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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

Visas for Life, Rider University, Art Gallery, Student

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,

6:45 p.m.


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