Should Yad Vashem Honor Gentiles Who Saved Converted Jews?

Sometime in the last week of April, 230 cosignatories sent a petition to Yad Vashem, requesting that they give special recognition to two particular families, the Hollebrands and the Egginks, who hid three children from the Sanders family, which had converted to Christianity before World War II.

In this tragic WWII story, the father registered the family as Jewish and sent the children into hiding with the Hollebrands and Egginks. The Gestapo arrested the father in 1943 and tortured him into divulging their whereabouts. In the end, he, his wife and children—Eline, 10, Egbert, 8 and Marie Lena, 6—were murdered that year.

Yad Vashem’s Commission for the Recognition of the Righteous among the Nations decided that the Hollebrands and the Egginks were ineligible for the title since the honor is reserved for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews in the Holocaust; since the children were not Jewish, they could not receive the award.

How would Jewish tradition and ethics respond to this kind of case? Was the Yad Vashem acting properly?

When I came across this article, I decided to look up the Shulchan Aruch, which is the authoritative Code of Jewish Law that has governed Jewish life for many centuries. The law is clear: an Israelite who has embraced another religious identity still remains an Israelite; should he get married to a Jewish woman, the act of marriage still remains intact even though he has retracted his Jewish faith. [1] Moreover, this same principle also applies to any person who officially converted to Judaism from another faith, who later relinquishes his Judaic faith–that individual is still considered a Jew [2] — contrary to the views espoused by today’s Haredi rabbinical community in Israel.

Moreover, if  that wayward Israelite ritually slaughters an animal and someone attests that his knife was adequately sharpened, the meat from the animal may be eaten [3]. There are literally hundreds of other cases in rabbinic literature that stress this point: Jewish identity does not disappear just because that person rejects his heritage. The door is always open for the possibility that he might repent and return to his ancestral faith.

That being said, in the case of the Sander children, we do not know all the facts regarding this case. It is possible the father had the family converted in order to avoid persecution by the Nazis. Such conversions gave the Jewish person(s) extra protection from the Church, but not always. Conversions under duress are nothing new in Jewish tradition and the Halacha—especially as interpreted by Maimonides—tends to be fairly liberal and compassionate. Indeed, Maimonides ought to have known, because he himself was forcibly converted to Islam in his youth.

In short, the Sander children were truly and halachically תינוק שנשבה בין הנכרים — the tragic victims of circumstances that were beyond their conscious control and as a result certainly need to be viewed with the utmost of compassion. Even though they were converted to Christianity, they still died as Jews. The two families who risked their own lives and the lives of their families deserve recognition.

Saving a life of a person who is facing imminent danger is considered to be one of the greatest acts of human decency. Although most texts rabbinic texts speak about the saving of a “‘Jewish’ life is considered as if one saved the entire world,”[4] one must remember that the social context this rabbinic dictum referred merely to someone who was already a member of their community; it would be analogous to laws that we have in this country that are written for the general welfare of Americans, but do not necessarily exclude the rights of foreigners. In fact, with the recent wave of immigrants coming in from Mexico, American laws across the nation have been established to protect their rights as well. Continue reading “Should Yad Vashem Honor Gentiles Who Saved Converted Jews?”