HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY The Message of the Righteous

Sergio-Della-PergolaThe following speech was delivered by Sergio DellaPergola professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and member of the Yad Vashem Committee for the Righteous Among the Nations at the British Minister of Foreign Affairs in London on January 21, 2015 at the Holocaust Memorial Day Commemoration Ceremony.

I am pleased and honored to represent at this Holocaust Memorial Day Commemoration Ceremony the Committee for the Righteous Among the Nations, of which I am a member and about whose mission and achievements I will shortly say a few more words. But in this august building, one cannot begin without first thinking of those Righteous who were members of the diplomatic missions of their respective countries while they actively fought to save Jewish lives under the most exacting circumstances. Several of these brave individuals were British diplomats, among them the Righteous Among the Nations Major Francis (Frank) Foley. Among these many, let me first mention the story of a Spanish diplomat, Sebastian de Romero Radigales, who since 1943 served as the Consul General in Athens.
Under German military occupation and during the days when the 60,000 Jews of Thessaloniki were being annihilated, in Athens de Romero Radigales was actively trying to save a few hundred Jews who also were Spanish citizens. With the Germans, the Italians and the Red Cross, he was negotiating the organization of a convoy who would be let passing through, by land or by sea, to reach the Spanish homeland using a collective passport.
Facing these efforts, on June 4, 1943 Consul de Romero Radigales received the following telegram from his Foreign Minister, Francisco Jordana:
“Keep passive attitude, refrain from all personal initiatives and do not issue a collective passport”.
On July 1, 1943, the instruction followed:
“It is most essential that the excessive activism of the General Consul in Athens is neutralized, and his initiative be stopped”.
On July 7, the following diplomatic telegram arrived:
“By order: stop issuing collective passport, and execute instructions, with no discounts”.
Finally, on July 14, de Romero Radigales received the following diplomatic instruction:
“In no way did the Government of Spain consider returning masses of Spaniards besides a few individual cases. Therefore, not by train, not with no train, not in small groups that contradict our will”.
Soon after, to the Consul General’s dismay, 367 Jews whose deportation he had tried avoiding by all means and he had succeeded delaying were dispatched to the camp in Bergen Belsen. Here, by fortuitous circumstances they survived, and finally were liberated. The survivors explicitly recognized they owed their lives to the efforts and bravery of Sebastian de Romero Radigales. In 2014, the Righteous of the Nations award was presented in his memory to his family at a beautiful ceremony in Yad Vashem, in the presence of the Ambassador of Spain in Israel.

The Righteous Among the Nations

The basic operating principle of the State of Israel’s Righteous among the Nations enterprise is best rendered by one cardinal principle of Jewish tradition spelled in the following passage of Mishnah (Sanhedrin):
“Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world”
In setting up the Righteous Among the Nations program, the State of Israel, on behalf of the Jewish People, conferred upon the Yad Vashem Holocaust and Heroism Memorial the task of commemorating the acts of those who risked their lives to save Jews. Thus began a unique endeavor in which the victims of an unprecedented crime commemorate not only those who perished but also those among the nations of the perpetrators, collaborators and bystanders who protected Jews from death and deportation.
The survivors of the Holocaust were, and still are, the driving force behind these efforts of recognition and expression of gratitude. Despite having experienced ultimate evil, terrible loss and betrayal by their neighbors and societies, they never forgot their benefactors. The Righteous program is therefore also an expression of the survivors’ affirmation of life, their courageous spirit and their faith in mankind.
In a sense, recognition of a person as Righteous is similar to a process of religious beatification. It is indeed a secular procedure, conducted by conscientious and competent lay people, chaired by retired Supreme Court Justice Yaakov Tirkel, but it follows very precise rules that may remind the more sacred procedure. The rules, impartially and carefully applied, are (1) that the person in question must have been clearly identified; (2) that the person actually operated to save the life of one or more Jews; (3) that he or she did so not out of direct material compensation or other personal benefit; and (4) that the person actually put his own life in danger to save the life of others.
So far about 25,000 persons have been honored with the Award. One of the great dilemmas and mysteries when assessing the Righteous Among the Nations relates to the attempt to finding some common traits and creating a typology that might help us predicting whether under conditions of duress a person is bound to help and save lives, or not – to be a Righteous or not. My cumulated experience as member of the Committee shows that Righteousness is not associated to wealth, education or social class. We have the rich and the poor, the educated and the near analphabets. Nor is it related to religious faith: we have numerous man and women of faith and church, and as many atheists or agnostic. Neither it is in a sense related to political conviction: of course the majority of the Righteous were antifascists and in some other ways close to the fight for freedom, but so many others were members of the ruling party, had been imbued of anti-Semitism like anyone else at the time, and nevertheless found the strength to go against the current. The mystery of Righteousness seems to boil down to the basic variability of human nature: both good and evil are there, and each individual – facing the crucial decision – will make his or her choice according to what is deep inside personal conscience.


The position of diplomats is somewhat peculiar in the general framework of the Righteous Among the Nations. To this day 34 diplomats from 19 countries have been recognized. Indeed, in theory, diplomats enjoy immunity and might therefore be exempt from endangering one’s own life which, instead, is among the prerequisites for Righteous recognition of other persons. The rules that apply to diplomats, as well as to senior churchmen and women, indeed also consider the risk of losing one’s own position and career as a consequence of actions undertaken in favor of saving the lives of persecuted Jews. Such loss of status can indeed represent a crucial factor when facing the dilemmas of life and death. It requires great bravery to make the right choices, especially when those choices bluntly contradict the instructions received and sometimes fiercely imposed by the superiors in charge – as we just demonstrated in the case of the Spanish diplomat in Greece.
But nevertheless there were those diplomats who not only acted bravely under impossible circumstances, but also lost their life. The better known case is Raul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat in Hungary, but there were others. The predicament is better rendered with the words of Per Anger, another Swedish diplomat in German occupied Hungary:
So what can we do? They were queuing up outside the embassies, pleading for help… What could we do? There was nothing in our books of instructions telling us how we could save people of other nationalities…

Church people: A personal story

Senior churchmen and women stand in a condition for recognition as Righteous among the Nations somewhat similar to diplomats. Allow me to stress this by recalling here one more example of the inspired action of a man and a woman that saved Jewish lives – in this case the life of my parents and my own. The scene is in Florence, December 1943, under German occupation, and the narrator’s voice is my father’s diary, Massimo Della Pergola.
“The taxi brought me (my father), Adelina (my mother) and our one year old son (myself) from our current hiding in a mental hospital to a little boarding house in town where we had already been in hiding for a while. We had no choice. When the owner saw us she put her hands in her hair and said: “You, still here?” She looked at the boy and said: “I can hold you for one or at most two nights, but no more”.
We spent that night desperately awake, listening to the sound of German trucks that stopped to arrest Jews on the river’s bank. Adelina invoked an air raid, wishing that a bomb fell on us and kill us, saving us the horror of deportation.
The next day a kind of miracle occurred. A Florentine lady, Professor Livia Sarcoli, a very observant Catholic, had heard in church at the six a.m. mass the sermon the Archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa. This brave man and prominent Church leader, the holder of great spiritual and human values, had launched an appeal to the faithful: “In these times there are people who suffer and are in serious danger. They are our brothers. Try to help them.” He was referring of course to the Jews.
Ms. Sarcoli was elderly, devout, and taught literature in an institute of nuns. After the mass, she went to the little boarding house, to see the pension’s owner who fortunately for us was her friend, and told her how impressed she was by the words of the Cardinal. “But I” she added, “I know of no Jew”. And the friend, without hesitation, replied: “The Divine Providence is sending you. I have here at home a young Jewish couple. They have a one year old baby. Try to help them.”
We were very moved when Ms. Sarcoli told us to go and stay at her house. And she added: “I shall go to the convent where I teach. You will be alone in the house, but please do not talk to anyone, do not make any noise, never open the door and windows, and never answer the phone”. We moved into her apartment in Via della Colonna, on the ground floor of a house without a lift and no guardian. The apartment was large and well furnished. To us it seemed beautiful and safe. There we could spend some critical weeks.
Unfortunately we would not see again our savior. At the end of the war, in 1945, we went to Florence looking for her and thank her but we learned she had died recently. A few days before passing our savior had asked her family in attendance: “Who knows if those dear young people were saved”. What she could not know was that thanks to her providential intervention we were able to find a contact with the Italian underground and the Anglo-American intelligence, and trough them we received instructions and logistical assistance to reach the Swiss border, pass it on foot, and gain personal safety. It was the night of Christmas 1943.”
In 2012 Cardinal Dalla Costa, whose words were so decisive to save our lives, was recognized as Righteous among the Nations. In 2014, Ms. Sarcoli, whose piety gave us shelter, joined him after receiving the same Righteous award. At times one word is enough to save a life. But it is essential that that word be pronounced, and unfortunately history tells us that not all those who could, openly did utter that word.

The international context

For those of us who have the privilege of being here to recall and to tell, International Shoah Memorial Day is the natural occasion that allows remembering and transmitting a message of gratitude to the saviors, as well as a message of warning against those who not only ostentatiously show that they have not understood, but consciously continue on the same path of hatred, destruction and annihilation.
We already saw how vicious can be the attitude and practice by those who were perhaps not the direct perpetrators, but had a definite role in the consequences. Similar vicious sentiments are still present and actually rapidly increasing across contemporary societies. From my research work I can testify that the survey initiated in 2012 by Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union in nine countries clearly indicates that already then European Jews perceived a definite increase in the manifestations of anti-Semitism, of racism, of xenophobia and of religious intolerance.
As the events of the last weeks tragically demonstrate, hatred and destructive action continue to operate against Jews, who served in the past and serve today as the litmus paper of tolerance in civil society. Hatred also operates against the broader constituted polity, as represented by its law and security institutions; and against freedom of expression and tolerance of different opinions, as impersonated by the press. More than ever, maximum vigilance and responsibility is required today.
By convening here today on this Day of Memory we hope and trust that the lofty message of remembrance, solidarity and gratitude will be transmitted to humankind for many generations more.