The Levis JCC Sandler Center in Boca Raton’s fall exhibit, Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust, brings back a show that first ran in 1996.
With updated panels and imagery, the revamped exhibit explores stories of kindness, compassion and heroism and features an interactive component whereby attendees will be able to contribute their own personal stories of inspiration which could then become part of the narrative.
Santa Fe photographer Gay Block and California writer Rabbi Malka Drucker spent three years photographing and interviewing more than 100 people who hid, protected and saved Jews in Europe during World War II.
“This is a beautiful, moving exhibit of courageous people and completely pertinent to our time,” says Terri Berns, director of the Judi and Allan Schuman Museum Gallery and curator of the show.
“It allows you to create a conversation to talk about things we all share in common – not what divides us,” Berns says. “That’s what brings us together; we can’t consider hate to be normal.”
She says the newly created interactive component helps make the stories from World War II current.
“If we understand our history we are less likely to repeat it,” she says.
It was Drucker’s own rabbi, the late Harold Shulweis of Congregation Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., who was the catalyst for the project. According to Block, he had been trying to get people to pay attention to Christians who had saved their fellow Jewish neighbors.
Drucker and Block met in 1985 when Block visited her son in rabbinic school in Jerusalem, where Drucker also was studying to be a rabbi. She eventually became the founding rabbi of HaMakom: The Place for Passionate and Progressive Judaism, in Santa Fe.
The two clicked and a project was born. They put ads in Jewish newspapers around the world and received more than 32 replies from Amsterdam alone.
Many of these righteous Christians had been recognized on the Avenue of the Righteous at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, but not much was known about their motivations.
Among the people they met, interviewed and photographed were a Dutch couple, Pieter (a minister) and Joyce Meidema, who had rescued many Jews and beseeched others to save the Jews, and Countess Maria von Maltzan of Berlin, who stood up for those being persecuted.
Throughout the war the countess provided a safe haven for more than 60 Jews, arranging for them to escape to safety. She falsified official visas and other documents and helped many Jews escape from Berlin in trucks that she often drove herself.
For Drucker, meeting these courageous people is an example of what the human spirit is capable of.
“These rescuers deserve homage forever,” she says. “They showcase the
glory of the human spirit and what humans are capable of in a positive sense.”
One of the stories that has stayed with her over the years is the story of Alex and Mela Roslan, a Polish couple who hid three Jewish brothers during the War.
In 1993, Drucker wrote a children’s book with co-author Michael Halperin titled Jacob’s Rescue, recounting this true story for children.
When Jews were marginalized in the Warsaw ghetto, Alex Roslan donned a yellow Star of David and ventured into the ghetto to see firsthand what was going on. He came out appalled and determined to do something.
Two of the brothers he helped shelter survived – one grew up to be a mathematician and the other a nuclear scientist.
“Rescuers of Jews were at great risk for their lives,” says Block. “They were at great peril of being caught. Those who helped Jews were badly punished. When you think about it, it is truly amazing that anyone was brave enough to do that.”
“It was a life-changing experience to be sitting and photographing these people,” says Block. “I consider these people to be the aristocrats of the world.”
She says she believes the time is right for this exhibition to have a second life.
“We have a need for rescuers in our world today,” says Block, who will travel to Boca Raton for the exhibit. “There are many people (including Muslims and other immigrants) who are at risk for no other reason than their religion or immigration status.”
She writes on her website: “This is the primary reason that I am, once again, working to circulate this exhibition. In addition, the fact that our current climate of increased fear and hatred of the other, of immigrants, of Jews and Muslims, makes this a vital subject for our times.”
Indeed, according to curator Berns, this time around the show is expected to reach new audiences.
Drucker, who has gone on to write more than 20 books and is now focusing on wisdom in the aging process, says, “I’m very grateful that Rabbi Shulweis came to me. I ask myself: Could I have done what these rescuers did?”
“But,” she asks pertinently, “the real question is: what am I doing now?”
Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust, will run from Nov. 3 to Dec. 22 at the Levis JCC Sandler Center in Boca Raton. For more information or tickets, call the Sandler Center at 561-558-2520 or visit levisjcc.org/boxoffice.
The Holocaust exhibit will be accompanied by a series of lectures running through Dec. 17. Individual lectures are $18 unless otherwise noted.
Profiles in Moral Courage During the Holocaust: Sugihara, Mendes, and Senesh, with Rabbi Leon Weissberg; Thursday, Nov. 14, 7:30 pm
A Righteous Nation: Albania’s Rescue of the Jews During the Holocaust, with Irving Berkowitz, dean of academic affairs for Palm Beach State College; Thursday, Nov. 21, 7:30 pm
Life in a Jar: How Irena Sendler Saved the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto, with Ralph Nurnberger; Tuesday, December 10, 7:30 pm (admission: $25)
The Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe, with Rebecca Erbelding; Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2:30 pm