THE BLOG

True Heroes For Our Time and Beyond

05/21/2011 08:37 am ET | Updated Jul 21, 2011

President Obama speaks for all American when he personally thanks the heroic Navy SEALS and CIA operatives who freed the world from its most hated terrorist. In a world bereft of true heroes, these anonymous patriots certainly fit the bill.

But just days after the Osama bin Laden take-down, 900 people attended a Simon Wiesenthal Center event honoring three people who personified different dimensions of heroism.

Gyongyi Mago is a bespectacled Catholic high school teacher in Kalocsa, a town about 90 miles from Budapest. Some years ago, while looking for a topic for her dissertation, she stumbled across a secret: Some 70 years ago, 20 percent of her town's population was Jewish. By 1945, the vast majority had been dispatched by the Germans and their local collaborators to their deaths at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The few survivors fled to Israel or North America.

Why, Gyongyi asked, did no one talk about his or her Jewish neighbors? What did people think about them? Why was there no memorial to them? She began posing these questions to her young students, enlisted them in her research and turned it all into a program to fight the growing prejudice that surrounded them with a full, educated embrace of tolerance.

Her efforts come with a price to her safety. She is opposed by local fascists, latter-day Nazis who are resurgent in a Hungary. Their response to a reunion of Jewish survivors in Kalosca arranged by Gyongyi was a protest and barrage of rocks, one of which injured a visitor. They are enraged that "one of their own" would attempt to replace the morbid indifference to the horrors of the past with a commitment to embrace the legacy of Hungarian Jewry snuffed out during the Holocaust.

As she received the Center's Medal of Valor, she was asked: Why, as a Christian, does she place herself in harm's way to dredge up what has been comfortably forgotten? In response, she quietly invoked German theologian Martin Neimoeller's lament: "First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me..."

It was fitting that the late Peter Bergson should also be honored by the Wiesenthal Center.

The son of a rabbi, his life was changed forever by a small article in The Washington Post in 1942 that stated 2 million Jews had already been massacred by the Nazis and that the remaining millions were in danger. Rebuffed by an indifferent U.S. State Department and ineffective Jewish establishment, Bergson could not understand how life could go on as usual. He told his associates that day that from then on, none of them could let a day pass without having done something for their endangered brethren. Bergson knocked on every door in Washington but quickly looked beyond the Beltway. Working with renowned writer Ben Hecht, he placed full-page ads in 100 newspapers challenging America's apathy to the unfolding genocide.

They then took their campaign on the road. Bergson recruited Hollywood producers, writers and actors like Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni. They staged powerful productions of the massacre of Europe's Jews in New York, Washington, Chicago and, nearly 70 years to the day of this evening, before a crowd of 10, 000 at the Hollywood Bowl. Bergson's efforts finally paid off when President Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board in 1944. It helped save more than 200,000 Jewish refugees destined to Hitler's crematoria. He also showed Hollywood personalities how they could use their star power to go over the heads of the uncaring bureaucracies to aid the helpless.

The 69 days buried half a mile beneath Chile's surface and his meteoric rise to fame do not seem to have changed Luis Urzua's demeanor or personality. The soft-spoken burly man has an easy smile and is entirely unassuming. But it was his iron will, double wrapped in his deep faith in man and G-d that enabled him to see his shift of 32 miners through 70 days of hell. He gave his men hope when no one had the right to hope. Together, they worked to keep themselves alive -- a few hours at a time. Luis was a combination of platoon leader, priest and psychologist -- and on that great day, insisted on being the last one to be brought to the surface.

He must have had plenty to say to his comrades during those hopeless first 17 days when no sound from the surface penetrated their living tomb. Yet, when given the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Medal of Valor, he simply said, "I am happy to receive this award on behalf of all the 33 miners. All of us said that there was a 34th miner, a presence that was with us all the time in the mine, never abandoned us, and was responsible for our delivery. It is to Him we owe our thanks." He then sat down. It was a thought not often uttered in Hollywood; words that penetrated people's hearts, cutting more deeply than the drill bits that freed the miners.

Let us teach our children about the valor of true heroes -- from our young people in uniform whose daily acts keep us out of harm's way to strangers like Gyongi, Peter and Luis whose strength of character and faith protect the memory of the past and inform the limitless potential of the future.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, Director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center co-authored this essay.