A visitor walking through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum starts at the top floor of the museum, viewing film clips, photos and other documentation of the ominous and jarring beginnings of the Nazi regime in Europe – a regime that succeeded in great part because of a vast propaganda machine that constantly spewed a rhetoric of hate against Jews. In posters, films, textbooks, comic books, radio and through other media, Jews were consistently portrayed as a subhuman group who posed a threat to the ability of Germany to succeed as a nation. The dissemination of these ideas constituted a carefully laid foundation for the Nuremburg laws, which stripped away the basic civil rights of the Jewish population of Germany. When a country demonizes and de-humanizes a particular group, it is much easier to rationalize the elimination of that groups’ human rights.
The tour of the museum becomes progressively more harrowing, as the story of the persecution and mass killing of millions of Jews, and other “outsiders,” unfolds before you. Almost at the end of the visit, on the bottom floor of the museum, is an exhibit that lifts the heavy heart, almost like a small light at the end of a dark tunnel. It begins with a glimpse of a small red fishing boat—one of the boats used by Danish fisherman to ferry almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark to safety in secret. This is the museum’s section on “The Righteous Among Nations,” selfless people from all walks of life, all creeds and nationalities, who –individually or in groups—risked their lives and those of their loved ones to save Jews. Here you can find the story of Miep Gies, the Dutch woman who helped to hide Anne Frank and her family in the now-famous attic in Amsterdam, as well as the story of the Village of Le Chambon in France, where the entire population worked under the leadership of the local minister to save between 3,000 and 5,000 Jews. You can also read the stories of the lesser-known rescuers, such as Aristides Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese diplomat who signed 30,000 visas to assist Jews and other persecuted groups trying to escape from the Nazis, as well as the Bulgarian Orthodox church and Dimitar Peshev, a Bulgarian parliamentarian who led an effort that resulted in the preservation of the Jewish population of Bulgaria, in spite of the fact that the Bulgarian government was sympathetic to Hitler at the time. As you walk along the wall of rescuers, you realize that most of them were individuals—teachers, diplomats, clergy, police officers, soldiers, nannies, grandmothers—who made a personal decision to take responsibility for another human life in spite of the potentially dangerous consequences of doing so.
“The Righteous Among Nations” was brought to mind in recent weeks by the various news stories on the immigration debate here in the U.S. Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who revealed several weeks ago that he is undocumented, spoke poignantly of his “underground railroad,” his network of teachers, friends and work colleagues who kept his secret and in many cases assisted him in overcoming the challenges presented by his undocumented status, to succeed at school and professionally. Some simply wanted Jose to be able to participate in life’s experiences as fully as any other teenager, like the choir teacher who decided to take the choir singers to Hawaii instead of Japan, so that Jose would not be left behind.
Paul Bridges, the Republican mayor of tiny Uvalda, Georgia, decided to sue to stop implementation of Georgia’s poisonous immigration law, not only because of the detrimental economic impact the law would have on the farms in his town, but also because the law threatens to tear apart a tightly-knit community where people open their homes to others during harvest season, and he himself drives parishioners to church on Sunday without asking whether they have papers. These acts would become illegal under the Georgia law. Alabama’s recent addition to the state immigration initiatives would similarly prevent neighbors from helping neighbors by criminalizing the provision of assistance to anyone who might be undocumented. No doubt, the hate-filled Alabama law will induce many citizens—public officials, teachers, neighbors—to risk prosecution in order to assist others in the community.
Just as the Holocaust Museum’s exhibit on rescuers serves as a light in a dark tunnel, the stories of those who would assist a young boy to reach adulthood and achieve success, and those who might assume the responsibility of housing or driving an undocumented worker even when that act has been criminalized, are inspiring and encouraging signs that many Americans can be relied upon to stand up and be part of the “Righteous Among Nations” when necessary. But we should not lose sight of the bigger picture. Those who rescued Jews and other oppressed people during World War II did so against the backdrop of a murderous regime that had singled out these groups for persecution and elimination. That is certainly not where we are as a country. But when statutes such as the state initiatives in Alabama and Georgia are passed, and people begin to discuss choices between being law-abiding citizens and assisting another human being in need, or preserving the welfare of an entire community, we must seriously question the direction in which our nation is heading with respect to the rights and human dignity of our most vulnerable residents.