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How many of us would show the courage of the Righteous Among Nations?

According to our tradition, we should not stand by when a neighbour's life is threatened. But would we live up to it?

    Chaim Maltz returns to his father's hometown in Poland for a documentary about the woman who hid his father and other Jews in the war (photo; Richie Sherman)
    Chaim Maltz returns to his father's hometown in Poland for a documentary about the woman who hid his father and other Jews in the war (photo; Richie Sherman)

    My neighbour Chaim Maltz grew up in a pigsty. Yet, he emerged a warm-hearted, successful and deeply religious Jew. All this is due to the efforts of an unlikely heroine whose story is told in the diary kept by his father and in the film No. 4 Street of Our Lady.

    The family came from Sokal, which was then part of Poland. When the Germans invaded, the Jews were ordered into a cramped and squalid ghetto. Local railway workers confirmed the terrifying rumours that those who were taken on trains for “resettlement in the east” were systematically murdered at Belzec Death Camp.
     
    Through the pages of Moshe Maltz’s diary, we follow him, as he slips out of the ghetto and trudges through snow and ice from one non-Jewish acquaintance to another. Each time, he has the same request: “Please create a hiding place for my family on your farm”. But sheltering Jews carries a death sentence, so everyone turns him down. Until, in desperation, he turns to a Catholic peasant, Francisca Halamajowa. 

    Refusing any reward, she agrees to hide 13 people in the hayloft above her pigsty. “It is,” she says, “her sacred duty to care of the Jews whom God sent to her door.”
    Life in the pigsty was harsh; freezing in winter and sweltering in summer. The pigs stank, the fleas swarmed and the family lived in constant fear of neighbours who might hand them over to the Germans. They had to keep absolutely quiet; passing away the hours, sleeping, playing chess and reading newspapers. 

    Mrs Halamajowa took care of her fugitives. On the pretext of taking care of the pigs and chickens which she had bought to provide cover for her clandestine activities, she carried food up a rickety ladder to the hayloft. After feeding the family, she clambered back down, this time clutching hold of the bucket that served as their toilet. Sometimes, its filthy contents spilled and splattered over her clothes. On those days, Moshe recorded his terror that their protector would abandon them. 

    In July 1944, the Red Army reconquered Sokal and the family finally emerged from 20 months in hiding. Only then did they discover that Mrs Halamajowa had sheltered three more Jews in a hole under her kitchen floor. 

    For all their discomfort and suffering, Mrs Halamajowa’s hidden Jews were among the lucky ones. Of the 6,000 Jews who lived in Sokal before the Holocaust, only 30 survived. The rest were murdered.

    Mrs Halamajowa was recognised by Yad Vashem as one of “The Righteous Among the Nations”. She is no longer with us, but her legacy continues to haunt me. The Torah teaches that we may not stand idly by the blood of our neighbours (Leviticus 19:16). This is explained in the Talmud to mean that if we see someone whose life is threatened, we may not passively stand by. We must intervene to save them (Sanhedrin 73a). 

    Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch, head of Yeshivat Birkei Moshe in Maale Adumim, recently ruled that this duty extends to rescuing people of other faiths (Melomdei Milchamah 44). We hope never to be tested. But I often wonder how many of us could match Mrs Halamajowa’s moral fortitude in saving the lives of strangers.

    Dr Stephen Smith, co-founder of the Beth Shalom National Holocaust Centre, offers a sobering suggestion. He says that every day our screens are filled with pictures of starving people. We know with absolute certainty that at least 20,000 people die every day because of poverty. Their lives could be saved for little more than the cost of a bag of rice. If we have not yet made any sacrifice to save them, then we are unlikely to fare better in the face of harsher moral challenges.

    Could we become more caring? Professor Samuel Oliner, himself a survivor of the Bobov Ghetto, researched “the altruistic personality”. He found that many Righteous Gentiles grew up in homes where there was contact with people of other faiths and tolerance and diversity were celebrated. Where strict Christianity was rigidly enforced, they were less likely to rise to the challenge.

    For Jews, things may be different. When our rabbis debated which was the most important biblical verse, Rabbi Akiva chose one that focused on our responsibilities to our fellow Jews; “Love your neighbour as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19: 18). 

    Ben Azzai, his student, opted for a verse that describes how every person is created in God’s image (Genesis 5:1). Our rabbis preserved both traditions because they are both important. To be a good Jew is to be rooted in our own community, faithful to our laws, and driven by a sense of responsibility for everyone around us.

    On Holocaust Memorial Day, we mourn the millions of our people brutally murdered in the Shoah. Yet, amid the grieving, we can also admire awe-inspiring modern day saints; striving to behave a little more like Mrs Halamajowa who saved the life of my friend, in her pigsty.

    Gideon Sylvester is the United Synagogue's Israel Rabbi and a guide on March of the Living
     

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