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This article by Joan Crespi was prepared for the October 23, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Remembering the Good
Here’s an exhibit revealing forgotten events of some
60 years ago that knocks my socks off. The events detailed in the
exhibit occurred in a time of greatest human-engineered evil, the
Holocaust, yet provide proof of human goodness.
"Visas for Life: the Righteous Diplomats," the exhibit now
at Rider University until October 27, reveals the hitherto untold
stories of diplomats who rescued Jews and other refugees from the
Nazis, 1938-45. The diplomats themselves were Christians, Moslems
(they saved Turkish Jews), even a few Jews.
The story of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who saved thousands
of Hungarian Jews is well-known (but not fully), and maybe also the
story of Chiune Sugihara of Japan who saved Jews in Lithuania, but
what is overwhelming is that their actions were not unique! More than
100 other diplomats from 27 countries, acting usually in secret and
illegally, often in direct violation of the regulations of their home
government, issued documents to imperiled Jews and other would-be
refugees. By the end of the war, they had saved the lives of more
that a quarter of a million people — Jews gypsies, labor leaders,
others. Today there are over 500,000 living descendants of these survivors.
The eight-year-old exhibit is based on family photographs and other
archival materials from families of the diplomats, historical accounts
by survivors, and government records (including Nazi archives).
The exhibit packing such a wallop is, in itself, plain, stark even
— black and white framed photographs of the diplomats, some at
various stages of their adult lives, of a mass of children gathered
before an airplane that would lift them to safety, of children gathered
at a dock, of roundups in Hungary in spring ’44, of families being
deported. A few explanatory lines are beneath each photo. Hung among
the photos are a few larger black plaques with white lettering. Hung
above all are occasional white-on-black quotations. Nothing of beauty
here. It is the message that is so stunning.
What is written on the plaques and beneath the photos are the hitherto
unknown stories of diplomats, almost none of whom had known Jews.
These diplomats provided visas for Jews and others to escape certain
Nazi slaughter and did so at great risk to themselves. Some diplomats
also established safe houses, protected Jews in their embassies, warned
the Jewish community of impending actions, smuggled refugees across
borders, even — at great personal risk — personally halted
Nazi deportations to the death camps.
Once found out, many of the diplomats were fired from
their posts, stripped of their rankings and pensions, ostracized by
their home societies, even died in poverty. Few (about 30 out of 100)
were recognized publicly for their actions. By telling the diplomats’
stories, the exhibit shows that rescue was possible by individuals
acting against impossible odds. "The exhibit is not just documentation,"
says Eric Saul, its curator, "but a catalyst for social change."
Carl Lutz,. Counsel for Switzerland in Budapest. saved 62,000 Hungarian
Jews between 1942-45. Per Anger, Secretary to the Swedish Delegation
in Budapest, between 1944-45, a modest, self-effacing man, Wallenberg’s
boss, saved, with Wallenberg, thousands of Hungarian Jews and has
steered all the credit to Wallenberg, says Saul. Dr. Feng Shan Ho,
Counsel General of China in Vienna, 1938-40 saved tens of thousands.
Dr. Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Portuguese Council in France, June
1940 issued over 30,000 visas to Jews and other refugees in three
days. Archbishop Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, Papal Nuncio (or ambassador)
in Ankara, 1943-45, saved 24,000 Eastern European Jews, getting them
into Turkey. He became Pope John XXIII.
Why honor diplomats, when others also helped Jews escape death from
the Nazis? Diplomats provided visas — exit visas, transit visas,
even bogus visas, as well as citizenship papers, and other forms of
documentation — that allowed Jews and other refugees to escape
German-occupied European countries and enter the diplomat’s home country.
Why did these diplomats do it? Giorgio Perlasca, Spanish charge d’affairs
in Budapest, said, "Because I could not bear the sight of people
branded as animals. Because I couldn’t bear to see children killed.
I don’t think I was a hero." De Sousa Mendes said, "My government
has denied all applications for visas to any refugee. But I cannot
allow these people to die. I am going to issue [a visa] to anyone
for asks for it. Even if I am discharged I can only act as a Christian,
as my conscience tells me."
Why, in this age of media blitz, did it take so long for these deeds
to come to light? "The time wasn’t right," Saul says. "The
Jews were so wounded, the Holocaust still so raw, historians were
focused on the murder of millions." He adds, "A lot was the
catalyst of `Schindler’s List,’ released in ’93. That really blew
the lid off, that there were good people." He adds: "as a
result of the exhibit, other countries — Spain, Portugal, Switzerland
— are stimulated to search their own archives."
The exhibit was organized, Saul says, because people came to him,
children of survivors asking to be reunited with those responsible
for saving them, families of the diplomats asking that their kin’s
deeds be recognized. A longtime museum curator and collector of historical
objects, Saul did the research for the "Visas" exhibit and
verified the stories. (He is still doing research on 30 diplomats
— not yet in the exhibit.) As Saul wrote on a plaque, "We
hope to inspire people to acts of courage, heroism, and compassion,
to an understanding of the value of life."
Since the exhibit opened in September 1994 in Japan, Mrs. Sugihara
attending, it has been displayed in 20 locations around the world
including the UN (and City Hall in Berlin) and at 33 sites around
this country. Martin Gilbert, the historian, is currently writing
a book of these heroic, all-but-forgotten stories.
The exhibit is funded by Julius Koppelman (who, with his wife Dorothy,
established the Holocaust/Genocide Center at Rider) and by the Consulate
of the Federal Republic of Germany. The show appears at Rider in partnership
with the Central New Jersey Chapter of the American Jewish Committee
and the United Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks, and in
partnership with a coalition including All Saints Church, Christ Congregation,
Nassau Presbyterian, Princeton Clergy Association, Princeton
University, Trinity Episcopal Church, and the United Methodist Church.
Says Dr. Kathy Ales, a physician at Princeton Medical Center and director
of its hospice program, and the child of dual Holocaust survivors:
"It’s a lesson in moral courage that people of all ages can benefit
from. It shows that one person can make a difference." Dr. Ales
is also co-chair with her husband, Richard Levine, of the committee
bringing this exhibit to Rider.
Among the quotations hanging over for the exhibit, one sums it up.
The words, unattributed, are Eric Saul’s: "Never forget the evil
but remember the good."
— Joan Crespi
Center, Route 206, Lawrenceville, 866-721-5222. Monday, Wednesday,
and Friday, 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Tuesday and Thursday, 9 a.m. to 7
p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. Tribute to Raoul Wallenberg
and Per Anger on the show’s final day. Free. Sunday, October 27,
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