Unsung non-Jewish heroes of the Shoah – Yom Hashoah 5774

Yom Hashoah

Yom Hashoah began at sundown with the annual ceremony at Yad Vashem. 

Netanyahu pointed out the parallels of those dark times with the existential threat from Iran today:

Netanyahu attempted to connect the memorial day to current events, and slammed Iran’s nuclear program: “Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Today, as in the past, there are those who rationalize Iranian actions. Today, as in the past, those who think this are deluding themselves. This time too, the truth will lead the way.

“Iran wants a deal in which the sanctions are lifted, but the nuclear capabilities remain. A deal that allows Iran to remain on the threshold of nuclear power will leave the entire world on the precipice.

“I call on world powers to stand firm on the demand Iran dismantle its nuclear program.Today we do not fear making our case to presidents and prime ministers. Unlike during the Holocaust, when we were defenseless, today we have the power to defend ourselves.”


6 survivors to represent 6 million
Six Holocaust survivors, representing the six million victims, will light torches in memory of people who did not survive at the hands of the Nazis, at the main ceremony at the Warsaw Ghetto Square in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum.

The holocaust survivors to light the torches are Asher Aud, Zvi Michaeli, Dita Kraus, Chayim Herzl, Hinda Tasman and Itzchak Biran.

As I do every year, I would remind you that you can read about my own family history during the Holocaust on my Family History page. I updated it last year with a report about the 70th anniversary memorial service that the family held for my mother’s three brothers who were murdered in Sobibor.

However this year I would like to bring you a slightly different angle on the Holocaust. The following two articles are about non-Jewish heroes of the Shoah who risked their very lives to help the Jews. I found both stories fascinating, and they are also stories that I had never heard of before.

Ernst Leitz and his Leica camera

The first article, (from the Jews Down Under blog) is titled The Leica Freedom Train and is the story of the “photography industry’s Schindler”. Here are some excerpts but do go and read it all:

 The Leica is the pioneer 35mm camera. It is a German product — precise, minimalist, and utterly efficient. Behind its worldwide acceptance as a creative tool was a family-owned, socially oriented firm that during the Nazi era acted with uncommon grace, generosity and modesty. E. Leitz, Inc., designer and manufacturer of Germany’s most famous photographic product, saved the company’s Jews.

And Ernst Leitz II, the steely-eyed Protestant patriarch who headed the closely held firm as the Holocaust loomed across Europe, acted in such a way as to earn the title, “The Photography Industry’s Schindler.”


To help his Jewish workers and colleagues, Leitz quietly established what has become known among historians of the Holocaust as “The Leica Freedom Train,” a covert means of allowing Jews to leave Germany in the guise of Leitz employees being assigned overseas.

Employees, retailers, family members, and friends of family members were “assigned” to Leitz sales offices in France, Britain, Hong Kong and the United States.

Leitz’s activities intensified after the Kristallnacht of November 1938, during which synagogues and Jewish shops were burned throughout Germany. Before long, German “employees” were disembarking from the ocean liner Bremen at a New York pier and making their way to the Manhattan office of Leitz, Inc., where executives quickly found them jobs in the photographic industry. Each new arrival had around his or her neck the symbol of freedom — a new Leica.

The refugees were paid a stipend until they could find work. Out of this migration came designers, repair technicians, salespeople, marketers, and writers for the photographic press.


Even so, members of the Leitz family and firm suffered for their good works. A top executive, Alfred Turk, was jailed for working to help Jews, and was freed only after the payment of a large bribe.

Leitz’s daughter, Elsie Kuhn-Leitz, was imprisoned by the Gestapo after she was caught at the border, helping Jewish women cross into Switzerland. She was eventually freed, but had endured rough treatment in the course of being questioned. She also fell under suspicion when she attempted to improve the living conditions of more than 700 Ukrainian slave laborers, all of them women, who had been assigned to work in the plant during the 1940s. After the war, Kuhn-Leitz received numerous honors for her humanitarian efforts, among them the Officier d’honneur des Palms Academic from France in 1965 and the Aristide Briand Medal from the European Academy in the 1970s.

Why has no one told this story until now?

According to the late Norman Lipton, a freelance writer and editor, the Leitz family wanted no publicity for its heroic efforts. Only after the last member of the Leitz family was dead did “The Leica Freedom Train” come to light. It became the subject of a book, “The Greatest Invention of the Leitz Family: The Leica Freedom Train,” by Frank Dabba Smith. It is also the subject of a film in production, One Camera, One Life.

Here is a short trailer of the film:

You can also watch a longer trailer at Aish.com who had the original story.

This story is so incredibly moving and so heartening against the very dark abckground of those terrible times. Words cannot describe my admiration for the courage and the humility of the Leitz family. What a pity that their story was unknown until now. They never received the full recognition of their courage during their lifetime, and who knows – perhaps others in a similar position would have been inspired to help their Jewish friends too.

Jan Karski, heroic Holocaust whistleblower

The second article also deals with a courageous gentile, Jan Karski, who risked his life while trying his utmost to alert the world to the mass murder of Jews that was happening in Europe. On what would be his 100th birthday, Jan Karski, Holocaust whistleblower, is being honoured by Georgetown University:

 Jan Karski, a World War II Polish resistance fighter who risked his life to bring firsthand reports of the Holocaust to the Allies, is being remembered and celebrated at Georgetown University in Washington, DC this year, the 100th anniversary of his birth.


The commemoration will include a staged reading of “Remember This: Walking With Jan Karski” featuring an ensemble of Georgetown students and Academy Award nominee David Strathairn as Karski on April 24.

“A full day of remembrance for a professor is highly unusual. I can’t think of any other such instance at Georgetown,” says Rabbi Harold White, who served as senior Jewish chaplain at the university until 2009.

According to White, Karski was “incredibly humble” despite the fact that he defied personal danger to bring information about what was being perpetrated by the Nazis against European Jewry to the attention of Allied leaders, including US President Franklin Roosevelt. Until he gave testimony for French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” in 1978, he had rarely spoken — even to colleagues at Georgetown — about what he had done.


“He thought he had not done enough to save as many Jews as he should have,” explains White, who knew Karski well.

“I remember how he turned and looked at the crucifix on the wall when he spoke at one of our annual commemoration ceremonies for the Shoah and the Armenian Genocide,” recalls White. “He had tears in his eyes as he said, ‘I hope God will forgive me.’”

Karski, was born Jan Kozielewski in Lodz, Poland in 1914 (Karski was a nom de guerre, which he eventually adopted legally), the youngest of eight children in a Roman Catholic family. After completing his mandatory military service and graduating with honors from law and diplomacy studies at the University of Lwow, he earned a diplomatic appointment.

Karski was called up for military duty when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. He managed to escape when his unit was captured by the Soviets, avoiding the fate of other Polish officers killed in the Katyn massacre in the spring of 1940.

As he recounted in “Story of a Secret State,” a report of his wartime experiences published in 1944, he joined the Polish underground and worked as a courier bringing information to and from the Polish government in exile. At one point, he was betrayed to the Gestapo and attempted to commit suicide while in custody. He survived, and comrades arranged for his escape.Karski twice infiltrated the Warsaw Ghetto, and he also posed as a guard at the Izbica transit camp, where he witnessed Jews being herded on to train cars bound for their deaths. Having witnessed Nazi atrocities against the Jews, he provided eyewitness accounts to British foreign secretary Anthony Eden, President Roosevelt, and US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. He urged them to take action, including bombing the railroads leading to the death camps, but his message fell on deaf ears.

Linda Gradstein, The Media Line’s Mideast bureau chief, studied political theory with Karski as a freshman and recalls interviewing him for the school newspaper. “He told me his whole story patiently and clearly. The only time he got overtly emotional was when he spoke about telling Roosevelt what was going on, and urging him to bomb the train tracks at Auschwitz,” she says.

Watch the video of his above-mentioned interview. It is very emotional and moving.

Once again we find a hugely courageous person who is also incredibly modest about his deeds, and on the contrary thinks he should have done more.  If only we had known about him while he was still alive.

He, and Ernst Leitz, together with Oskar Schindler, Nicholas Winton and so many other unsung heroes, are an inspiration to us all.

This entry was posted in Israel news and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Unsung non-Jewish heroes of the Shoah – Yom Hashoah 5774

  1. cba says:

    What wonderful people! I am sad to admit that I doubt very much that I would have their courage, were I ever (God forbid!) in their position.

    May their memories be for a blessing.

  2. Reality says:

    What courageous people. Along with Raoull Wallenberg & many others. In fact last night one of the torch bearers told how he’d been saved by some friends of their neighbours(or something like that) . All these people who put their & their family’s lives at risk. He told how a few years ago he searched for that family, found them and is in close contact even today. He has put them on the list of the Righteous amongst Nations & they were awarded a medal in a ceremony. To this day they cannot understand that what they did was so special. They said we did what we thought was the right thing to do. Well our “friends & allies” certainly didn’t, as you quoted “it all fell on deaf ears”. Last night Netanyahu spoke how we can never rely on these “allies” again. Together with G-d’s help we have to defend ourselves. Even this week Catherine Ashton is pushing for us to make “peace” with a murderous terrorist group called Hamas. For the entire world “peace & quiet is a place with no Jews or dead ones. As we keep on saying NEVER AGAIN!
    To all those who rescued Jews ,thank you- one who saves one life its as if he’s saved an entire world. (how many extra people in our families we all would have had if the 6 million Jews hadn’t been murdered?)
    For all those who were murdered let their memories be a blessing.
    יהי זכרם ברוך

    • anneinpt says:

      What a great story that is, about that rescue you mentioned.

      Indeed, the loss of the Jewish people is not just the 6 million but all their lost future descendants.

  3. Brian Goldfarb says:

    I happened to see an interview with jan Karski that he did before he was filmed by Lanzmann. Then, he broke down in tears, for all the reasons given above. This is why when filmed by Lanzmann, he doesn’t: he’s told the story before. I believe that the Leica Train story has been told before: I’ve been aware of the outline for several years – which is no reason not to tell the story again and again and…

    I’ve just finished reading “The Rescuer”: by Dara Horn on my e-reader. It’s about Varian Fry, a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, for those unused to the jargon). He was also a rescuer: he saved maybe 2000 prominent artists, writers, etc (including Chagall, Arendt, Andre Breton…and their families from Vichy France between 1940 and 1941, until expelled by the Vichy government. It’s an article in length – maybe about 50 pages – and interesting reading.the best moment comes when he rescues Chagall, who has been arrested by the fascists. He is congratulated by a co-worker. “But” Horn quotes him as saying “why can’t I save them all?”(meaning, of course, all the ordinary Jews fleeing for their lives.)

    Horn asks,rhetorically, sadly, why couldn’t they all have been Denmarks?

    It brings tears to the eyes.

    To quote Stephen Fry, on learning what happened to his father’s family, left behind in Hungary and condemned to die, of the Nazis “fucking bastards”.

    What else is there ot say?

Comments are closed.