Heroes Amid the Holocaust

REVIEW: ‘In the Garden of the Righteous’ by Richard Hurowitz

"Visas to Freedom: Aristides de Sousa Mendes and the Refugees of World War II" at Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (Getty Images)
February 19, 2023

"Righteous Among the Nations" is an official title awarded by Yad Vashem—the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel—on behalf of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Four basic conditions are listed by Yad Vashem for granting the title. First, there must have been "active involvement of the rescuer in saving one or several Jews from the threat of death or deportation to death camps." Second, there must have been "risk to the rescuer’s life, liberty, or position." Third, the "initial motivation" must have been "the intention to help persecuted Jews: i.e. not for payment or any other reward such as religious conversion of the saved person, adoption of a child, etc." Finally, there must be "existence of testimony of those who were helped or at least unequivocal documentation establishing the nature of the rescue and its circumstances."

As of January 1, 2022, 28,217 individuals have been awarded the title, many nominated by the very people they rescued.

While there are several names that are well known—including Oskar Schindler, portrayed by Liam Neeson in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List—there are thousands more whose courage and relentless morality in the face of unimaginable evil remain unknown to most.

Richard Hurowitz’s In The Garden Of The Righteous: The Heroes Who Risked Their Lives To Save Jews During The Holocaust provides a deeply emotional window into several of these lesser-known and yet equally heroic figures.

Noting that rescue during the Holocaust "remains both a celebration of what is best in us and, in its extreme scarcity, an indictment of the worst," Hurowitz establishes a central purpose of the book: to study "what motivated the rescuers" in order to "perhaps distill the values and manners we wish to cherish and to encourage," exploring 10 accounts of rescue from among the 28,217.

Each tale of unquestionable heroism is provided by Hurowitz in painstaking detail. At times, that seems to border on the excessive, and yet each decades-long backstory helps bring the raw reality of each figure and their actions into sharp focus.

These accounts include Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a "little-known midlevel Portuguese diplomat [who] quite possibly saved more people than any other individual during the Holocaust." Mendes was Portugal’s consul general in Bordeaux, France, and defied the orders of the brutal Salazar regime—including orders from Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar himself—and issued tens of thousands of visas to desperate refugees so they could escape the deathly clutches of the approaching Nazis, routinely waiving any fees for those with no remaining resources.

"If thousands of Jews are suffering because of one Christian, surely one Christian may suffer for so many Jews," Mendes explained.

"At a time when many men were cowards, he was a true hero," wrote Otto von Habsburg, just one of the countless people who owed their lives to Mendes.

Hurowitz also shares the story of Florence’s Gino Bartali. The champion road cyclist, who won the Giro d’Italia three times and the Tour de France twice, played a pivotal role in resistance efforts that saved the lives of several hundred Jews. Bartali, a devout Catholic, explained to his son that while sporting prowess is rewarded with medals attached to your shirts which then "shine in some museum," good deeds are "medals that are pinned to the soul."

Then there’s the "samurai spirit" of the Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, who ignored his government’s orders and worked tirelessly until the moment he was forced to leave his posting in Lithuania to provide thousands of Jews with Japanese transit visas so they could escape through Russia and Japan.

"I may have to disobey the government," he told his wife. "But if I don’t, I would be disobeying God."

Speaking of his father, Sugihara’s son described him as a "real samurai," who had said that "a samurai warrior is not only strong and brave, but is also very kind and always ready to help those in need."

And then there is the remarkable work of the Danish people, who risked their lives to help their fellow Jewish citizens escape Denmark just days (if not hours) after learning that the Nazi regime sought to eradicate every Jew in the country. Over 90 percent of Danish Jews survived the Holocaust.

Scattered throughout these 10 accounts are numerous additional acts of emotive defiance.

"There are no Jews in Morocco," said Muhammed V, the country’s young sultan who "protected his millennia-old Jewish population from Vichy France and its Nazi overlords." "There are only Moroccan citizens."

"We are all Jews here," declared Tennessee-born master sergeant in the U.S. army Roddie Edmonds, ordering all his men to appear when his German captors demanded he identify all his Jewish soldiers.

Another profound layer of Hurowitz’s account included those who were saved—some of them by the tiniest margins—who went on to contribute to our modern society to such an extent that their all-too-near absence would be impossible to imagine.

Had it not been for Mendes, for example, the adored children’s character Curious George "would have been another casualty of the Second World War."

At a time when anti-Semitism continues to fester across the world, downplayed parallels between modern hateful ideologies and those that brought Europe to its knees stand as a constant reminder to today’s Jews that they may not be safe, yet again. But while the sting triggered by mere written accounts of the horrors of the Holocaust never fades—Hurowitz describes one SS officer who presented a Jewish child with candy before execution—there remains a ray of hope, shining through this unimaginable time of death and destruction.

Hurowitz’s book is a moving glimpse of the shreds of humanity that managed to bloom in the darkest days of European history. It leaves one desiring to learn more about every single "Righteous Among the Nations," without whom the Holocaust’s massive death toll would be even more inconceivable.

In the Garden of the Righteous: The Heroes Who Risked Their Lives to Save Jews During the Holocaust
by Richard Hurowitz
Harper, 480 pp., $28.99

Ian Haworth is a writer, speaker, and former Big Tech insider. He also hosts Off Limits with Ian Haworth.