Philosophers and historians have been wrestling with this issue for many years as they review the behavior of citizens in Nazi-occupied European countries during World War II. How can one condemn an individual who did not take action to save Jews because, in doing so, they would have been risking their own life and the lives of their family? On the other hand, many people did act courageously in the face of tremendous danger.
School and university courses examine these issues when they teach about questions of responsibility, morality and ethics. What makes a person go beyond their "comfort zone" and risk their life to uphold human values? Is taking such risk something that we should expect? What kind of person goes that extra step to save the life of another person at the risk of his own life?
Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Memorial, has honored over 20,000 people who saved Jews during the Holocaust. Researchers have attempted to find a commonality in the behavior of these righteous gentiles. Each rescuer's story, however, is different. Some rescuers acted out of political, ideological or religious convictions while others became involved due to circumstances. For some rescuers, helping persecuted Jews was an instinctive, human gesture. Most righteous gentiles never planned to become rescuers but simply acted on the spur of the moment.
The Yad Vashem research notes that, above all else, most rescuers were ordinary people. Some of the most compelling stories of rescue during the Holocaust involved the actions of unextraordinary people who were caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
Chiune Semo Sugihari was a Japanese Vice-Consul in Vilna in 1940. Refugees beseeched him to grant Japanese visas which would allow them to travel to Japan and to safety. The refugees gathered outside the Japanese Consul's offices as Sugihara cabled Tokyo for instructions. Sugihara cabled Toyko three times and each time the Japanese Foreign Ministry instructed Sugihara to refuse these requests. After the third refusal, Sugihara decided to act on his own. He began to issue visas -- some accounts estimate that he issued over 6,000 visas, including family visas that saved entire families. He worked 18-20 hours a day to hand-write the visas and when Tokyo recalled him, he continued to issue visas, even as he was on his way to the train to leave the city. Sugihara went against the strong Japanese ethic of submitting to authority. He put his career and his future at risk but once he made his decision, he never wavered. When Sugihara died, a large delegation of Israeli officials came to his funeral -- that was the first indication that his neighbors ever had of Sugihara's heroic actions during WWII.
Varian Fry was an American journalist who visited Berlin in 1935 as a foreign correspondent. After seeing the Nazi barbarities he started to raising funds for European anti-Nazi movements. Following the invasion of France in 1940, Fry moved to Marseille and started an elaborate rescue operation. This was in direct opposition to French and even some American authorities. Despite many obstacles Varian managed to secure visas for around three thousand anti-Nazi and Jewish refugees, allowing them to escape to Portugal and eventually the United States. In 1996 Fry became the first American to be listed as ?Righteous among the Nations" by Yad Vashem.
Irena Sendler was a young Polish social worker. In 1939, after the Nazis occupied Poland, she joined the Zagota resistance and obtained a pass that allowed her to travel freely in and out of the Warsaw ghetto. Irena devised multiple ways to transport children out of the ghetto to freedom -- through underground sewers, under carts of garbage and inside toolboxes and luggage. Once the children were brought to the "free" side of Warsaw Sendler and her comrades identified safe hiding places for them. It is estimated that Irena Sendler saved over 2500 Jewish children in this way. Irena Sendler's story was turned into an educational project that now includes a movie, a website and a book.