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.
It was the summer of 2018 when I crashed an Aramaic summer camp for Maronite children living in northern Israel. I got to have a blast singing songs and playing games with the children who are growing up navigating a complex identity with an extremely fraught history in a pretty volatile region.
One day during that camp, I decided to ask an 11-year-old girl named Marie who lives just a few kilometres away from the border with Lebanon, “Who do you think is in greatest need of our prayers?”
The preteen immediately answered, “The kids of Florida.”
“Florida?” I repeated curiously.
“Yes,” she told me. “Because of the school shootings there.”
I was quite struck by this answer to the extent that I still remember it.
It is interesting to consider this perspective on danger.
After all, I am sure that, were I interviewing 11-year-olds in Florida about who most needs our prayers that someone there would have told me, “The kids of the Middle East.”
Today is the 40th anniversary of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II.
Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope’s longtime secretary, was in Rome today marking the occasion and remembering cradling the pope as he felt “his body slip as if paralyzed and fall into my arms.”
The cardinal also reflected, “Today, 40 years after that event, and 16 years after his death, I think with fear of what it would have been like if we had lost him in St. Peter’s Square back then. How poor and different the world and our homeland, Poland, would have been without his witness of faith and doctrine, without his indications and his warnings in the face of the dangers and turmoil that can threaten us in today’s world.”
Recently, I spoke with Ottawa resident Darryl Sequeira about his near-death experience fifteen years ago.
In September 2005, Darryl was a 20-year-old university student in Saint John, New Brunswick.
He got drunk at a party one night and was passed out in the back seat of the car of a friend’s friend.
Unbeknownst to Darryl, the driver was also drunk and so, “It was the wrong car to fall asleep in.”
When the drunk driver crashed, the driver broke both his legs, the front seat passenger broke his right arm, the guy to Darryl’s left broke his left arm and the guy to Darryl’s right managed to get just a few cuts and bruises.
Because Darryl had been the only one asleep in the vehicle, he suffered the worst consequences. The car flipped over three times and he flew forward.
Jozef De Veuster was a Belgian Catholic who asked God to be sent on a mission.
Having done his formation for the priesthood in Belgium, he was then sent to Honolulu and was ordained two months later.
He took the name Damien and began his priestly ministry in the Hawaiian Islands.
During Fr. Damien’s time, there was a public health crisis. Mortality rates were high due to infectious diseases for which there was no herd immunity. Chinese workers were suspected of having brought the disease to the islands. The outbreak was not well understood and experts were unsure as to how it spread, whether it could be cured, and whether transmission could be stopped. The government passed mandatory quarantine legislation, even sending some people to isolate in remote locations. The officials insisted that these were not prisons, but there was certainly not enough medical supplies or doctors and nurses. Some experts thought the lepers would be better off dead. One health official conjectured, “It would seem that even demons themselves would pity their condition and hasten their death.”
This evening I was having a chat with a friend who shared with me about growing up with parents who differ considerably in terms of their outlook on the risks of life.
My friend’s father is the social, energetic, and adventurous type. Whereas her mother has always been more cautious – even to the point of being afraid of flying, anxious in the passenger seat, and worried about safety.
“Maybe it comes from a good place,” my friend reflected, wanting to offer the most charitable interpretation. “Maybe it’s a matter of gratitude – knowing that you have a lot and simply wanting it to stay that way, not wanting to risk damage or disruption to that which you cherish so much.”
My friend told me that her mother’s fear of loss can be crippling but that, as a mother herself, she can also understand it to some extent.
Canon Andrew White, formerly the vicar of St. George’s Church in Baghdad, has a chapter in his memoir titled, “Don’t Take Care; Take Risks.”
I’ll admit that I usually say, “Take care” to someone before hanging up the phone or getting out of an Uber. Nevertheless, the first time I heard the motto, “Don’t Take Care; Take Risks”, it struck me as better and truer.
Janusz Korczak is a name I wish everyone could know. A Polish Jewish author, pedagogue, and orphanage director, he refused offers for his own safety during the Second World War and was deported, along with all of the children of the orphanage, to the Nazi death camp Treblinka where he and they were killed in 1942.
Over the years, I have come upon monuments commemorating Korczak and the children at Treblinka, in Warsaw, and at Yad Vashem in Israel.