Mordecai Paldiel was born Markus Wajsfeld on March 10, 1937, in Antwerp, Belgium, as one of five children, into the Chasidic family of Szlomo Wajsfeld, a diamond trader originally from Miechów, near Kraków. His mother, Hinde née Labin, came from Uhnow (now Ukraine). A Catholic priest was able to smuggle them across the border from Nazi-occupied Belgium via France to Switzerland. Under cover of a moonless night, the cleric’s guide escorted Mordecai, his parents, grandmother and five siblings to the border, where the guide cut the double barbed wire fence for them to slip into Switzerland. As the family advanced into the Swiss territory, they were picked up by Swiss border guards. Mordecai vowed to one day thank the French priest.
Later, after the war, the family emigrated to New York. The family settled in Brooklyn, where Paldiel attended Brooklyn College. He served in the U.S. Army, and later received his B.A. from Hebrew University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in religion and Holocaust studies from Temple University in Philadelphia.
Paldiel served as the director of the Righteous Among the Nations Program at the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem for 24 years, where he investigated thousands of cases of non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, including such famous names as Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg, Jan Karski and Varian Fry. He has written several books devoted to the subject including “The Path of the Righteous: Gentile Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust.” “Saving the Jews” is his third published book on the subject of Righteous Gentiles.
The Department of the Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem was established for the State of Israel to publicly acknowledge non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews. Honorees come from different walks of life, from bricklayers and farmers, to diplomats and religious leaders, all sharing in the commitment to help others despite the risk to themselves.
“We have an obligation to pass on to future generations not merely the legacy of the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the story of the righteous. The lessons of these deeds can arouse the spark of goodness in others that is an innate part of humanity. Such goodness may start with a small act, then, as shown by many rescuers, expand and grow to helping more than one person over greater lengths of time. One need not be a saint with a halo to do such a saintly deed. Most of those on Yad Vashem’s list were persons who went about their regular business and when suddenly challenged to help fleeing Jewish persons found themselves suddenly transformed into rescuers.” [Speech by Mordecai Paldiel as keynote speaker before the United Nations.]
For 25 years, Mordecai Paldiel searched for the French cleric who risked his life to save not only Mordecai’s family but countless other Jewish families. Aside from his self-imposed commitment to find the priest, Mordecai Paldiel was of the firm belief that “the final word regarding the Holocaust should not be left to the perpetrators but to the rescuers.” On September 19, 1989, Yad Vashem recognized the French priest who saved Mordecai and his family 46 years earlier.
While directing Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations Department, he often came across the names of many Jewish rescuers who had worked in tandem with non-Jewish rescuers to save Jews. While the non-Jewish ones were honored with the title of “Righteous Gentile” and their names and stories publicized and disseminated, the Jewish ones were not similarly recognized and honored for their heroic deeds.
To give just one example, Jacques Fournier and Emile Barras assisted Marianne Cohn in her self-initiated rescue of hundreds of children by personally leading them secretly across the Franco-Swiss border. On one such trip, the three were arrested. The two non-Jewish French guides were released, whereas Marianne Cohn, the principal person in this large-scale rescue operation, was executed. Fournier and Barras were honored with the title “Righteous Gentile,” and Marianne Cohn was unacknowledged.
The untold story of these Jewish heroes, who displayed inventiveness and courage in outwitting the enemy—and in saving literally thousands of Jews—is finally revealed in Paldiel’s book “Saving One’s Own.” Here he tells the stories of hundreds of Jewish activists who created rescue networks, escape routes, safe havens and partisan fighting groups to save beleaguered Jewish men, women and children from the Nazis. The rescuers’ dramatic stories are often shared in their own words, and Paldiel provides extensive historical background and documentation.
In this remarkable, historically significant book, Mordecai Paldiel recounts in vivid detail the many ways in which, at great risk to their own lives, Jews rescued other Jews during the Holocaust. In so doing he puts to rest the widely held belief that all Jews in Nazi-dominated Europe wore blinders and allowed themselves to be led like “lambs to the slaughter.” Paldiel documents how brave Jewish men and women saved thousands of their fellow Jews through efforts unprecedented in Jewish history. It is encyclopedic in scope and organized by country,
In an odd twist, Yad Vashem, the principal Holocaust museum and body dedicated to preserving the lessons of the Shoah, only honors Righteous Gentiles and refuses to honor those Jews who saved other Jews. There is now legislation before the Knesset to honor Jews who saved Jews. By making it a law, the objections of Yad Vashem will be overridden. Fundamentally, the new legislation would remove the stain and shame inherent in the refusal of the principal Jewish Holocaust institution—created to commemorate the Holocaust in all its facets, and funded by the State of Israel—to acknowledge major Jewish rescuers of the Jewish people in a way that does not conflict with its ongoing and meritorious program for the Righteous Among the Nations.
Mordecai Paldiel is among those championing this cause.
He is currently teaching at Stern College and Queens College. On Sunday, April 23, Dr. Paldiel was the keynote speaker at the 74th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Yizkor Remembrance Service for the 6,000,000 Jewish martyrs. He addressed a capacity crowd of over 600 people filling the sanctuary and ballroom of the Paramus Jewish Center. His presentation, accompanied by projected photographs, detailed the accomplishments of two dozen Jews who collectively saved tens of thousands of other Jews, and yet they are deemed unworthy of the recognition given to non-Jews for the same actions.
By Wallace Greene
Dr. Wallace Greene is a member of the Holocaust Commemoration Committee of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.