Righteous Among the Nations Awards
By Alan Manheim
It was a somber but incredibly uplifting ceremony that took place at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at NYU. The Consulate General of Israel in New York and the American Society of Yad Vashem presented the Righteous Among the Nations Award. The awards honor individuals for their selfless and courageous actions during the Holocaust saving Jewish lives. The ceremony honored Brone Budreikaite, of Lithuania, Gerard and Gerda Van Raan-Lubach of the Netherlands, Hanna Sotschek and Eva Cassirer of Germany, Mikhail, Maria, and Vasili Gunchak of the Ukraine, and Aleksey Varvaretsky, also from the Ukraine.
Attending the ceremony was a large crowd of family members, friends and dignitaries. Gil Lainer, Consul for Public Affairs, of the Israeli Consulate spoke and called the valor of the awardees,” radiant acts of exceptional goodness”. Counsel representatives Valdemaras Sarapinas of Lithuania, Yvette Daoud of the Netherlands, and Elmar Jakobes of Germany also attended.
The Israeli Consulate issued a statement: “The honor of “Righteous Among the Nations” recognizes those people who upheld morality and human values in the midst of a moral vacuum. This tribute attempts to convey the gratitude of the State of Israel and the Jewish People to those who stood by their side during a time of persecution and great tragedy. Those remembered receive a medal and a certificate of honor and their names are commemorated on the Mount of Remembrance, in Jerusalem. To date, more than 22,000 people have been honored as the “Righteous Among Nations”. They come from more than 40 countries and include Muslims and Christians from all denominations; the trait common to all is their courage to stand for their moral principles.”
The ceremony was marked by emotional personal remembrances. Rosia Zernia, was six years old when Brone Budreikaite rescued her. Rosia was shoved under the barbed wire of the ghetto and then carried to safety. Elisabeth Joseph, fleeing from the Gestapo, in January 1943, described how it was a miracle that she met a former classmate Eva Cassirer who with her mother Hannah Sotschek, sheltered and protected her. Natalia Chernikova, spoke for her grandmother, Sabina Khenkina, who was ill and not in attendance. Natalia described the love that Aleksey Varvaretsky had for Sabina’s mother and with that love saved an entire family. Heleena Van Raan, spoke eloquently about her parents and their bravery in hiding a young Jewish boy, Rudy Von Kramer who today still lives in the Netherlands. A letter from Rudy was read, extolling the kindness of the von Raan’s. Leon Rich tried to contain his tears as he recounted that only twenty-five out of four thousand Jews survived the war from his town in the Ukraine. A guard warned him that the ghetto’s inhabitants were to be shipped to their death. Leon his brother and twenty three others escaped. Three members of the Gunchak family aided Leon, and his brother Yossel to survive. They stayed in a hen house for fourteen months without seeing the light of day before being liberated.
Joey Spitz, Director of Academic Affairs at the Israeli Consulate, moderated the evening program. Joey is a grandson of holocaust survivors. Elad Kabilio played the cello with soothing warmth, appropriate for the occasion. And Caroline Stoessinger closed the program by reading a portion of her book “ Century of Wisdom”, describing the oldest holocaust survivor, Alice Herz -Sommer, who will soon celebrate her 109th birthday. Alice was a pianist who performed concerts in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. One day she was stopped by one of the guards, frightened she asked what do you want? He replied I only want to thank you for playing the piano so well. He then furtively looked around to see that no one could overhear and bent down and whispered to Alice. Your name and your son’s name will never be on the list to be shipped out. You will be safe. Alice never discovered the name of that guard. And records confiscated from the camp indicate that neither her nor her son’s name ever appeared on that list of death. Caroline Stoessinger stated that Alice who has seen the worst violence of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries still finds the goodness and humanity of life. And still practices three hours a day on her piano.
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The B’nai B’rith World Center, established in 1980, is the permanent and official presence of B’nai B’rith International in Jerusalem and serves as its public affairs arm in Israel.
B’nai B’rith International, the Global Voice of the Jewish Community, is the oldest and most widely known Jewish humanitarian, human rights, and advocacy organization. For 168 years, BBI has worked for Jewish unity, security, continuity, and tolerance. Visit www.bnaibrith.org.