On the idea of the Righteous

The Righteous are among us. Empathic, they reach out to others, especially to those who need help. In the face of wars, crimes or terror, they defend human dignity and rights. They push the limits by creating a community based on values. They have always done so, and they keep doing it  today.

Each of us can be a Righteous.

The notion of a ‘Righteous’ refers to the title ‘Righteous Among the Nations.’ Since 1963, the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem has been presenting the title to those who had rescued Jews from certain death during the Holocaust. The term ‘Righteous’ has acquired a broader, universal dimension which goes beyond a specific time. It encompasses the Righteous Among the Nations as well as other people who, in different countries and at various times in most recent history, risked their lives or freedom to defend human rights and dignity.

In Jewish tradition, to which the notion of a ‘righteous’ refers, the existence of the world depends on the Righteous. Tzadik yesod olam – a righteous is the foundation of the world. There are at least thirty-six of them in each generation. This might be an ordinary man, whose righteousness transpires in everyday life, but it can also manifest itself in an extreme situation. The man is not aware that he is one of the thirty-six. That is why one should live as if one were the Righteous: perhaps it is our attitude that the world’s existence depends on.

The modern idea of naming and honouring people who actively fight for human rights and dignity was popularized by a grass root movement – the ‘Gariwo’ Foundation from Milan, Italy. Owing to its activity, the European Parliament passed a decree declaring 6th of March as the European Day of Remembrance for the Righteous. Inspired by the Garden of the Righteous in Jerusalem created to honour those who had helped Jews during the Holocaust, the ‘Gariwo’ Foundation is a prime mover behind building Gardens of the Righteous in Europe. Trees and memorial stones are placed there to commemorate the honoured individuals.


She was a chairperson of the Council for Aboriginal Rights. She fought inequality by pointing out the lack of logic and highlighting damages it inflicted on a society. She wrote letters, articles, gave interviews, held thousands of meetings all over the country.

Since 1991, Dr Bartolo, head of the First Aid and Admissions Centre on the Italian island of Lampedusa, has been treating refugees who attempt to cross the Mediterranean in order to reach Europe. He is on duty since 7.30am each morning, and spends the nights at the port with the new arrivals. His wife and three children do not see much of him.

A witness to the Holocaust, he was active in the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews. A prisoner of Auschwitz, participant of the Warsaw Uprising, Bartoszewski was an advocate of the Polish-German reconciliation after the war had ended. In the subsequent years, he opposed the rebirth of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish demonstrations. He opposed the dictatorship imposed on his homeland and the Stalinist ideology, for which he was incarcerated twice in the period 1946-1954.

The Civil March for Aleppo set off from Berlin on 26 December 2016. Walking in the direction of the refugees from war-torn areas, they crossed Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey.

He co-founded the Jewish Combat Organisation and – following the death of Mordechaj Anielewicz – became the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. After the war, he consistently refused to support the new administration.

On Sunday, 25 August 1968, she took her 3 month old son, left the house and headed towards the Red Square. She hid banners under the pram’s mattress; one of them read in Czech: “Long live free and independent Czechoslovakia,” the other: “For your freedom and ours.”

A 14-year-old declared a personal war on Hitler – she joined the underground. She was a liaison, distributor, interpreter of English, guide for the refugees. She participated in executions on traitors sentenced to death by the court of the Polish Underground State. Simultaneously, she cooperated with the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews.

Hryhorenko, who came from a peasant family from Zaporizhia, became one of the leading figures of the dissident movement in the USRR. He was in favour of establishing a committee of human rights’ defenders. He was a non-official leader of the Tatars’ struggle to return to their historic homeland (they had been deported from Crimea in 1944).

The islanders of Lesbos, Kos, Chios, Samos, Rhodes and Leros welcomed a majority of the 900,000 refugees who arrived in Europe in 2015. Before the governments admitted that the wave of immigrants is growing, the fishermen, medical doctors and local activists saved the lives of the immigrants and took them into their care, even though they themselves had been affected by the economic crisis for years.

He protected Jews, Poles and Ukrainians. He resided together with his wife in Kupychiv, a Czech settlement in Volhynia. The wartime, first the Soviet, then German occupation, the massacres of Poles in Volhynia – all these were covered in Jelinek’s memoirs. He witnessed much atrocities and yet he never remained indifferent.

Josephine and Marie. Both were Hutu, and both helped Tutsi. Journalist Wojciech Tochman wrote: “Tens of Rwandan men and women found time and energy to talk to me and tell me how the genocide touched them personally. […] for obvious reasons, I did not reveal their first or family names.” Over a dozen years after the civil war, it is still dangerous to talk about certain events.

In April 2015, Jacob Schoen passed his high school graduation exam. Soon after, he read in a paper that a boat carrying 800 refugees sank on the Mediterranean. He gathered information on rescue missions, found out what kind of ships are used in such missions, counted how much money he would need, and set off for Hamburg, a port city, to meet with experts. In autumn, he founded an organization called Jugend Rettet.

He wanted to be a diplomat. The Second World War made it impossible for him to pursue his dream. Instead, Jan Kozielewski, aka Karski, became the most famous emissary between the Polish Underground State and the Polish Government in Exile. In the summer of 1942, Karski undertook his most important mission – to deliver to London information on the situation in the country, including materials which documented the extermination policy of the occupying power towards the Jews.

In the years following the coup d’etat of 1973, Roberto Kozak and other diplomats helped free and emigrate from Chile between 25,000 and 35,000 political prisoners. He was dubbed “Schindler of Latin America.”

He coined the term “genocide” and took effective action to include it in the international law. In 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crimes of Genocide, called the Lemkin’s Convention.

Ewelina Lipko-Lipczyńska, a Polish language teacher, helped Jews find hideouts during World War II. She emigrated from Poland in 1969, in the aftermath of the anti-Semitic campaign launched by Polish communist government.

In Rwanda, she was dubbed the angel of the poor. The Nyamata mission had been the home of Antonia Locatelli since the 1970s. Back then, she was a member of the Congregationis Sororum Ospitalarium a Beatae Mariae. She founded and managed a school for girls 30 km from the Kigali, capital of the country.

In the language of Xhosa, the people he stemmed from, his second name – Rolihlahla – means ‘troublesome.’ Nelson Mandela was a source of troubles for almost a century, fighting for his own freedom and the freedom of others. He was the only black student at the university. He was active in the organization of the black inhabitants of the Republic of South Africa (RSA) – the African National Congress, clandestinely in the South African Communist Party. He was a co-founder of the militant group Umkhonte we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), he organized demonstrations. Being a lawyer, he offered legal advice to the victims of Apartheid.

He was given the order to participate in a massacre. He refused, and managed to prevent murders on site or death marches to the Syrian dessert of several thousand of Armenians, even if the resistance was short-lived.

He documented the crimes and ethnic purges in Bosnia and Hercegovina for over three years. In July 1995, as a sign of protest against the world’s passivity, Mazowiecki resigned from the function of a special rapporteur of the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations. In his ultimate report he included the accounts of survivors from Srebrenica.

Krzysztof Miller, a photographer, spent 25 years documenting transformations, revolutions, and above all wars taking place at the turn of the 21st century. He took pictures during the Round Table Talks in Poland and the events in the Balkans. He travelled back and forth to Afghanistan, Cambodia, the Republic of South Africa, Chechnya and Rwanda. One tragedy gave way to another.

She arranged flats for Jews in hiding, provided false documents, taught them prayers and behaviour at a church. She entered the ghetto via the Courts building on Leszno Street a number of times in order to lead the children to the “Aryan side.”

“If this is the end, I want to hold that girl’s hand.” For the past 23 years David Nott, a Welsh surgeon, has been taking an unpaid leave and spending three months in the areas affected by conflicts or catastrophes. The aforementioned girl was being operated on during the anticipated air raids in the Gaza Strip.

Nut Sen, Huy Sarin, Ngen Ngon, Khon Any, Hang Romny, Duch Keam, Meas Proeung, Aki Ra. They survived the brutal Pol Pot’s regime and they helped others persevere. How?

“One evening in early December 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, I was sitting at the front of a bus, the coloured section. The Whites sat in the section intended for the Whites. More and more of them were boarding the bus, and in the end they occupied all the seats. In such cases we, the Blacks, had to give up our seats. But I did not budge. The white driver said: “We need the seats at the front.” I did not get up. I was sick of obeying the Whites’ orders.”

“I used to think women were like flowers, they needed to be looked after, they were not cut out for politics,” Lech Wałęsa admitted. “It was Alina who changed my opinion on the matter.” She wrote down the initial six August Postulates, and developed – together with her colleagues – point 16 which related to healthcare.

Witold Pilecki spent two years and nine months in Auschwitz. It was his own initiative. He used to send information on the functioning of the camp in reports addressed to the Home Army Headquarters. He created a conspiratorial network within the camp, capable of armed resistance.

Chechnya became her calling. She was a correspondent of the opposition Novaya Gazeta bi-weekly from the Second Chechen War. She exposed the crimes of the Russian forces and the Chechen units led by Ramzan Kadyrov allied with the Russians, the crimes of Chechen partisans and the situation of the Russian recruits. She also supported the movement of mothers defending their children conscripted in the army.

The founder of the Memorial Society which documents and propagates knowledge on the repressions and crimes of the totalitarian regime in the USSR. A guardian of memory of the victims of the regime, he testified with his involvement to the existence of free Russia.

As a secretary of the Swedish Embassy in Budapest during World War II, he undertook efforts to save Hungarian Jews who were being deported to extermination camps in German-occupied Poland.

As a volunteer paramedic on a mission to the Middle East during World War I, he undertook an independent investigation into the murder of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. He took notes and photos which he then showed to the public upon his return, calling for the cessation of the slaughter.

“I was running towards an ambulance, holding a wounded man,” says Malath Khafsheh. “I put him on the stretcher, […] and tended to his wounds using basic means. […] He asked me: ‘Am I going to die?’ Being an emergency worker, I ask myself this question every time I pull someone out of the rubble. […] the ambulance and hospitals are frequently under fire, we are often short of the right medicines. However, there are people, like the one I mentioned, who conquer death. I smiled and said to him: ‘You are not going to die, you conquered death, we conquered it together.’ That is why I joined the Civil Defence.”

During the interwar period, he worked as a chaplain at the Centre for the Blind in Laski near Warsaw. He was a forerunner of ecumenical approach – he studied Judaism and got engaged in inter-religious initiatives. During the Second World War, he cooperated with the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews and the Front for the Rebirth of Poland. He was a chaplain of the Home Army Main Headquarters, wounded during the Warsaw Uprising. Towards the end of the 1960s Rev. Zieja got involved in the anti-communist opposition.

As the only hierarch in the Polish Catholic church, he did not sign the declaration of the Polish Bishops’ Conference approving the arrest of the Primate Stefan Wyszyński by the authorities of communist Poland.