It’s hard to grasp the unimaginable numbers who went to their deaths in the Holocaust. What if we woke up tomorrow, and every man, woman, and child who lived within the city limits of Cleveland, Minneapolis, Seattle, Boston, and San Francisco was murdered? Or maybe Los Angeles and Chicago?
My own Irish-American family is massive, and school assignments to document our family tree rarely have room for more than two generations. Sure, I read Anne Frank and heard about the Holocaust. But what really brought it home to me was the day my husband’s family—everyone in his and his parents’ generation—sat around a dining room table. With room to spare. Great Aunt Fannie had taught me a great word for family, mishpocheh: relatives of relatives. But as far as they knew, none of the mishpocheh who had once filled their bustling Polish town had survived. Even the town itself now has a different name.
One of the most important duties of those who remember the Holocaust is to honor the ones who saved lives then. No, they didn’t stop Hitler or end genocide. But there are millions around the world today who owe their existence to the actions of the khassidey umot ha-olam— the “righteous among nations”—who endangered themselves and their families to save those they could. Individuals like Oskar Schindler in Germany, Miep Gies who tried to save Anne Frank and her family in the Netherlands, Princess Alice of Battenberg and Greece (whose son, Prince Philip, is married to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth) who sheltered Jews, as well as whole communities in almost every country in Europe who risked everything to save those who were sometimes their neighbors, but often strangers to them.
Nobody voted. Nobody had referenda, or took polls, or had focus groups about the Next Best Thing to do. They just did it. Danes rescued almost their entire Jewish population of 8000. In Poland, where most of my husband’s relatives died, more Jews were killed but more were rescued than anywhere else. In direct disregard for their instructions, diplomats in Spain and Japan issued thousands of visas to allow Jews to flee. Shanghai sheltered over eighteen thousand Jewish refugees. Rescuers operated in Finland, France, Bulgaria, Portugal, Lithuania, Italy, Belgium–the list goes on and on.
In his moving book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, (Harper & Rowe, 1979) author Philip P. Hallie tells the intimate story of the tiny French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon whose members simply acted together to save hundreds of men, women, and children from almost certain death. This isn’t a documentary or a history, but a eulogy for their minister, Andre Trocme and for the community acting on their fundamental belief that they could best oppose the Nazi’s by saving refugees instead of shedding blood.
When Haille approached the story, he was a war veteran and philosopher suffering from depression. In going to Le Chambon, he had two goals – to find out how the village survived four years of Nazi occupation while hiding and protecting the Jews, and more fundamentally, to ask “Why?”. Why did so many risk their lives and those of their families?
An older friend of mine and her husband had been members of the resistance in Denmark and the Netherlands respectively. Once she took me to meet another friend to talk about the Danish rescue of Jews, so I got the chance to actually ask that same “Why?”. Their answers were basically what Haille heard back in Le Chambon. “Nobody had to ask why. We just did it.”
At a talk by Philip Haille in Minneapolis, a member of the audience told him that the villagers of Le Chambon had saved all three of her children.
“The Holocaust was storm, lightning, thunder, wind, rain, yes. And Le Chambon was the rainbow.”
Hallie knew her rainbow referred to God’s promise after the Great Flood. “Never again.” For Hallie, that never again was a personal affirmation that the war he fought in so reluctantly was necessary. But it was also the hope and the promise that people have in them the seeds to stand up and say “Never again.”
Today, as people all over the world honor the victims and the heroes of the Holocaust, I hope they also remember the rainbow. “Never again.”