Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, has recognized 27,921 Righteous Among the Nations. That’s the number of non-Jews who risked their lives to help and save Jews during the Holocaust that Yad Vashem has been able to ascertain with evidence.
These are remarkable stories of personal risk, self-sacrifice, living in truth, fidelity to conscience, charity toward neighbour, and the unshakable determination to live honourably in the sight of God.
Consider that number: 27,921. If you learned the story of one Righteous Among the Nations each day, it would take you 76 years.
The German Jesuit priest Fr. Alfred Delp had just enough time to scribble a letter on December 22, 1944 before being handcuffed again. He was executed by the Nazis less than two months later.
Here’s an excerpt of what he wrote:
In Judaism, there is the idea: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
This is very good. And yet, it is but half the equation. As much as each person is a whole world, there is also a sense in which the world really can and does go on without us. But far from diminishing us, this perspective can give us tremendous peace.
On the Feast of Christ the King, I was at Emmaus with the Community of the Beatitudes for mass. During his homily, the priest traced history of nationalism and totalitarianism throughout the twentieth century. Then, he said, “Today the conflict is more with my individual kingdom, my personal sovereignty. Today we don’t have much sense of the common good because we think it’s against our personal good.”
On November 9th, I noticed that it was the anniversary of two dramatically different events.
The first is the feast day of the rededication of the St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome. This is the closest papal basilica to where I now live. The church was established in 324 and the feast is to celebrate its rededication in 1724. The basilica is the seat of the bishop of Rome and is called the “mother of all churches.”
The second event is known as Kristallnacht when, in 1938, Nazis destroyed thousands of Jewish businesses and property and desecrated synagogues throughout Germany and Austria.
I still remember my utter perplexity at a so-called professor of Genocide Studies at a Canadian university having accused me of “voyeurism” for having travelled to Germany, Poland, and Rwanda on genocide study trips.
Now, I can see that such a bizarre accusation might stem from failing to see the way in which studying genocide properly can actually constitute an education in moral sense. By learning about perpetrators and meeting with rescuers and survivors, my friends and I with whom I studied and travelled encountered the moral drama of human action and responsibility in persons and deeds, not in mere systems or abstractions.
Sometimes I wonder about how we will look back at this Covid period of our lives.
Will this time be regarded as “lost years” or “missing years”?
Will we be able to recall events clearly or will they be blurred, absent the ordinarily vivid and communal expressions of milestones?
And, will trauma and grief be suppressed by gradual good humour and selective nostalgia?
In The Year of Our Lord 1943, Alan Jacobs writes about the effects of the end of World War II saying, “As war comes to an end, and its exigencies cease, and people return to a freedom absent for so long that its return is discomforting, they think of the apparent lawlessness of Nature and Man alike…”
A few pages later, Jacobs says:
Eleven years ago today, I was in Berlin embarking on the 10-day March of Remembrance and Hope Holocaust study trip with sixty Canadian students and two survivors.
It is not an exaggeration to say that there has not been a day of my life since that trip that I have not recalled it in some way.
Contending with morality and mortality as a young adult through this trip remains among the most formative and orienting experiences of my life.
One of the first sites we visited is pictured below. As we stood there, we weren’t quite sure what we were meant to see. But gradually, with the help of our guide, this memorial came to life for us.
Leonardo da Vinci died on this date in 1519 and so today I am recalling the occasions on which I have had the opportunity to view some of his paintings.
One experience that especially stands out was when I saw the Lady with an Ermine painting at Wawel Castle and Cathedral in Poland. There was a long line to see this painting and only a few museumgoers at a time could enter the room in which the painting was exclusively displayed. Once my friends and I finally crossed the threshold and entered the room containing the painting, we noticed the armed guards attending to it.
This was several years ago when Islamist terrorists were wreaking havoc and attacks were a high threat in Europe. I thought about the armed guards and how it was that they were defending this artwork with their lives, particularly when there was a real threat of terrorism in key sites epitomizing our civilization.