A faceless man in yellow saves the life of a small pale-faced child. He leads the innocent boy away from a bloody corpse in a concentration camp. They walk past a barbed-wire fence. Their destination looks brighter. There’s a sunny horizon with a palm tree in the distance.
The scene is captured in a large drawing that is part of a Yad Vashem exhibition honoring those who risked their lives to help Jews. Yehuda Bacon, the artist, is an Auschwitz survivor, who after the war took shelter in an orphanage in Prague run by Premsyl Pitter. Pitter was recognized by Israel as “Righteous” for risking his life to aid Jewish people during the Holocaust.
“To the man who restored my faith in people,” reads the inscription at the bottom of the painting. Other works by Bacon hang throughout Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial.
The “I Am My Brother’s Keeper” show marks 50 years of honoring what Israel calls the Righteous Among the Nations. It is an exhibition that is built around recurring rescue stories – those provided shelter for indefinite periods of time at great risk to their benefactors.
Over the past five decades, Yad Vashem has recognized more than 24,000 Righteous Among the Nations from 47 countries.
“They did what they did at the time in great danger because they had a basic belief in humanity, in giving a hand to a fellow person no matter who he was,” said curator Yehudit Shendar. “This is something we need to contemplate. There are so many ‘others’ in our society of different shapes and forms. Are we able to open heart, hand and home to them?”
The exhibition screens films on low-lying screens that sit in a dark, open room whose midnight-black walls are decorated with pins of light that coalesce into words and sayings and then disintegrate again into a starry sky.
On one screen, survivor Sabina Heller tells a tear-filled story of being reunited with the daughter of the Polish family that took her in as an emaciated 2-year-old abandoned in a dark cellar and raised her as their own.
They later parted with her in a heart-wrenching decision that allowed her to return to being Jewish.
“Stanka? Inka is speaking … and I remember how she said, ‘Inka, we waited for this phone call for 50 years,’” Heller says in the film.
A second film shows the plight of a group of Jews hidden by Robert Seduls, a Latvian janitor who had promised his friend help in time of need. The film shows the increasing pressure Seduls comes under as Nazis bring dogs to search the premises.
In a third, the grandson of a farmer in the Netherlands learns about how his relative hid a Jewish family for months on his farm – until they were discovered and deported to a concentration camp. The grandfather was also taken to the camps and was shot dead.
“We are talking about quite unusual people who did something completely out of the ordinary,” Shendar said. “They had courage and they had heart. These are two things that don’t always go together.”
“This is the meeting point between the Jew who was persecuted and the gentile who opened his heart and his home.”