Rabbi Leads Search for ‘Righteous Christians’ Who Helped Save Jews

Times Staff Writer

His mother and father had always shunned the question and he hadn’t particularly pursued it himself, until the time came to teach his own son the lessons of the Holocaust.

Only then did Pierre Sauvage see that he would have to confront the apparent paradox of his own existence. He was a Jew, born during World War II in Nazi-occupied France--a target for extermination. He had been saved and he didn’t know why.

To find out, the young Hollywood film maker traveled to the place of his birth, a mountain village called Le Chambon. He met and filmed the peasant people who had harbored him--and thousands of other Jews--in an act of communal Christian witness, defying the threat of death.


Sauvage produced a documentary film that was released this year to critical, if not financial, success. He also formed an organization called Friends of Le Chambon to help and honor the village.

Jewish Intellectuals

Though he began this project by himself, Sauvage quickly found his work embraced by a small but persistent group of Jewish intellectuals who believe the history of the Nazi Holocaust has been partially distorted by preoccupation with its horrors.

They are the followers of an unlikely crusader, a rabbi in suburban Los Angeles who preaches that the courage and mercy shown by Christians toward Jews in World War II is being slighted.

Thousands of such acts are known and documented, he contends, and tens or hundreds of thousands may have occurred. Only by recognizing, remembering and teaching the acts of those Christians, he believes, can Jews come to terms with the meaning of the Holocaust.

“You can’t do it by just saying, ‘Never Again,’ ” said Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, the principal American leader of the movement to honor “Righteous Christians.” “You’ve got to set the record straight.”

A Sort of Pilgrim

For Schulweis and his colleagues, Sauvage represents a new kind of Jewish pilgrim returning to the scene of his suffering, not just to remember the evil but also to retrieve the knowledge of the goodness.


The scale of the pilgrimage is limited by the dwindling and widely dispersed group it can draw upon. concentration camps. By the most widely accepted estimates, of those Jews trapped inside Nazi Europe, 100,000 to 200,000 managed to stay out of concentration camps. Until recently, their emergence as a group of historical importance has been held in check by the reticence of survivors like Sauvage’s parents.

“It was too close to the pain,” said a researcher who has been interviewing Holocaust survivors for 20 years. “The survivors didn’t want to talk. The wounds did not heal. Now, when we’re talking about it 40 years later or so, I think people are beginning to come out of their shells.”

Stories of Heroism

Today, Schulweis and a growing number of associates around the world are avidly collecting their stories to give the world some heroes to counterbalance its arch-villain, Hitler.

“We live in a world that doesn’t believe in goodness,” Sauvage said. “We’re wrong.”

For Schulweis, 62, scholarly and intense, the cause of the Righteous Christian has been a mission of 30 years that today coexists with his role as rabbi to an upscale Conservative congregation in Encino.

In the 1970s, Schulweis jumped into another touchy Jewish issue, embracing the Havurah, an experiment with Jewish fellowship and religious observance outside of the synagogue. At Valley Beth Shalom, Schulweis founded the synagogue-Havurah, forming small circles of members for lay study of Jewish thought. The practice has since gained widespread acceptance throughout the nation.

Frustration, Resentment

Schulweis’ campaign for the Righteous Christian has brought frustration and resentment that he freely shows in casting public judgment on fellow Jews for the offense of ingratitude.


In an impassioned speech last fall at the National Jewish Assembly, Schulweis castigated organized Jewry for “the most tragic neglect, morally tragic neglect of the uncounted, unknown, unsung, unbefriended Gentiles, Christians, who risked their lives and the lives of their families to shelter and to feed and to protect our brothers and our sisters during the Nazi persecution.”

He received a warm ovation--a measure of just how far Schulweis has come since the early 1960s, when he began to promote the view that Jews should give recognition to Christians.

“There was no vocal opposition,” Schulweis said, speaking of earlier reactions. “There was simply indifference. This is not on the world Jewish agenda.”

Still Too Bitter

Some Jews were too steeped in bitterness, Schulweis said. He quotes Holocaust survivor Eliezer Berkovits, who wrote in a 1970 book, “Faith After the Holocaust,” “All we want of Christians is that they keep their hands off us and our children.” The subject remains a troubling one for Jews.

The leaders of several major Jewish organizations--including the president of the Survivors of Auschwitz--applauded Schulweis’ efforts in recent telephone interviews. Yet some Jews still consider the charitable acts of Gentiles as hardly worth mentioning in view of the widespread inaction and collaboration of European Christianity with Hitlerism.

“I wouldn’t want to be one of those to go into hiding and be grateful to the ones that hide me,” said Rachel Maggal, co-director with her husband of National Jewish Information Service, a Los Angeles missionary Jewish organization. “I wouldn’t feel grateful for that.”


Should Have Spoken Out

Maggal contends that a truly righteous Gentile would have spoken out publicly against the extermination of Jews.

More widespread, Schulweis said, is the argument that only a minuscule number of Christians went out of their way to aid Jews. Students of the Holocaust vary greatly in their estimates of those who became involved. On the low side, historian Sybil Milton, in an article in the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s 1983 book “Genocide,” suggests that about 2,000 Christians helped to rescue 60,000 Jews.

A spokesman for Yad Vashem, the Israeli government’s Holocaust memorial authority, speculated that there could have been 15,000 Christian rescuers. Schulweis considers that figure far too low. While he has done no academic research into the subject, Schulweis argues, based on his own experience talking to Jews around the country, that virtually every escape of a Jew depended upon the assistance of at least one non-Jew, and sometimes dozens.

“There has not been any systematic search for these people,” Schulweis said. “We do not have a Simon Wiesenthal to search out the good.”

Hard to Estimate

Philip Friedman, in a 1957 book “Their Brothers’ Keepers,” proposed that as many as a million Jews could have survived the Nazi occupation. He didn’t speculate how many non-Jews helped in their rescue.

“We will never know how many of the approximately 300 million Europeans who lived briefly under the Nazi heel helped Jews,” Friedman concluded.


Partly inspired by that book, Schulweis, while a rabbi in Oakland, in 1960 formed the Institute for Righteous Acts and raised donations to begin a research project to find out what makes up the altruistic personality.

The effort faltered and became inactive.

“That was too early,” he concedes today. “I think it has required 40 years for the memory of the anger and the disillusionment to have passed.”

Spreads the Word

Schulweis never stopped spreading his message. In articles published in Jewish theological journals, Schulweis hammered out his ideas in multiplying metaphors. He spoke of a “a curriculum of goodness” for future generations, of a “candle of hope” with which to examine the dark cavern of evil.

He wrote of his own paralysis when the time came to teach his children the meaning of the Holocaust and how he made the duty less painful by adding stories of the non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews.

Meanwhile, a few stories found their way into print.

In his 1979 book, “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed,” historian Philip Hallie examined the events of Le Chambon. Peter Hellman’s “Avenue of the Righteous” recounted the stories of some of the non-Jews honored by Yad Vashem for saving Jews. In “The Last Jews in Berlin,” Leonard Gross followed half a dozen Jewish families through the war years as they clung to a minimal existence in hiding.

Rescue Conspiracies

Some remarkable conspiracies to rescue Jews cut deeply into Nazi society, involving even the wives and servants of German officers. In his movie, “Weapons of the Spirit,” Sauvage suggests that the Jews of Le Chambon survived only through the conniving of the territory’s Nazi administrator.


Many chroniclers of these stories said they actually began by studying the Holocaust and became so depressed by their research into human evil that they could not continue until their spirits had been restored by the accounts of a few good people.

“They saved not only the refugees, but any students of the period,” Hallie said of the people of Le Chambon. “They saved us all.”

These works were essentially scholarship, rather than popular literature, and have had little public impact.

Anne Frank’s Story

One story of a rescue attempt--that told in “The Diary of Anne Frank”--has captivated the world’s attention. Yet it focused on the desperation and terror of those who who eventually perished more than the courage and risks taken by those who tried to help. The names of the Christian couple who hid the Franks--Jan and Miep Gies--are not so famous.

No historian has yet attempted what Friedman had long before declared impossible: to write a complete history of altruism during the Holocaust.

The most extensive documentation has been done by Yad Vashem, created by Israel in 1953 to gather testimony from Holocaust survivors and to memorialize their suffering. A department within Yad Vashem honors Gentiles who helped Jews escape. A panel of judges rules on the authenticity of stories presented by those who were rescued.


By 1979, fewer than 1,000 non-Jews had been honored.

Since then, stories have come in at an increasing rate.

Stories Being Told

Mordecai Paldiel, director of Yad Vashem’s Department for the Righteous, said he believes that is because survivors are just now telling their stories in large numbers.

“I guess it has to do with coming of age and having to relive and give testimony on the most traumatic experience they underwent,” he said.

Yad Vashem has recognized approximately 7,000 Christians as “Righteous Among the Nations,” meaning that they risked their own lives or comfort by harboring fugitive Jews, Paldiel said.

Most are simple people--storekeepers, factory owners, retirees, widows, even bureaucrats in the Nazi administration who privately defied their orders and saved Jews one or two or a dozen at a time.

Schulweis and his supporters are not satisfied. They see the stories as evidence of a massive but silent body of Christian altruists. And they fear that many will die before their stories are told.

Helped Thousands Escape

His desperation was deepened last year by the death of his old friend Herman Graebe. Graebe was a well-known German construction engineer who defied his own government by arranging train passage for thousands of Jews out of the occupied Ukraine, exhausting his personal fortune in the process.


Graebe emigrated to the United States as a laborer. Schulweis met him in the 1960s.

“In meeting people like Herman Graebe, you can’t look at yourself the same way,” he said. “You can’t look at the world the same way.”

Shortly after Graebe’s death last summer, Schulweis decided the hour for action had come.

During a Friday sermon, he exuberantly told his congregation at Valley Beth Shalom that he was organizing the Foundation to Sustain the Righteous Christian.

More Controversy

Stepping into controversy as usual, Schulweis chose the term Christian, rather than the word Gentile, to accentuate his belief that his findings can help sooth the 2,000 years of tension between the two religions.

He set out raise $1 million and use it to send a network of researchers out into the world to locate, honor, and, when there is a need, render financial aid to Christians who rescued Jews.

The foundation was incorporated late in 1986 and opened an office in New York, run by executive director Eva Fogelman, veteran of the Christian altruist research project.

It got off to a slow start. Contributions of only $25,000 came in the first nine months, Fogelman said. Meanwhile, Schulweis had been in the hospital twice, for a heart bypass and intestinal surgery.


Efforts Paid Off

But at that low ebb, the rabbi’s nearly constant proselytizing paid off. This spring, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith--an organization formed to counter the enemies of Judaism--agreed to take the foundation under the wing of its Holocaust Center. Abraham H. Foxman, the league’s associate national director, said the league would back the foundation with office staff and promotional tools for a year.

With that backing, Schulweis sent a mass mailing last month, timed to arrive just before the Jewish high holy days, imploring America’s Jewish rabbinate to preach the cause of the Righteous Christian and to call forward any personal testimony that would advance the story.

“The world needs this information more than ever today when all the media cover the betrayals, corruptions, persecutions, terrorizing,” he said in a recent interview. “There’s got to be at least a ray of hope that this is not the total and last word of human nature.”