Mordecai Paldiel: Telling the Stories of Jewish Rescuers

What motivated you to write this book?

While directing Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations Department, I often came across the names of many Jewish rescuers who had worked in tandem with non-Jewish rescuers to save Jews. While the non-Jewish ones were honored with the title “righteous among the nations” and their names and stories publicized and disseminated, the Jewish ones , especially those who saved many Jews, were not similarly recognized and honored for their heroic deeds.

To give just one example, Jacques Fournier and Emile Barras assisted Marianne Cohn in her self-initiated rescue of hundreds of children by personally leading them secretly across the Franco-Swiss border. On one such trip, the three were arrested. The two non-Jewish French guides were released, whereas Marianne Cohn was executed. Fournier and Barras were honored with the “righteous” title; however Marianne Cohn, the principal person in this large-scale rescue operation, remains unacknowledged.

I felt this was gross and unforgivable neglect, and needed to be corrected. Therefore, I joined a volunteer group of Holocaust survivors to urge Yad Vashem to create a program for major Jewish rescuers, and I simultaneously undertook to write a book about them.

How has your personal background influenced your writing and career?

My personal background had little to do with this, other than the fact that under the impress of my work at Yad Vashem, I learned about the Jewish rescuers, who, in many cases, worked hand in hand with non-Jewish rescuers to save as many Jews as possible—and sometimes played the principal role in the effort, alongside non-Jewish rescuers who played secondary roles.

When I started to write this book, I was surprised to learn from relatives and YIVO records that as a five-year-old refugee child in Marseilles, France, I had spent some summer weeks in the home of Rabbi Zalman Schneerson (a distant cousin of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe), in Marseilles, France. He is credited with saving many Jewish children in France. Incidentally, Yad Vashem has honored May Charretier, one of the French non-Jewish couriers who aided him in his rescue mission.

Will Jewish rescuers be formally recognized for their acts of courage?

Recently, Yad Vashem finally agreed to introduce the topic of Jewish rescuers into its ongoing day-to-day major activities, and is discussing with the Israeli Action Group of Jewish Rescuers of Jews, of which I am a member, how best to implement this.

This came after a campaign to draw attention to the matter, which included a push for amending the Yad Vashem Law (passed by Knesset) to include the deeds of Jewish rescuers. There wouldn’t have been a need to spur a legislative effort to amend the law had the institution created a program some 15 years ago, when a group of interested persons, led by Holocaust survivor Haim Roet, and supported by Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer and myself, urged Yad Vashem to acknowledge Jewish rescuers under a separate program.

Presently, as Yad Vashem has agreed to go forward with this program of acknowledging major Jewish rescuers of the Jewish people, this will contribute to the pride and prestige of an institution, which was created and funded by the State of Israel to commemorate the Holocaust in all its facets