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The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust
Key Porter Books
Hardcover; 531 pp.; $35.00 U.S./$45.00 CAN
This book can be ordered at Amazon.com. Canadian readers can purchase the book through Amazon.ca.
Reviewed by Paula E. Kirman. This review was originally published in the Edmonton Journal, March 30, 2003. Reprinted with permission from Paula E. Kirman and the Edmonton Journal.
You can read the Edmonton Journal online. Internet subscriptions to the Edmonton Journal are also available.
The roles of ordinary people who hid Jewish people away from the Nazis during the Holocaust is a fairly well-known topic. Thanks to movies like Schindler's List and, of course, books like the Diary of Anne Frank, the term "righteous Gentile" has come into our culture to mean those people who gave of themselves sacrificially, at the risk of their own lives should they be found out, simply to save the lives of others who were at fault for nothing except to be targeting for being Jewish.
Sir Martin Gilbert, the accomplished British historian, has created a thorough and definitive volume about these, as he calls them, "unsung heroes of the Holocaust" in The Righteous. Gilbert documents the bravery of those who hid Jews in attics, on farms, and even in churches. While he does not neglect some of the most famous life-saving figures such as Oskar Schindler and Raul Wallenberg - the latter of whom spent the rest of his life in prison after being captured - he focuses most of his time and attention on names readers will likely never have heard of until reading The Righteous. These were ordinary people who were living ordinary lives until World War II broke out. They were farmers, ministers, teachers, and, in some cases, royalty. Gilbert looks at specific cases on a geographic basis - the Table of Contents consists of a list of countries and regions, including Poland, France, Holland, Hungary, and Germany, as well as a section discussing the death camps and marches.
A weighty book at over 500 pages, The Righteous is the result of over 25 years of research, much of which consisted of interviews with or first-hand documents from those whose lives were touched the most by this heroism: Jewish survivors. An accomplished cartographer, Gilbert includes 18 pages of maps covering all of the places mentioned in the text of the book. Two sets of black and white photographs provide faces for some of the names mentioned in the book, of both heroes and survivors, most of them taken during the time period written about in the book.
Martin Gilbert is best known for his multi-volume biography on Churchill, and was knighted in 1995. But he is also no stranger to the topic of the Holocaust, having written eight books on the subject. Such a topic deserves Gilbert's meticulous treatment. These descriptive accounts are engaging and serve to provide answers to what appears to be Gilbert's motivation to explore this topic - to determine how ordinary people could respond to human suffering in such an extraordinary way.
Indeed, the book raises the difficult question of whether or not, given similar circumstances, people would be moved to react similarly. The Righteous provides many examples of ordinary people who, through simply acting upon their convictions, became unlikely heroes and examples of moral fortitude.
Paula E. Kirman is a freelance writer, editor, photographer, and website designer in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.