British Heroes of the Holocaust
What would I have done? What could I have done? The approach of Holocaust Memorial Day prompts us to remember the millions of victims, their suffering and the brutality and squalor amid which they were murdered. But it should also cause us to reflect on how we as individuals would have acted in the face of Nazi persecution. Would we have tried to stop it? Would we have had the courage and the moral fortitude to act? Would we have made a difference?
We know now that some would have been able to answer these questions in the affirmative. There were individuals who took a stand against inhumanity, displaying extraordinary courage in placing their concern for others above their fears and instinct for self-preservation. Some 28,000 people have been recognised as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance centre in Jerusalem, for the great risks they took to save Jews. Included amongst their numbers are 22 Britons, many of whom have also been honoured (mainly posthumously) with the British Hero of the Holocaust award. Instituted in 2009, this silver medal has now been given 41 times and is inscribed “In the Service of Humanity” on one side and acknowledges that awardees’ “selfless actions preserved life in the face of persecution” on the other.
Awardees were people such as Frank Foley, described as “a kind, religious man who felt it was the job of every good human being to save people” and who observed the growing horror of Nazi persecution at first hand in Berlin. Using his position as a passport control officer, Foley granted thousands of visas and hid Jews in his own home. Ordinary private individuals were also impelled to act. The eyes of Ida and Louise Cook, civil servant sisters from the London suburbs, were gradually opened to the unfolding horror by their travels on the Continent and contact with Jewish musicians. Under the guise of regular weekend trips to Europe to attend the opera, right up until the eve of the War, they sponsored and organised the flight of Jews, financing their activities mainly through their own resources.
Other British Heroes were honoured for their actions once the Nazis had overrun most of Europe and started to implement the Final Solution when arguably the dangers of acting, and the courage required to do, were greater still. Under house arrest in occupied Holland, and with a husband in a concentration camp, June Ravenhall hid a Jewish youth in her home for several years despite the risk to herself and her children. Jane Haining put her devotion to the 224 Jewish refugee children in her Budapest school above her own safety, refusing to leave the country as war approached and anti-Semitism grew. Like another British Hero, the Jersey woman Louisa Gould arrested for assisting a Russian escapee, Jane Haining paid the ultimate price for her selflessness: the two were gassed in Ravensbruck and Auschwitz respectively.
It is sobering to reflect, however, that the actions of the British Heroes and those of the other Righteous Among the Nations were quite literally exceptional. We do not know for certain what Josef S and Irmgard Furchner – currently on trial in Germany for Holocaust crimes – did in the concentration camps in which they worked. We do not know whether Arnold van den Bergh betrayed Anne Frank and her family to the Nazis, as has recently been claimed. But we do know that the accusations against them are far from exceptional, that the Holocaust was not the work solely of the Hitlers, Himmlers, Franks, Eichmanns and the other grotesques. Whether motivated by indifference, fear, self-preservation or ideology, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of ordinary people were complicit in the Holocaust, and did not try to stop it, did not have the courage and moral fortitude to act, did not make a difference. In this light, we can only see those with the strength of character to help others at the extremity of suffering at risk to their own lives as all the more inspirational and heroic in the true sense of the word.
Lyn Smith is the author of Heroes of the Holocaust: Ordinary Britains who Risked Their Lives to Make a Difference.
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