What makes someone a righteous Gentile? Does saving even one Jewish life even if it was not done with any risk qualify? What if it was a great Jewish leader? Does that matter?
This plus the facts surrounding one such individual is in part the core of a dispute between Holocaust expert Dr. Ephraim Zuroff- director of the Wiesenthal Center in Israel - and Chabad about a Nazi Naval officer who saved the life of Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef Schneersohn -the Lubavitcher Rebbe of that era.
His name is Wilhelm Franz Canaris. He was an admiral in charge of intelligence operations for Hitler’s Third Reich - who was later involved in a failed coup attempt against Hitler and executed. Admiral Canaris saved one Jew - the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
There is some dispute about how this happened. Chabad believes he risked his life to do so and in any event saving the Rebbe alone merits him righteous gentile status. They cite a book written by Mr.Danny Orbach a doctoral student at Harvard who is researching German opposition to the Nazi regime.
According to a Jerusalem Post article:
Dr. Ephraim Zuroff, director of the Wiesenthal Center in Israel called Chabad's request "problematic."
"It smacks of a certain particularism," said Zuroff in a telephone interview. "It is not fair to judge Canaris by a specific good deed when at the same he was in the upper hierarchy of the Third Reich."
According to Dr. Zuroff it seems that one had to have risked his life in order to be considered a righteous gentile.
In a commentary attached to this article - Failed Messiah writes of a version of the rescue that contradicts the claim by Mr. Orbach and Chabad:
US Military Intelligence asked its German counterpart to save the rebbe. The US did so because a lobbyist Chabad hired – but never paid – worked nonstop for weeks on end to make the arrangements.
… what Canaris did to save the rebbe was done before US entry in WW2 and before Germany had shifted from mass killings of Jews to full fledged extermination. What he did to save the rebbe was not especially risky for him or for the men he sent to do the job.
This version is based on another book that Failed Messiah claims is more authoritative.
I am certainly not in a position to judge whether this particular individual risked his life or not. But the question remains. Does saving a Jewish life without endangering oneself merit being called righteous? I don’t know. But I do know that there are many such righteous gentiles who were not pure of heart or free of prejudice. And yet they saved Jewish lives during the holocaust at their own personal risk.
I remember seeing an interview of one such fellow who believe the Jews were collectively being now punished via the holocaust because of their ancestral ‘guilt’ in the crucifixion of their god. When Jews were being marched to the death camps down his town’s main street, he would put on his Sunday finery to observe this ‘divine retribution’. He felt it was his religious duty to do that.
And yet he saved many Jews during the holocaust hiding them in his home under penalty of death if he was discovered. Why did he do it? Because as a religious Roman Catholic he believed that saving human life was an imperative – no exceptions.
This man’s name is permanently ensconced in Yad VaShem as a righteous gentile. Is this correct?
What about those non Jews who saved Jews for money? Should they be in there? If one was a Nazi officer who swore loyalty to Hitler and his goals of genocide and yet saved even one Jew – even if it was easy – should he be denied? What about someone who was willing to risk his own life but not that of his family? Hiding Jews was a capital offense.
What if they hid Jews for only part of the war - and then fear took over and they expelled their Jewish ‘guests’? Should they be considered righteous even if they only risked their lives for a short while? My mother was hidden in the home of one such family during the early years of the war and then asked to leave. Were they righteous gentiles?
How pure must one’s motives be when saving a life? And how far must one go to do it - in order to qualify as a righteous gentile? I’m not sure I can answer the question.