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Friday, December 1, 2023

Lesser-known stories about Jews who were rescued during the Holocaust

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During World War II, various people and groups assisted Jews and others in escaping Nazi Germany’s Holocaust. Between 1941 and 1945, there were around six million Jews murdered in German-occupied Europe, accounting for roughly two-thirds of the continent’s Jewish population. Here are some unknown stories about Jews who were rescued by different big hearted countries and people.

1. During the Second World War, not a single Moroccan Jew was taken to concentration camps or died solely because of Sultan Mohammed V. He was ordered to pick up all Moroccan Jews and transport them to Nazi death camps, but he refused, claiming that “there are no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccan nationals.”

A portrait of the young Sidi Mohammed ben Yusef al-Alawi taken by Marcelin Flandrin for Agence Rol, Credits: By Marcelin Flandrin

More than a quarter of a million Jews lived in Morocco in 1940, and they had settled there long before Carthage fell. They had been working in the sultans’ court as ministers, ambassadors, and advisors.

As a responsible leader, Mohammed rejected assisting the murder of his own Jewish compatriots. He also refused to follow the French Vichy authorities’ legal protocols. The French attempted to enforce two laws that barred Jews from working in specific occupations, attending schools, and living in ghettos.

Sultan Muhammad V of Morocco wearing a jalaba in 1934, Credits: By FlandrinFrance-Maroc : revue mensuelle15 AUG 1917

Such laws were anti-Semitic in his opinion, and he publicly condemned them. Until the Allied armies seized North Africa in 1942, Mohammed made sure to preserve his Moroccan Jewish population.

He was an outspoken supporter of the Allies and hosted the historic Casablanca conference for four days, inviting local Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and French President Charles de Gaulle to attend.

Mohammed died in 1961, but his brave efforts were and will always be remembered with “everlasting appreciation” by the Moroccan Jewish community. [Source]

2. In Poland, any help given to a person of Jewish faith or nationality during the Nazi occupation throughout World War II was punishable by death. Despite this, Israel had recognized 6,532 Polish men and women as rescuers (more than any other country). Jews were also assisted by Ładoś Group, a group made of outside Polish diplomats and Jewish activists.

Liquidation of Kraków Ghetto, March 1943. Families walk to Prokocim railway station for “resettlement”. Destination: Auschwitz, Credits: By Unknown author – United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Instytut Pamieci Narodowej

Poland had a substantial Jewish population, and according to Norman Davies, more Jews were murdered and rescued in Poland than in any other country, with estimates ranging from 100,000 to 150,000 for the latter.

During the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II, any assistance given to a person of Jewish faith or nationality was punishable by death. Despite this, Yad Vashem in Israel has acknowledged 6,532 men and women (more than any other country in the world) as rescuers.

Top: entrance to Auschwitz camp I, with gate sign, Arbeit macht freiBottom: the real death factory at nearby Auschwitz II–Birkenau, Credits: By Dawid Skalec, CC BY-SA 3.0

Diplomats from outside Poland also assisted Jews. The Ładoś Group was a group of Polish diplomats and Jewish organizers that set up an illegal Latin American passport manufacture scheme in Switzerland in order to save European Jews from the Holocaust. Over 3,000 of the 10,000 Jews who acquired such passports have been saved. [Source]

3. During the Holocaust, almost all Jews in Albania were rescued. The amazing help given to the Jews was based on Besa (an Albanian code of honor that literally means “keep the promise”), and religious tolerance, both of which are traditions in Albania. Impressively, there were more Jews in Albania at the end of the war than there had been before the war.

Enver Alia Sheqer with statue of Albania’s national hero Skanderbeg, Credits: Yadvashem.org

Albania, a small mountainous country on the Balkan peninsula’s southeast coast, had a population of 803,000 people at the time. Only two hundred of them were Jews. Many Jews fled to Albania after Hitler’s coming to power in 1933.

The Albanians not only safeguarded their Jewish compatriots, but also provided their homes to Jewish refugees who had arrived in Albania while the country was still under Italian authority and were now facing deportation to concentration camps.

The exceptional help given to the Jews was based on Besa, a code of honor that is still used as the country’s greatest ethical code today. Besa literally translates to “to keep the promise.” Someone who acts in accordance with Besa is a trustworthy person with whom one may entrust one’s life and the lives of one’s family.

Old man of Has of Prizren wearing a plis (Albanian traditional hat), Credits: By Arbenllapashtica – Own work

The assistance provided to both Jews and non-Jews should be viewed as a matter of national honor. The Albanians went out of their way to help; in fact, they competed with one another for the honor of rescuing Jews. Albania is also known for religious tolerance. Compassion, loving-kindness, and a desire to aid those in need, regardless of faith or origin, motivated these gestures.

Except for members of a single family, almost all Jews living within Albanian boundaries during the German occupation, including Albanians and refugees, were saved. Surprisingly, there were more Jews in Albania at the end of the war than there had been prior to the war. [Sources: 1, 2]

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