The Communities That Risked Everything To Rescue Jews

Many are unaware that many communities during WWII rescued Jews from the Nazis.

Did King Christian X of Denmark actually wear a Star of David in solidarity with his Jewish subjects during the Nazi occupation of 1940-1945? The well-known story is not, in fact, true, but the reality is even more amazing: The Danes forbid discrimination against their nearly 8,000 Jewish countrymen, so the King’s protest would have been unnecessary.

Religious bigotry was anathema in Denmark, and to avoid trouble, the Nazis had initially agreed to stand down from persecuting the country’s Jews.  When Hitler himself finally ordered a round-up of Jews in October 1943, Danes came together to mount a massive clandestine rescue, transporting their Jewish neighbors in an amateur flotilla across the straits to safety in Sweden.  Almost all Danish Jews survived the war.

Next week brings International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day of mourning. But it is also a time of reflection to consider how to make true the vow of “Never Again,” a phrase that rings hollow given the dozens of genocides perpetrated since World War II. Those very few communities, like Denmark that stood up to the Nazis to protect their Jewish neighbors were remarkable for their heroism and even more for their surprising effectiveness. They are worth remembering both to recall their noble actions and to understand their success.

They were scattered across Europe. The tiny arrowhead-shaped island of Zakynthos, for example, floats 10 miles due west of the Greek mainland in the Ionian Sea. Included in the legendary Homeric catalog of ships, it was never more heroic than during World War II.

In September 1943, the Germans arrived on Zakynthos and told the mayor, Lukas Karrer, to deliver a list of the island’s 275 Jews within 24 hours, on pain of execution. Shaken, Karrer immediately confided in the local bishop, Metropolitan Chrysostomos, who accompanied him back to the German commander. “Here is the list of Jews you require,” Chrysostomos told the Nazi officer, handing him a sheet of paper. On it, he had written two names: his own and the mayor’s.

The commander was stunned but backed down. He did, however, institute measures to harass the Jews. Signs warned that any Greek daring to hide a Jew would be shot on the spot. Karrer and Chrysostomos quietly told the local rabbi to send his community to the hills, where their fellow islanders provided food, shelter and hiding places. When three boats arrived to deport the island’s Jews, they were nowhere to be found. The entire Jewish community of Zakynthos was saved, uniquely in Greece, where almost all Jews perished. Survivors called it “the island of the just.”

Next door to Greece was Albania, a small, impoverished Balkan country and the only majority-Muslim nation in Europe. Jews had lived there since the days of the early Roman Empire alongside their Muslim and Christian neighbors. In 1933, the American ambassador reported that Albania was “one of the rare lands in Europe today where religious prejudice and hate do not exist.”

When the Nazis arrived in early 1944, the Albanians evacuated their nearly 2,000 Jews, who were hidden and protected in far-flung locales in the hills and countryside. Albanians had long abided by a code called besa, a sacred oath of hospitality to be honored even if it meant death. Two Muslim rescuers, Hamid and Xhemal Veseli, recalled their parents teaching that “every knock on the door is a blessing from God.” Only seven Jews were captured in all of Albania. Remarkably, its Jewish population was larger at the end of the war than at the beginning.

Hundreds of miles away, the French town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon was predominantly Protestant, many of its residents descendants of Huguenots fleeing persecution. The region had a tradition of welcoming refugees, including from the Spanish Civil War. Its pastor André Trocmé and his Italian wife Magda were passionate believers in nonviolence. As war loomed, Trocmé called on his flock to save those fleeing the Nazis, quoting Deuteronomy, “Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Jews began to make their way to the village as rumors spread of a possible safe haven. The situation accelerated when the American Quakers working with refugees asked Trocmé if Le Chambon might provide shelter for Jewish children, many of them foreign, fleeing French internment camps. The town immediately agreed. Refugees were hidden in dormitories, pensions, homes and farms across 12 square miles. Children from over a dozen countries would live in Le Chambon.

The risks were extreme. Trocmé and others were detained. In June 1943, his 33-year-old cousin Daniel, the director of two of the children’s homes, was deported and murdered along with several of his charges. There was repeated harassment by the gendarmes. But the locals developed highly effective warning systems. They learned to send the Jews into the surrounding forests and farms, out of reach of the police. There was not one reported instance of betrayal.

The people of Le Chambon believed deeply in the injunction to love thy neighbor and in the parable of the Good Samaritan. “They did not read the daily newspapers, but they read their Bible daily,” recalled one boy who was hidden there. It is estimated that some 5,000 people, three-quarters of them Jewish and the great majority of them children, were sheltered in Le Chambon or smuggled out of France from there during the occupation.

These examples are not unique—there were other towns, like Secchiano in Italy and Nieuwlande in the Netherlands, and nations like Bulgaria and Finland—but they were extremely rare. John Stuart Mill once declared, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” But just as striking is the converse. The positive behavior of entire communities could be no less powerful. When a group of people made a decision to stand together, they were sometimes able to thwart even the Nazis.

What bound these communities together was a shared altruistic ethos—grounded in religion, patriotism, tolerance or a code of honor—that made them oppose persecution. They also shared a willingness to act together. When they did, they found they could often make things too difficult for the occupiers to implement their diabolical plans. Even in places where the Nazis were more successful, rescue was far more effective when a community offered even quiet support. “For three years our neighbors put up a protective shield around us by acting as if they did not notice anything,” one Dutch rescuer recalled. “We [the rescuers] were only the tip of the iceberg.”

We may never have an inoculation against bigotry, racism and antisemitism, but we can try to create communities capable of resisting these pathogens—communities with the courage to stand for tolerance, openness and universal respect.

This essay is adapted from Mr. Hurowitz’s new book, “In the Garden of the Righteous: The Heroes Who Risked Their Lives to Save Jews During the Holocaust,” published by Harper (which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp). He is the founder and publisher of the Octavian Report.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, January 21, 2023