In the Gar­den of the Right­eous: The Heroes Who Risked Their Lives to Save Jews Dur­ing the Holocaust 

  • Review
By – February 20, 2023

On May 30, 1941, short­ly after the Nazis began their occu­pa­tion of Greece, two Athen­ian par­ti­sans climbed atop the Acrop­o­lis and tore down the swasti­ka fly­ing over­head. Mean­while, resis­tance groups band­ed togeth­er to res­cue Jews and oth­er refugees. Most promi­nent among these human­i­tar­i­ans was Damask­i­nos Papan­dreou, the Arch­bish­op of Athens and the head of the entire Greek Ortho­dox Church. Damask­i­nos was the only head of a Euro­pean church to con­demn the final solu­tion for­mal­ly. He even issued false bap­tismal papers and ordered priests and nuns to hide Jews in church­es and con­vents. Ulti­mate­ly, the efforts of all three — the church, resis­tance groups, and pri­vate cit­i­zens — saved two-thirds of Athen­s’s Jews.

Damask­i­nos is hon­ored in the Gar­den of the Right­eous at Israel’s Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al, Yad Vashem. The gar­den pays trib­ute to indi­vid­u­als who risked their lives, lib­er­ty, and/​or careers in order to save Jews dur­ing the Holo­caust. The 27,000 indi­vid­u­als hon­ored con­sti­tute half a hun­dredth of one per­cent of the Euro­pean pop­u­la­tion, or one in 20,000.

Named after the memo­r­i­al gar­den, Richard Hurowitz’s book presents in-depth case stud­ies of indi­vid­u­als from var­i­ous nations who took sig­nif­i­cant risks to do what they believed was right. Such indi­vid­u­als include Sousa Mendes, a Por­tuguese diplo­mat; Chi­une Sug­i­hara, a Japan­ese diplo­mat-cum-spy who defied gov­ern­ment orders and issued Jews visas, sav­ing thou­sands of their lives; Georg Duck­witz, a Ger­man diplo­mat in occu­pied Den­mark who alert­ed the Danes to the intend­ed date of the Jew­ish depor­ta­tion and helped arrange their safe pas­sage to Swe­den; Ire­na Sender, a Pol­ish social work­er and nurse who worked with the Pol­ish under­ground and res­cued over two thou­sand chil­dren from the War­saw Ghet­to; and Gino Bar­toli, a cham­pi­on Tour de France cyclist who trans­port­ed false doc­u­ments across north­ern Italy dur­ing his train­ing. The case stud­ies are mov­ing and engag­ing, each incor­po­rat­ing the indi­vid­u­al’s back­sto­ry and the his­tor­i­cal con­text spe­cif­ic to their region.

Despite the many dif­fi­cul­ties and dan­gers that the res­cuers faced, most tend­ed to min­i­mize their deeds and describe them as noth­ing spe­cial — just a mat­ter of doing the right thing. Stud­ies have found no cor­re­la­tion between this atti­tude and the res­cuers’ gen­der, age, nation­al­i­ty, race, fam­i­ly size, or birth order. How­ev­er, it appears that par­ent­ing style was a com­mon thread. Most of them grew up in lov­ing, con­sis­tent, and non-author­i­tar­i­an house­holds, with guardians who behaved altru­is­ti­cal­ly and were accept­ing of peo­ple from dif­fer­ent back­grounds. In turn, the res­cuers tend­ed to have a strong moral code based on their reli­gion, ethics, ide­ol­o­gy, and/​or sense of compassion.

In the Gar­den of the Right­eous is a time­ly book, giv­en that we live in a world where anti­semitism, racism, and homo­pho­bia are again on the rise. Hurowitz’s vivid, fine­ly craft­ed por­traits remind us to fight these injus­tices with every­thing we’ve got.

Lin­da Kan­tor-Swerd­low is a retired Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry Edu­ca­tion from Drew Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of Glob­al Activism in an Amer­i­can School: From Empa­thy to Action. She is cur­rent­ly free­lanc­ing and reviews books and theater.

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