My sermon delivered on Friday, April 20, when we observed Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Commemoration Day.
I am, for many reasons, quite inspired by Gino Bartali’s story. In truth I remain inspired by so many of these stories of bravery and heroics. These stories comprise those of the Righteous among the Nations, Hasidei Umot Ha-olam.
There are many stories of course that help us remember the Shoah. Far too many of them are stories of death and murder. There are as well many stories of survival. Each year our students are privileged to hear Annie’s story.
I wonder, how many stories cannot be told by the six million Jews murdered. There are fewer stories still of those who saved Jews, of those who risked their own lives for neighbors and even strangers. On this evening I choose to recount another story of the righteous among the nations. I urge you to visit Yad VaShem’s website and read more of these stories.
Why did these people risk everything? Why did they endanger their own lives, their family’s? They were by and large simple, pious, everyday people. They were not for the most part university educated. The movie Schindler’s List captures this, portraying Oskar Schindler as an accidental hero. Schindler did not set out to be a savior. Thus all these righteous were the embodiment of that Italian cyclist.
Nearly 24,000 people have been officially recognized by Yad VaShem as righteous. The criteria are exacting. They must have risked their own lives; they must have done so not for financial gain. Furthermore Jewish witnesses must testify to their acts. Rather than offer a sermon interpreting the meaning of the Holocaust, I want to tell one more story. It is the story of Gertruda Babilnska.
Gertruda was born in 1902 in Belarus to a Catholic, working family. When she was 19 years old she went to Warsaw to find work. She found a job there with a wealthy Jewish family working as their nanny. The family decided to leave for Palestine and offered to take Gertruda along but she decided to stay in Poland. Soon she found work with another Jewish family, the Stolowicks. She took care of their baby daughter. Sadly the baby girl died at a young age, but Gertruda stayed with the family now helping to care for the mother, who was stricken with grief and despair. In 1936 they had a son, Michael, and Gertuda became his nanny.
In 1939 the Germans attacked Poland. Mr. Stolowick was in Paris on business and was never able to rejoin his family. Mother, son and nanny decided to leave Poland and make their way to Vilna. After a harrowing journey on bombed out roads they finally made it to Vilna. There they lived among the Jewish refugees. Gertruda managed to make a little money, helping the family to survive. Her command of German was apparently extremely helpful in finding work.
The mother, Lidia, soon fell ill and died in April 1941. She was buried in Vilna’s Jewish cemetery. Before her death she asked Gertuda to take care of her child and take him to Palestine after the war ended. Two months later the Germans attacked the Soviet Union. Now Vilna was also in occupied territory. Gertruda said, “I was left alone with a circumcised 5 year old child.”
Soon the killings began and the ghetto was established. Gertruda managed to live outside of the ghetto, securing false papers for Michael stating that he was a Christian and her nephew. The situation was to say the least extremely dangerous and difficult. On one occasion when Michael fell ill she was forced to go into the ghetto to find a Jewish doctor because she was afraid that a non-Jewish doctor might reveal their secret.
When the war finally ended Gertruda decided to fulfill her promise to Lidia and take the boy to Palestine. First she went with the child back to Belarus to see her family. They tried to deter her but she was adamant about fulfilling her pledge. She and Michael joined the Jewish refugees seeking to make their way to Palestine. They lived in a DP camp in Germany until finding a ship to set sail on. Since immigration to Israel was illegal they arranged passage on a Hagganah ship. Again despite assurances from the Hagganah that they would care for the boy, Gertruda insisted that she accompany Michael. They secured passage on a ship called the Exodus. It sailed from France in 1947 (Michael was 11 years old by then).
As we know the British refused to allow the Exodus passengers to disembark in Palestine. The boat was forced back to Hamburg. And Gertruda and Michael again found themselves in a DP camp. Still undeterred she made the journey again, arriving in Israel with Michael in 1948. She settled in Israel where she raised Michael as her son. She lived in a small room and made a living cleaning houses.
Although Gertruda remained a devout Catholic until her death, she fulfilled her promise to Lidia. She continued to raise Michael as a Jew. In June 1962 Gertruda helped to plant a tree in her honor at Yad VaShem.
At Yad VaShem the avenue of the righteous is flanked by trees honoring such heroes. It lines the walk to and from the museum. In coming to terms with the enormity of the Holocaust, if that were ever possible, we must always speak about the extraordinary evils that were perpetrated by one person against another. We must pledge never to become naïve to these evils. We must remember that such evils can be found within the human heart. But we must also speak about the extraordinary good that same heart is capable of. Ordinary, everyday people can risk everything to save another.
On this Yom HaShoah I look to that heart, the heart capable of extraordinary good. I remember Gertruda Babilinska. I remember Gino Bartali.
“Good is something you do, not something you talk about. Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket.”