In the early part of 1939, my father, mother and infant brother were living in Paris, as refugees from the pogroms in Romania. They were illegal immigrants, living modestly with the hope of giving themselves and their son a better future than the one they had. But World War II was approaching, and the citizens of France were in danger of falling prey to the Vichy regime that was collaborating with Germany and Hitler. As Jews and illegal residents, my parents were in an extremely precarious situation. They were poor and had no connections or reasonable way of changing their situation. But a gentile, the wife of an Italian diplomat for whom my mother sewed her clothes, understood what the future of my family would be if they stayed in France. In an act of righteousness, mercy and generosity, she offered my parents tickets: first for the train to Marseilles and then, passage onto a ship bound to Bolivia. I was born in Bolivia, where my family’s life was spared the horrors of the Holocaust. I have eternal gratitude to the woman who saved us.
My friend and colleague, Rani Jaeger, one of the founders of Beit Tefila Israeli, tells a story of his family’s rescue through the generosity and courage of gentiles in Bulgaria. Unfortunately, there are far fewer stories like mine and Rani’s than there are of callousness, bigotry and racism during the Holocaust. We need to tell the story of the perpetrators and the victims. It is essential to remember, to keep the memory alive of those who suffered and perished. We cannot let this happen again, not to the Jewish people and not to any other people.
But it is also essential, as Rani says, to tell the story of those who saw suffering and knew how to find their humanity. Those whose values were stronger than their fears— those are the ones we need to learn from and to emulate today, whenever we see bigotry and suffering.
As an act of honor to those gentiles, Rani composed a Yizkor prayer in their memory. It is unique and breaks new ground. It extends the understanding of relationships between Jews and non-Jews. It remembers that “righteousness is an everlasting foundation” that breaks boundaries. May we reach a day where the example set by those righteous people will not be an extraordinary courageous act, but simply, the norm.
The following is Rani Jaeger’s prayer, along with a beautiful explanation about why he felt moved to create it. Enjoy, and may the memories of all those who perished, Jews and gentiles, be for a blessing for all of us.
Remember, People of Israel, the Righteous Gentiles, who have placed their own lives in danger for the sake of our persecuted and tortured brothers and sisters during the Shoah, 1939–1945, and who were as shining stars in the overwhelming darkness of evil.
Those who spoke out at a time of silence,
Those who offered sanctuary and a lease on life in the eye of the murderous storm,
Those who upheld those who were falling and extended a helping hand, food, and clothing.
Who answered the cry of men, women, and children:
Men and women, workers of the land and city-dwellers
Of humble standing and of high rank,
People of faith and conscience.
In the very valley of the shadow of death, these men and women stood by our people, and from the fiery inferno they saved the few and the many. And where there were no human beings they were human.
Remember, People of Israel, their grandness of spirit, their heroism and their pure hearts. May God bind their souls in the bundle of life, and may it come to pass as it was written: "As the whirlwind passes, so is the wicked no more: but the righteous is an everlasting foundation" (Proverbs 10:25).
Translation: Yaron Ben-Ami (2016)
About the "Yizkor for the Righteous Gentiles," by Rani Jaeger
My mother was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1943. The trains were standing by at the stations in Bulgaria's major cities, waiting to transport Bulgaria's 50,000 Jews to the death camps. The expulsion order had been given. An unusual coalition of clergy, intellectuals, and politicians, together with large-scale passive resistance by the Bulgarian people, at the last moment prevented Bulgarian Jewry from sharing the tragic fate of Jewish communities in neighboring countries and all over Europe.
I feel personally indebted to those people who stood there and – at great personal risk – saved my mother, her family, and the entire Bulgarian Jewry. Simply put, I feel that but for them – I would not be here today.
This year I asked my mother to tell this story in Beit Tefilah Israeli, a Tel-Aviv congregation of which I am one of the founders. As is our custom, we sought to wrap this testimony with a Jewish-Israeli ritual, including Kaddish and Yizkor. It seemed, especially in light of this personal story, to require a "Yizkor for the Righteous Gentiles."
I looked around, made inquiries, asked, and searched and was surprised to discover there was no such Yizkor. So I sat down and, with an intense sense of purpose, I wrote one, a siddur and a Bible in front of me, and friends surrounding me.
Having written it, I now want to attempt to explain why this is, to me, a matter of principle:
1) Our duty to the Righteous Gentiles: Yizkor is a powerful call, made in an intimate Jewish language, to fulfill the obligation entrusted to the person saying the Yizkor and to those who heed him or her, to carry in their mind a conscious, living, meaningful memory. This is precisely our duty to the Righteous Gentiles.
2) Our inner duty: a "Yizkor for the Righteous Gentiles" inserts this heroic chapter into the memory of the Holocaust, as reflected in ceremonies across Israel. Ceremonies are indeed too narrow a tool to hold the spectrum of questions and meanings raised by the Holocaust. And yet their very existence testifies to our need for them, precisely because it is within them that we experience a temporary unity of time, place, and meaning. Through them we find essential meaning for ourselves and for our children in the myriad messages arising from the Holocaust at any given moment. This is why it is so important that in this capsulated message, there will be room also for those people who chose to do good, risking life and limb, within an impossibly evil reality.
Furthermore, many Holocaust Yizkor texts mention not only the victims, but also the murderers. It is appropriate in every way – morally, educationally, and culturally – to keep in our minds not only victims and murderers, but also those people of values who lent a helping hand to the persecuted.
3) The proposed text ends with a quote from Proverbs, "The righteous is an everlasting foundation." The deeds of the Righteous Gentiles, saving people from persecution and death, are their great memorial. But beyond those individuals who were saved, those deeds present us with an opportunity for a further tikkun. Much has been said and written on the Holocaust's cataclysmic effect in all aspects of human life – in religion, politics, philosophy, art, in the very term "culture." Those people who stood up for the persecuted provide a window of hope – the hope that, despite everything, individuals and groups who do good can break through the walls of evil. A "Yizkor for the Righteous Gentiles" expresses the demand to remember this option and the personal obligations it entails.
The full text of the prayer, including the text in Hebrew is to be found in this link