Some 30 rescuers attended a special event organized by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous

BY ILANIT CHERNICK
An illustrative photo of Righteous Among the Nations medal belonging to Marta Bocheńska who helped s

An illustrative photo of Righteous Among the Nations medal belonging to Marta Bocheńska who helped save Halina Buchwald in Warsaw during the Holocaust.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

During the dark days of the Holocaust, more than 27,000 thousand non-Jewish men, women and teenagers risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors and friends from a certain death at the hands of the Nazis.

On Sunday, a special event in Warsaw on Sunday to honor Polish Righteous Among the Nations who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust was held by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR).

Some 30 Polish rescuers – who today are in their eighties, nineties and even hundreds – attended the event with their families.

“These righteous gentiles are dwindling in number, such that the JFR luncheon is likely to be among the last of such commemorations of its kind,” the organization said in a statement.

The JFR’s website explained that the organization “provides monthly financial assistance to the aged and needy Righteous Gentiles living in 18 countries.”

“The majority of the rescuers receiving financial support live in Eastern Europe, with Poland having the largest number of rescuers,” according to the site.

As of September 1, the JFR said it gives financial assistance to a total of 275 aged and needy rescuers, including 147 Polish rescuers, 37 rescuers in the Ukraine, 23 in Lithuania, 12 in Belarus and 11 in Hungary.

Although such events are held by the JFR, Sunday’s was extra special as it also served as the launch event for the partnership between the organization and Warsaw’s first kosher food bank, which launched earlier this year under the leadership of Poland’s chief rabbi Michael Schudrich, with the support and guidance of Yad Ezra of Detroit.

The food pantry, based in the Nozyk Synagogue complex, will provide food packages bimonthly to righteous gentile rescuers who are in need.

The event was also attended by foreign diplomats, as well as religious and community leaders, who spoke at the gathering.

Israeli ambassador-designate Alexandre Ben-Zvi paid his respects, while the US deputy chief of mission Bix Aliu, who is of Albanian heritage, paid tribute to their extraordinary courage.

“The JFR provides monthly financial support to some 147 aged and needy Polish rescuers,” the foundation said. “In the calendar year 2019, the JFR will send approximately US $600,000 to rescuers living in Poland.”

JFR executive vice president Stanlee Stahl said that “these are heroic people of exceptional character who risked their lives and often the lives of their families to save Jews during the Holocaust.”

“This special event is designed to recognize them and give them the proper honor they deserve,” Stahl said. “While we have been doing this event for some time, this is a special year with the opening of the food bank.

“Having developed food banks in the United States, I personally know the positive impact they have on families, so I am very happy we can play a role in the creation of the facility in Warsaw and utilize it as a local base through which to provide support to Polish rescuers,” she added.

During her address, she highlighted the actions of two brothers who were in attendance. Andrzej and Leszek Mikolajkow, together with their parents, saved a Jewish mother, father and two sons. One of the sons moved to Israel and had 12 sons of his own. Today, the family numbers about 300.

“You made it possible for hundreds – if not thousands – of people to be alive today,” Stahl told the brothers. “You have helped repair the world.”

THE JFR first funded eight rescuers, and that number quickly grew, reaching 1,800. Now, as the rescuers age and pass on, the number of them receiving support is declining; however, the foundation continues to receive new applications.

The foundation also does its best to provide “one-time grants for the purchase of food during the Christmas holiday season to rescuers living in Poland and other Eastern European countries,” depending on availability of funds, it said.

In 2018, the JFR distributed approximately $1.1 million in direct support of Righteous Gentiles.

All those being funded have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Yad Vashem defines Righteous Among the Nations as “non-Jews who took great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust. Rescue took many forms, and the Righteous came from different nations, religions and walks of life.

“What they had in common was that they protected their Jewish neighbors at a time when hostility and indifference prevailed,” the Holocaust remembrance center said.

According to Yad Vashem, as of January 1, there are 27,362 people recognized as Righteous Among the Nations, including nearly 7,000 Polish men and women.

The center also stressed that “the numbers of Righteous recognized do not reflect the full extent of help given by non-Jews to Jews during the Holocaust,” and that it is “rather based on the material and documentation that was made available to Yad Vashem.”

Yad Vashem made it clear that “most Righteous were recognized following requests made by the rescued Jews,” however, sometimes survivors were unable to “overcome the difficulty of grappling with the painful past and didn’t come forward.” Others “were not aware of the program or couldn’t apply, especially people who lived behind the Iron Curtain during the years of Communist regime in Eastern Europe.”

Yad Vashem also pointed out that survivors may have also died “before they could make the request.”