These holy men and women are recognized by the nation of Israel for risking (or giving) their lives to save Jewish people from the Nazis.
In the years since the tragic murder of more than six million Jews in the Holocaust, the nation of Israel has honored thousands of non-Jews who risked their lives to protect Jewish people from the Nazis and their collaborators. These men and women are honored with the title Righteous Among the Nations, and they range from royalty to day laborers. Among their number are one saint and six blesseds (as well as a venerable, and four servants of God), all of whom should inspire us as we fight the evil of anti-Semitism that continues in our world today.
St. Elizabeth Hesselblad (1870-1957) was born in Sweden to a Lutheran family. She encountered the Catholic faith while working as a nurse in New York City and converted. From then on, she was deeply concerned with ecumenical work and with serving non-Catholic Christians and non-Christians. She became a second founder of the Bridgettine order and during World War II she and her Sisters hosted several people whose lives were in danger, including a dozen Jewish men, women, and children. Though at first unaware of their religion, when Mother Elizabeth found out that they were Jewish, she and the Sisters went out of their way to be welcoming and affectionate, even encouraging the children in their Hebrew prayers. All 12 survived the war.
Bl. Odoardo Focherini (1907-1944) was an Italian journalist and father of seven children. In 1942, he was informed of the presence of some injured Polish Jews who had recently arrived in the country, and set out to smuggle them to safety. Soon, he was procuring false papers for any Jewish people he found and helping them make their way to neutral Switzerland. He was eventually caught and sent to die in a concentration camp, but not until he had helped more than 100 Jews evade the Nazis.
Bl. Giuseppe Girotti (1905-1945) was an Italian Dominican priest, a biblical scholar, and a theology professor. Having studied in Jerusalem, Fr. Giuseppe had a deep love of the Jewish people, calling them the “carriers of the Word of God” and the “elder brothers.” When their lives were in danger, Fr. Giuseppe set up hiding places and escape routes and saved many lives before he was caught and sent to Dachau. There, he found himself imprisoned with a thousand other priests in a barracks build for 180. He died there on Easter Sunday, likely from a lethal injection.
Bl. Pavel Peter Gojdič (1888-1960) was a Ukrainian Catholic monk and bishop, serving in Slovakia. He was outspoken in defense of the Jewish people, particularly after they were ordered expelled from Slovakia. This order was promulgated by the collaborationist president of the Slovak Republic, Fr. Jozef Tiso, whose crimes against humanity led Bishop Gojdič to argue that he ought to be laicized or compelled by Rome to resign as president. Bishop Gojdič’s loud support of Slovakian Jews led many of his priests to call for his resignation as bishop; when he complied, he was assigned to another diocese. There he continued to work to save Jews, including by receiving them into the Church. He’s credited with saving at least 17 Jewish lives. Though he survived the Nazis, Bishop Gojdič’s ministry led to a life sentence under the Communists; the many letters written by Jews who were grateful for his work had no effect on this sentence and he died in prison.
Bl. Bernhard Lichtenberg (1875-1943) was a German priest who fought the Nazis every step of the way. In 1933, he encouraged his parishioners to watch an anti-war film; as a result, Goebbels began to attack him in the press and the Gestapo was sent to search his house. In 1935, he met with Göring to protest against the concentration camps that were already dehumanizing prisoners across Germany. He was the only Christian leader to speak out against Kristallnacht. Every day he prayed publicly for the protection of the Jews. He preached that Christians were bound to love their Jewish neighbors, that being a strict command of Jesus Christ. He protested the killing of Jews as well as the sick and the mentally ill. He even organized mass protests outside concentration camps. Thrown in prison for his efforts, Fr. Lichtenberg remained unreformed. Though offered his freedom if he would agree to refrain from preaching, he declared that he preferred to accompany the Jewish people to their deaths. Bound for Dachau, he died before arriving at the camp.
Bl. Sara Salkahazi (1899-1944) was a Hungarian Sister who had been a chain-smoking journalist and a Socialist before entering religious life. Though she struggled to fit in with her order, she was ultimately permitted to make vows and became a powerful worker in the vineyard, publishing a Catholic women’s periodical, establishing a working-class women’s college, and running a Catholic bookstore in addition to all her charitable works. She changed her name to the more Hungarian-sounding Salkahazi to needle the Nazis, and began to work to hide Jews and smuggle them to safety. She’s credited with single-handedly saving at least a hundred Jewish lives during WWII and helping her Sisters to save another 900. In 1944, Sr. Sara was returning to the home where she was hiding Jews when she saw Nazi soldiers. Rather than save herself, she chose to die with those she loved. She approached and was arrested, stripped, and shot on the banks of the Danube.
Bl. Kliment Sheptytsky (1869-1951) was a Ukrainian Catholic abbot. During the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, he worked with his brother (Ven. Andrey Sheptytsky, Metropolitan Archbishop of Lviv) and Bl. Emilian Kovch to hide Jews in various monasteries and help them to escape to free territories. After the war, Archimandrite Sheptytsky was arrested by the Communists for refusing to separate from Rome; he died in prison.
(Other Righteous Among the Nations with open causes for canonization include Venerable Elia dalla Costa, Servant of God Jacques de Jésus, Servant of God Giovanni Palatucci, Servants of God Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma.)
How two Polish doctors outsmarted the Nazis by engineering a fake typhus outbreak