Remembering the Righteous


Within the walls of Jerusalem there is a quiet place, a sacred place called Yad Vashem, established to perpetuate the memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust.  It was established, in part, to convey the gratitude of the Jewish people to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.  In 1963 Yad Vashem established the Remembrance Authority to grant the title of Righteous Among the Nations to those few heroic men and women who helped save Jews in the darkest time in their history.  The street leading to Yad Vashem is called the Avenue of the Righteous of the Nations.  It is lined with trees, each one planted in remembrance of an individual who risked his or her own life to save a Jewish life.

Some of the names may be familiar to us — like Oskar Schindler, who smuggled 1,200 of his factory workers out of Poland before they could be shipped to the ovens of Auschwitz.  He was remembered in the film, “Schindler’s List”.  Some of us may know names like Miep Gies, one of several Dutch Christians who helped to hide Anne Frank, her family and four other Dutch Jews; or Corrie ten Boom, who with her family helped many Jews escape the Holocaust by hiding them in her home.  Corrie was eventually arrested and sent to a German concentration camp.  Her story, “The Hiding Place”, tells of her family’s efforts and how she found faith in God as a prisoner.

Other stories are less familiar — like Georges Loinger, a French resistance fighter who smuggled hundreds of Jewish children out of occupied France into nearby neutral Switzerland.  None of these people was Jewish, but at great risk to their own lives they felt compelled to stand up and defend their Jewish neighbors in their time of peril.  Elie Wiesel described the “righteous of the nations” in these words:

In these times there was darkness everywhere.  In heaven and on earth, all the gates of compassion seemed to have been closed.  The killer killed and the Jews died and the outside world adopted an attitude either of complicity or of indifference.  Only a few had the courage to care.  These few men and women were vulnerable, afraid, helpless — what made them different from their fellow citizens?… Why were they so few? … Let us remember: What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander … Let us not forget, after all, there is a moment when moral choice is made … And so we must know these good people who helped Jews during the Holocaust.  We must learn from them, and in gratitude and hope, we must remember them.

If we have learned anything from our devotions this week, it is that evil and suffering are a part of life, and cannot be explained away.  Nevertheless, God is not absent from this world, but the cross is raised wherever the innocent are oppressed, abused, victimized or killed.  God is present in us, in our moral choices — whenever we rise to the challenge and take the side of those who suffer unjustly.  In recent days we have all seen what Yad Vashem calls “the righteous of the nations” in our own country and around the world.  The newspapers have been filled with photos of people of all colors, religions and ethnicities marching together for justice and standing up for the oppressed and the persecuted.  Here and there we have seen images of protesters coming to the aid of the police, or members of the police embracing and standing with protesters.

I like to think that when we arrive in that heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, we will walk together down a broad boulevard lined with life-giving trees; and that road will be called the Avenue of the Righteous of the Nations.

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