In her study of people who rescued Jews during the Second World War Eva Foegleman wrote that

it is through public memorials that a nation conveys to its citizens the character and values it cherishes.

We communicate what we value by what we remember and by the heroes we venerate.

Generally, today we will honour military heroes, men and women who either died in battle or committed heroic acts in an attempt to save others.  It is important that we remember those who died in military service. They often performed great acts of bravery. In the case of the Second World War they certainly fought against a terrible violent and evil regime. They fulfilled a role in history that no one would choose to undertake if they felt they had any other honourable option.

But, there were thousands of anonymous heroes in the Second World War, most of whom will not be remembered today.

There were noble Germans, Poles and many other Europeans who resisted the Nazis and in some cases lost their lives in their attempt to overthrow Hitler.  There were untold unknown heroic individuals who, at terrible risk to their lives and the lives of their families, sheltered Jews and other “undesirables” from the Nazis.

It is particularly tempting to forget those heroic individuals who sheltered refugees during the Second World War. The memory is too painful; the stories are too challenging; the circumstances of their lives too threatening.

On Wednesday 15 October 1941, Hans Frank the Nazi-appointed German Governor-General of “The General Government” of occupied Poland issued a decree relating to Jews confined in ghettos throughout Poland stating that:

(1) Jews who, without authorization, leave the residential district to which they have been assigned will be punished by death. The same punishment applies to persons who knowingly provide hiding places for such Jews.

(2) Abettors and accomplices will be punished in the same way as the perpetrator, and an attempted act in the same way as an accomplished one. In less serious cases the sentence may involve penal servitude or imprisonment.

(3) Cases will be judged by the Special Courts.

Imagine, on Sunday 19 October 1941, you are at home with your young family in Warsaw, Poland.  Earlier in the day you have been to church with your children. Although your country is now occupied by the German Wehrmacht, you feel relatively safe and secure in your comfortable home. It is evening; your children are asleep; you hear a knock at the door. When you open your front door you find standing on the step a disheveled woman clutching the hand of a small child.

The woman’s face is streaked with tears. She looks terrified. The child is cold, obviously malnourished and shivering with fever.

You know instantly she is Jewish and has escaped from the Ghetto.

In a frail voice, she asks, “Can you shelter me and my child for the night; they have killed my husband.”

The words of Frank’s decree run through your mind:

The same punishment applies to persons who knowingly provide hiding places for such Jews.

You stand looking at this woman. Her life is in your hands. The life of your own children is in your hands. What do you do?

This is war. There are no easy choices; no safe solutions.

We remember today not in order to judge or condemn anyone; we remember so we might be challenged to examine our own lives and ask ourselves what it might look like for us to live today as peacemakers in our part of the world.

Sometimes the call to be heroic appears at our own front door. It is good to remember that we demonstrate what we value by how we respond when a need comes across our path.

 

 

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