paris, before returning to Britain as a stockbroker.

In December 1938 Winton was due to travel to Switzerland for a skiing holiday. A friend who was involved in Jewish refugee work in Prague, Czechoslovakia, suggested that he travel to visit him instead. On arrival in Prague, Winton was horrified at the treatment of Czech Jews at the hands of the Nazis. He decided that he had to help the Jews.

After Kristallnacht, the British government had extended the quota to allow child refugees into Britain. They had to have an agreed place to live and a sponsor, who would pledge £50, so that they would not be a burden on the British state. Subject to these conditions, Winton was able to take children from Prague to Britain.

Winton believed that saving children was more important than his career. He gave up his job to stay in Prague in order to organise the rescue of Czech Jewish children. Winton built up biographies of children whose parents had asked him to take them to safety. He placed advertisements of these children in England seeking families to take them in.

Between March and August 1939, Winton sent eight train loads of children to safety in Britain. Once in England they were placed with the families that had pledged their support.

The last train carrying 251 children was due to leave Prague on 1 September 1939. It never left the station. The German army had invaded Poland and Germany had closed all borders. The children got off the train and returned to their parents. Many were subsequently murdered in the Holocaust.

Nicholas Winton was responsible for saving the lives of 669 children. He never spoke of this episode in his life and certainly did not think of himself as a hero. It was only in 1988 that his wife found documents, letters and photographs, which told the story. Winton told his wife to destroy them.

Instead, Greta Winton sent them to Yad Vashem. In addition, there was a British television programme called ‘That’s Life’, which told the story. The programme makers contacted many of the children (now middle-aged British citizens) who made up some of the audience. Winton and his wife were invited to be members of the same audience.

During the programme, the presenter explained what Winton had done in 1939. She asked if anyone in the audience owed their lives to Winton. Over 20 members of the audience stood up and applauded him. For the first time since the war Winton met those he had saved.

Raoul Wallenberg

Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat whose country was a neutral power in the war. He was sent to Budapest, Hungary, on 9 July 1944, with 650 protective passports for Jews who had some connection with Sweden. By this time knowledge of the death camps was widespread and Wallenberg decided to save as many people from deportation as possible.

Between July and December 1944, he saved the lives of many tens of thousands of Jews by issuing them with Swedish passports and putting them under the protection of the Swedish government.

When the ruling Hungarian Arrow Cross party planned the deportation of the remaining Jews of Budapest, Wallenberg and his colleagues protested successfully.

However, the Nazis began sending the Jews on a ‘death march’ to the Austrian border and this Wallenberg could not stop. Nevertheless, what he and his colleagues did do was to follow the marchers and give out food, clothing and medical supplies.

When the Soviet army entered the city of Budapest, Wallenberg knew he was in danger from the Communists. They might think he was a spy. On 17 January 1945, he was taken away by the Soviets and disappeared, never to be seen again.

On 26 November 1963, Wallenberg was recognised by Yad Vashem as one of the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’.

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Survival and legacy

Survival and legacy