Holocaust ceremony honors the rescuers

Recalling the actions of a courageous few

April 19, 1999|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Marion Von Binsbergen could have tolerated the Nazis like much of the rest of Holland.

Instead, the 22-year-old hid a Jewish family in a country house and posed as the children's mother. When a Nazi policeman came to search the house, she pulled out a gun and shot him dead.

"I had a small revolver another friend had given me just in case," Von Binsbergen later said. "I had never intended to use it. I felt I had no choice except to kill him. It still bothers me. And I'd do it again under the same circumstances.

"There should have been another way," she said.

Her words, read by local actress June Thorne, echoed through Baltimore's War Memorial building yesterday as nearly 800 people gathered for the annual worldwide observance of Yom Ha'Shoah, the Holocaust Day of Remembrance.

The ceremony, sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council, paid particular tribute to the courageous few who risked their lives in Nazi-occupied Europe to save Jews.

Students from local schools carried placards with the names of 150 rescuers, many of whom aided survivors who now live in the Baltimore area. Candles honoring victims ringed the audience. Local actors read dramatic testimony from rescuers, and a procession headed down Gay Street to the nearby Holocaust Memorial for closing remarks.

The observance drew about 90 Holocaust survivors, with their children and grandchildren, and a host of state and local elected officials. Some noted parallels to today's ethnic Albanian refugees fleeing Kosovo.

"Even as we hear the latest news of ethnic violence in places like Kosovo and Rwanda, the Holocaust stands out for its unprecedented attempt to systematically destroy an entire race of people," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "It still stands as the most horrifying symbol -- and the most powerful warning -- of humanity's capacity for savagery."

Of the 700 million people living in Europe at the time, fewer than half of 1 percent helped rescue Jews, the Jewish Council estimates.

Rescuers risked torture, death -- even public execution. Harboring Jewish children threatened the lives of one's own children. Neighbors turned in neighbors for mundane rewards such as a pound of sugar or pair of boots.

Those who took the risk were from every walk of life: They were peasants, laborers, rich, poor, Jewish, non-Jewish, clergy and even anti-Semites. Rescuers often insist they were not special, not crusaders -- just regular people doing what was right.

"They exemplified those who believe in the sanctity of life," said local actor Stanley Weiman in an introduction to the rescuers' testimony. "And they show us that people need not be extraordinary in order to help others. That we, too, can do that which is right. And for all of that, we are grateful to them."

Actress Doris Crane Margulis read the testimony of Gaby Cohen, a Jewish member of the French Resistance who shepherded groups of Jewish children from one hiding place to another. Her job was to "Aryanize" the children -- give them gentile names, histories and papers, then disperse them into non-Jewish homes.

"The hard task was to convince little children that they were no longer Abram Levin but Alfred Levoisier, not Sarah Weiss but Suzanne Voisin," she said. "How sure could I be that the child would be emotionally stable enough to answer, `Yes, my name is such and such'?"

Children who slipped had to be moved immediately and given a new identity.

Once, Cohen recalled, when she was upset about a little boy's mistake, which required him to be moved again, he tried to comfort her. "Don't worry, I'm getting used to new names," he told her. "Then all of a sudden he mused, `Maybe no one remembers my real name.' "

Among the survivors in attendance yesterday was Agi Rado, a concert pianist living in Baltimore.

She was an adolescent, the daughter of a transportation official in Budapest, when the Nazi-controlled government forced the family from its home in 1944. Her father, Imre Rado, died on the way to a labor camp in Austria. She and her mother, Valeria Rado, were sent to Ravensbruck, a camp in eastern Germany. When her mother fell ill with diphtheria, Rado was sent to another camp -- and never allowed to say goodbye.

Only several months ago, Rado learned from the Red Cross that her mother had died nine days after their separation. The newly discovered documents listed her as condemned to the gas chamber.

By the time Europe was liberated, Rado weighed 70 pounds and was deathly ill, but eventually made it back to Budapest, finished her schooling, became a prominent pianist and escaped Communist Hungary in 1956.

"Today, I am together with other people with similar backgrounds, but to me, every day of my life is Remembrance Day," she said. "I don't feel like it's a book I want to close because it's a part of me."

Rado has seen pictures of ethnic Albanians forced from their homes. "It brings back the worst memories of the beginning of our deportation," she said. "It makes me sick. I don't think anything was learned. People still feel hatred for other human beings."

Pub Date: 4/19/99

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