“Rescuers were great people,” said Eric Rosenblum at the County Holocaust Remembrance ceremony on Tuesday. “Although the number of rescuers may have been small, they were giants,” because they refused to be small cogs in the machine. They took responsibility for acting according to conscience, and in the midst of a horrifying time “saved literally thousands of lives.”
Rosenblum, the Chair of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Santa Clara County, presided over the observance, an annual occasion for many years. This year’s theme was “Saved by Acts of Righteousness,” and featured the stories of rescuers and the rescued, and especially the actions of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese diplomat who issued over 30,000 visas that allowed people to escape from the Nazi invasion of France by traveling to Portugal. Among those saved were an estimated 10,000 Jews. He was dismissed from the diplomatic corps in disgrace and died in poverty in 1954. Yet he was quoted as saying, “I would rather stand with God against men than with men against God.”
Aristides’ story, and the stories of other rescuers were shared by students from Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose. Andrew Luong, Nick Sexton, and Prianka Giridharadas described how people had risked their lives to save others, and how that has affected people up to the current day. Rescuers came from all walks of life, and from nations around the world.
Sheila Abranches, de Sousa Mendes’ granddaughter spoke about hearing his story told in the family as she was growing up, but not appreciating how significant his contribution was until she heard from those who had been rescued.
A special musical interlude featured a song that had been written to honor another rescuer, Andree Geulen. She had been a young schoolteacher in Brussels who worked for several years to hide Jewish children from the Nazis. She not only managed to place them in families who would care for them, but kept careful records of their true identities so they might be reunited with their families some day. Geulen was recognized as a “Righteous Among the Nations” in 2007, and is now 90 years old. The Yiddish song, sung by Ora Avidan-Antonir and accompanied by Diane Fisher, celebrated “Mademoiselle” and her courage in facing down the Nazis.
In a poignant interview video, Nathaniel Deutsch, Co-Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at UC Santa Cruz, spoke of how de Sousa Mendes had saved his parents. “Because of those visas, I’m sitting here today,” he said. When asked what he would say today to the family of de Sousa Mendes, Deutsch could barely speak. “The first thing that came to my mind was `thank you,'” he said, but then went on, “He has a good name. In this life it’s very hard to get a good name, and he has a good name.”
Supervisor George Shirakawa, president of the Board of Supervisors, presented a proclamation honoring Holocaust Remembrance Day, and a commendation of local survivor Bill Rooz. Rooz was born in Hungary and eventually sent to the Mauthausen death camp. After being liberated in May 1945, he spent some time in a displaced persons camp before emigrating to the United States in 1947. Only a few months later, he was drafted into the US Army and served in the Korean War. Now, he works with other survivors to tell the stories to new generations of students.
Supervisors Ken Yeager, Mike Wasserman, and Dave Cortese were also present during the memorial, seated in their places in the chamber. Joining them was County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who, together with his daughters, lit one of the six memorial candles (one for each of six million Jews who died) at the end of the ceremony. Each of the candles was lit by families, including second-, third-, and even fourth- generations of holocaust survivors.
After the ceremony, there was a reception for attendees, with the opportunity to view the exhibit “These Are My People,” telling the story of Aristides de Sousa Mendes.