Righteous Among the Nations

The origin of the expression "righteous among the nations" dates far back in Jewish history. Over the years, the original meaning of the expression changed and became a reference to those gentiles who showed extraordinary compassion towards Jews, e.g. the Talmud tells the story of two Roman citizens who sacrificed their own lives in order to save Jews from death.

It was only after World War II, however, that this expression was given more profound meaning. When the world at large, and in particular the Jewish people, became aware of the magnitude of the Holocaust and were shaken to their very core by the destruction of European Jewry, there came to light stories of the rescue of Jews by their gentile neighbors who knowingly endangered themselves in order to save Jewish lives. Though there aren't too many cases of such deeds, each was in its own way outstanding.

The Nazis punished by death anyone found guilty of helping to save a Jewish life; the walls of every occupied town were covered with posters warning the local non-Jewish population against helping Jews: it was forbidden to give a Jew shelter or food, or even to sell him food, under penalty of death. In spite of this, there were those who endangered their own and their families' lives in order to help. They acted not in the hope of reward, but out of conscience, religious belief or opposition to the Nazi conquest and by their deeds demonstrated their courage and nobility of spirit.

Those who enacted the Israeli "Law for Perpetuating the Remembrance of the Holocaust and its Acts of Valor Yad VaShem, 1953" were aware of these rays of light gleaming in the Stygian darkness. These courageous rescuers were as a beam of light to the pursued and restored their belief in the existence of a better world. It was felt, therefore, that the Jewish people as whole must honor each and every one of them. The Law stated accordingly that "a memorial (Yad VaShem) is hereby established in Jerusalem to... and to those righteous among the nations who risked their own lives to rescue Jews".

A special Committee for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations was set up with the participation of representatives of Yad VaShem, survivors of the Holocaust, lawyers and historians. This Committee decides who deserves the title of "Righteous Among the Nations" on the basis of the testimony of those rescued or of authentic documentary evidence. Rescuers can be honored posthumously. As of January 1st, 2009, 23,226 people from 44 countries have been honored as "Righteous Among the Nations". The number of individuals is actually much higher because, in a rare exception following the demand of the Danish Resistance movement, the entire Danish people were awarded the honor as one group, for their extraordinary rescue operation of Danish Jewry (this topic is already covered by a separate article in SOH Lite).

Persons recognized as a "Righteous Among the Nations" are awarded a specially minted medal and a certificate of honor, both bearing their name, as well as the privilege of their names being added to the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad VaShem in Jerusalem. The Yad VaShem Law authorizes Yad VaShem "to confer honorary citizenship of the State of Israel upon the Righteous Among the Nations, and commemorative citizenship if they have passed away, in recognition of their actions."

In early years, trees were planted by some of the Righteous or their families on the Mount of Remembrance (where the Yad VaShem site is located in Jerusalem). Today, their names are engraved on the walls of the Garden of the Righteous. The Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations was inaugurated in 1962. Trees, symbolic of the renewal of life, have been planted in and around the Yad VaShem site, in honor of the Righteous. Plaques adjacent to each tree record the names of those being honored along with their country of residence during the war. Wishing to honor these unknown heroes, Yad VaShem erected a monument to the anonymous rescuer in the Avenue of the Righteous.

The stamp was issued in 1979. Designer: N. Rosner.