Jan 29, 2007 — Diplomats and guests gathered at the Park East Synagogue in Manhattan on Jan. 24 to hear Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke discuss “Discipline Versus Dissent: A Dilemma in Times of Moral Crisis.” But the real honorees of the event were absent: a group of righteous individuals who defied their governments’ orders to help Jewish refugees escape the Holocaust. The 29 diplomats were stripped of their titles; some fell into obscurity, others were put to death.
These righteous individuals are the subjects of Diplomat Heroes of the Holocaust by Mordechai Paldiel, director of the Department of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. The first book published by the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Center for International Affairs of Yeshiva University (in cooperation with Ktav Press), it was launched at the event in recognition of UN Resolution 60/7 (2005), which established International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27. The date marks the day that Auschwitz was liberated in 1945.
“Tonight we honor diplomats who risked their lives and careers to save thousands of [other] human lives,” said Rabbi Arthur Schneier, spiritual leader of the Park East Synagogue. He pointed to his own example as a survivor of the Holocaust who fled Budapest on a visa issued by one such righteous individual. “Judaism teaches that in every generation there are 36 righteous individuals who uphold the world—and they could be diplomats, taxi drivers, or construction workers,” Rabbi Schneier said.
In his address, Ambassador Holbrooke said that among the thousands of consuls in Europe at the time, only a small group had the courage to stand up for their convictions. Not all of them were well known, however. “There were other Raoul Wallenbergs,” Ambassador Holbrooke said. He recalled the story of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese aristocrat with 12 children, who issued visas to Jews seeking passage out of Bordeaux through Spain and Portugal. “He was fired within weeks and died in poverty. It was only in 1987 that President Mario Soares restored his name.”
The former ambassador to the UN related the diplomats’ ordeal to contemporary moral and political dilemmas. “There are genocides going on all the time in the world today and government policies that we don’t agree with—and there are consequences to standing up and speaking out,” he said. “When does an issue rise to a great moral level? We all have to ask ourselves, ‘What would I do?’”
After the lecture, Rabbi Schneier presented certificates to the diplomats representing the countries of origin of the righteous protectors in the book.