Tonight a friend and I had the honor of seeing a Holocaust survivor and her rescuer reunited after 63 years.
The rescuer, Wiktoria Sozanska, was honored at the annual gala of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR), a New York-based, nonprofit organization that takes care of Righteous Gentiles, or non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust. Many of these heroic individuals live in former Eastern bloc countries and are poor. Over the past two decades, the JFR has raised 20 million dollars to take care of them in their old age.
Of these heroic souls, Roman Kent, the organization's president and a survivor of Auschwitz, said this evening: "They have earned so much more than the right to spend the twilight of their lives in dignity."
It was a pleasure to stand and applaud for Wiktoria, and a tremendous honor to meet her. Her goodness shines forth from her eyes like a crystalline stream. A member of a devout Catholic family, she, her five siblings and their widowed mother hid a Jewish family, the Sieferts, in a town then known as Turka (now Ukraine), for almost two years during the war.
The story is a simple one, and yet not simple. When Rozia Siefert was a little girl in 1942, the Jews of Turka were ordered to move into the Samberg ghetto. Because Jews were only allowed to take one suitcase, Rozia's father, Mendel, began to sell the family's furniture. One day a poor widow with six children, Anna Jaworska, came to look at the furniture. She commented that it was terrible Jews should have to move into the ghetto. Noticing Rozia and her little cousin Lucien, she asked what would become of them. Mendel told her they, too, must go to the ghetto, whereupon Anna told him, "We will take care of you. You will come with us."
For almost two years, the Jaworska family hid the Siefert family. It was a financial strain on the Jaworskas, who were poor. Most incredibly, had they been discovered, they faced the prospect of horrible deaths at the hands of the Nazis, and they knew it.
As Wiktoria said in translated Polish this evening to several hundred supporters gathered in candlelight in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria: "I knew I could never, ever," even under the duress of Gestapo interrogation, reveal that her family was hiding Jews (she was interrogated by the Gestapo for several days at one point after they discovered she had given her identity papers to help yet another Jewish girl, one who used them to escape). "It would mean the deaths of eleven people, and I would be the twelfth."
Tonight the survivor, Rozia (now known by the Hebrew Shoshannah, which like her name in Polish, means rose), said, "The members of the Jaworska family had an innocence about them that made it difficult for them to understand evil, and when they saw it, they felt they had to do something about it."
Rozia knows Wiktoria and the other members of her family better than perhaps anyone ever could. But I could not help but wonder if she was correct in her speculation that the Jaworskas found it difficult to comprehend the evil around them. I would humbly speculate that they, despite the purity of their souls or perhaps in fact because of it, understood the nature of evil and could certainly identify it. It seems to me their heroic choice required the recognition of evil--something many individuals seem to have a great deal of trouble doing in our age of moral relativism.
The several hundred attendees sang, "God Bless America." Regis Philbin provided warm introductions for Wiktoria, Shoshannah, and Shoshannah's daughter (He commented that he was so impressed with the people he met at the event and with the organization's work he plans to discuss it on his show tomorrow). Wiktoria ended by saying, "It was very difficult. But God helped us, and we kept them alive."