Righteous Among the Nations

There is a dark place in Washington, DC, and not one of the ones you might be thinking of. I mean a place that is physically dark as well as metaphorically, a place with black walls and low light, and terrible things on display: the Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is an intentionally oppressive and uncomfortable place, where visitors walk through the records of death.

There is, however, a literal bright spot: a white wall, well-lit, standing out from the gloom. It is the list of rescuers, the “Righteous Among the Nations” as honored by Yad Vashem: the ones who risked their lives to save the Jews fleeing the Holocaust. They were listed by country. I found a few familiar names quickly: Raoul Wallenberg among Sweden’s contingent, for instance. Then I looked for Denmark.

Denmark, after all, had one of the more remarkable rescue efforts of the Holocaust. The Germans had let Denmark be, to a great extent; the Jews had not even been required to wear the hated yellow star. This unfortunately means that the legend of King Christian X wearing the star in solidarity is apocryphal, although elsewhere in Europe non-Jews did put on stars in protest. But eventually the Holocaust reached Denmark, too. The Germans planned a mass round-up. By great good fortune, however, some of the Germans leaked news of the round-up to the Danish, who informed leading Jewish figures. The round-up was planned for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, as the Germans expected to catch all the Jews at home. At early services the rabbis told their congregations to spread the word and go into hiding.

Non-Jews flung open their doors. In one memorable story, a Jewish man took the streetcar home, despairing. The streetcar operator, a man who had never given him more than a nod, asked what was wrong. The Jewish man explained the situation and said he had no idea where to take his family to keep them safe. The streetcar operator said at once, “Bring them to my house.”

Eventually the Jews were smuggled into neutral Sweden. Some Jews were captured, but the Danish followed up on them, and by perpetually nagging the Nazis, were able to get food and aid to the imprisoned Danish Jews. 95% of Denmark’s Jews survived the Holocaust.

So I was expecting the list of names under “Denmark” on that white wall  to be as long as my arm. To my astonishment it was quite short, maybe twenty names. I looked closer and saw at the bottom a simple entry: “The People of Denmark.”

My friends, I wept. I weep again now.

It was such a beautiful thing, in the midst of such darkness: that a nation, conquered, risked everything to rescue friends, neighbors, and strangers. Faced with the brutal death-dealing of the Holocaust, the Danes saved thousands of lives without firing a shot. Violent revolt, however well-motivated, would have failed utterly, as the tragedy of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that same year proved. Instead the Danes bested no less an enemy than the Nazis with compassion and determination. Admittedly they had advantages; the Germans, depending on Danish food production, wanted to keep Denmark a “model” occupied country and may well have looked the other way; those who leaked the plans in the first place were clearly willing to bend the rules. Moreover Denmark was tight-knit in its passive resistance to Germany, and, frankly, had a small Jewish population. But they saved their neighbors anyway, and they most definitely earned the dramatic honor they have been bestowed, a righteous nation among the Righteous Among the Nations, that quiet line of text on the white wall that says so much.

When I was in the museum, there were no American names on the wall.

There are now three US citizens on the official list as kept by Yad Vashem, but the United States did not cover itself in glory during the Holocaust. The St. Louis, carrying Jewish refugees, was turned away before the war began; during the war, the US Air Force could have disrupted operations in Auschwitz and numerous other camps, but rescuing Jews was not made a priority — halting the Holocaust was a distant, distant second to winning the war. When word of the death camps reached the Allies, the word was not believed. About the best that can be said for us Americans is that General Eisenhower insisted that the death camps be opened, toured, photographed, and remembered. In one of our past’s dark ironies, the ultimate act of racism was partially finished off by an artifact of American racial paranoia: the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, part of the famed and highly-decorated 442nd regiment, helped liberate Dachau. The 522nd was made up of Nisei, Japanese-Americans. Their families were, by and large, being interned by the US at that time.

The absence of American names on the white wall of the righteous troubled me for a long time. It made me wonder if we as a people had the capacity for compassion to protect an oppressed minority as the Danish did. Our track record with racism and genocide isn’t that great, after all — just ask the Indians. Our reaction to another such abomination, slavery, was never that great either. The Underground Railroad was something of a myth, a few actual events highly embroidered after the Civil War was over (and what organization there was usually arose from the slaves themselves). Nor is this abomination really altogether past; the racism of our criminal justice system and immigration laws tell us that we still harbor deep prejudice.

But on reflection it dawns on me that if we remember that such a thing is possible, if we teach our children the story, then maybe we Americans could rise to the occasion. Knowing the story of the people of Denmark, knowing that such enormous bravery and compassion is possible, opens the way.

The story of King Christian X and the Star of David isn’t true in fact, but it is enormously true in spirit. And if it teaches any of us to stand up for others, to open our arms, our homes, and if need be our lives for the refugee and the oppressed, then it does good and needed work.

he Holocaust Memorial Museum is intended to teach us a simple lesson: “Never Again.” We have not yet learned it. Tragically there are still echoes of dark times in this country today, and tragically even the most cruel victims of racism and religious persecution are not immune to cruelty in turn. But the white wall is still there. It still teaches us. If we learn, then next time there will be American names on the wall. Or, better still, there will never be a next time.

Remember. Remember the compassion. Remember the peacefulness. Remember neighbor helping neighbor and stranger helping stranger. It can be done.

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