Richard Hurowitz, IN THE GARDEN OF THE RIGHTEOUS: The Heroes Who Risked Their Lives to Save Jews During the Holocaust

Richard Hurowitz, IN THE GARDEN OF THE RIGHTEOUS: The Heroes Who Risked Their Lives to Save Jews During the Holocaust

Zibby interviews Richard Hurowitz about IN THE GARDEN OF THE RIGHTEOUS: THE HEROES WHO RISKED THEIR LIVES TO SAVE JEWS DURING THE HOLOCAUST, a moving and powerfully illuminating tribute to ten non-Jewish individuals and groups who risked their lives to rescue Jews during World War II. Richard, who was inspired by a trip to the Holocaust Museum and subsequent research on the rescuers, discusses the rarity of such acts of heroism. He also shares insights into the characteristics and motivations of the rescuers, emphasizing the impact of early childhood experiences and the influence of religion and exposure to different cultures.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Richard. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss In the Garden of the Righteous: The Heroes Who Risked Their Lives to Save Jews During the Holocaust. Welcome.

Richard Hurowitz: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: I was just saying this is such a really important time to be discussing this book. I think a lot of people are thinking about, what are their friends doing? What would they do? It’s incredibly timely. Why don’t you tell listeners what your book is about?

Richard: The book tells ten stories of people during World War II, all non-Jewish people. Although, sorry, there are ten stories; some of them are group rescue, so there’s more than ten individuals. It’s non-Jews who rescued Jews and others from the Nazis. Many of them have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations, even though a lot of them — I open the book with a story of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who saved thirty thousand people. He’s the largest single rescue in the Holocaust by an individual. Most of them are completely unknown. Most rescuers are unknown, other than Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg and maybe the Danes. It’s an under-covered area. It’s basically ten stories of Righteous rescuers. Then I try to talk a little bit about why this happened and what drove people to do it and what drove most people not to do it.

Zibby: You write in such a visual way, all the scenes. You open with the leaflets fluttering down from a high staircase and a not-good result after that. You also explain in the book, but tell listeners where this interest came from for you, particularly, your Holocaust Museum experience and all of that.

Richard: I first got interested in rescue when the Holocaust Museum opened in Washington. I was in college. Don’t google the date because then you can find out how old I am. I went down with my family. We’re not Holocaust survivors. We’ve been here for a long time. Like a lot of Jews, we went down to see the museum. Anybody who’s been there knows it’s a very, very tough experience. As I talked about in the book, actually, even with a lot of people who are not Jewish and general audiences, everyone has that experience. People remember this piles of shoes that is there. Many of them are in children’s size. It’s a very, I think intentionally, tough experience. At the end, there was an exhibit about rescuers. There was one group called the White Rose, who were young, mostly medical students. Although, the two main drivers were a medical student and his young sister, who was actually a college student. This is Hans and Sophie Scholl, who are now household names in Germany. At the time, they were just students. I gravitated, also, to a picture of one of their comrades who I remember still. It’s on the cover of my book, a young guy with a pipe. They were all around my age at the time.

Their story was that they basically tried to form an uprising against the Nazis. They did that in part by circulating leaflets all over the University of Munich and then other universities. They talked about how, this is not our Germany. Actually, the guy that I saw the picture of, he wrote the second leaflet, which is one of the first documents to actually mention the Holocaust. He said, there’s already been 300,000 Jews killed in a bestial manner. They did this for about a year. Then as you mentioned, they were distributing leaflets at the University of Munich. Sophie, the young girl, had a bunch of extra in her pocketbook and threw them down this atrium. The maintenance man, who was an ardent Nazi, saw them, locked the door. The Gestapo came. They were put on summary trial and executed within days. She said at the trial, actually, something like, everybody believes what we believe. They’re just afraid to say it. That, of course, was entirely not true, but I think people like to, maybe, think that. There’s more schools named for the Scholls in Germany now than anybody else. They’re not well-known outside. Then I almost wrote my thesis on this in college. I didn’t know German, so I wrote it on Alexander the Great. I always remembered the story. Then on the seventy-fifth anniversary of their execution, I wrote an op-ed, which was a history piece for The New York Times. It went completely viral. It was shared tens of thousands of times and trended to the top of their articles. I looked at a lot of the commentary. This was shared all over the internet. There’s a lot of dark stuff. I’ve written about finance, and I get anti-Semitism.

There was not one Nazi comment, which was pretty remarkable. It came out right around the Parkland shooting, so a lot of people were drawing a parallel with child activists. I started writing a series of these for the Journal and The Times and The Daily Beast and the LA Times. I had the same reaction every time. I had one that went to number two on Reddit about the king of Morrocco. Again, never anything negative or Nazi, even on the internet. That’s been true since the book came out. The only time I’ve received anything was when the head of the ADL tweeted about the book. He just automatically gets stuff. There is something about these stories that I think people find really inspirational, which has been lacking. These are some of the most heroic people in the history of the world. They’re very unknown for a variety of reasons, but partly because we tend to focus on evil more than good. I decided to turn them into this book, partly to think about what we can learn from this, but partly just as a tribute to them because they’ve never gotten their due. People who are Jewish in particular, but I think anybody who’s a person of goodwill, we owe it to them to know their stories. It’s sort of a historical injustice that everyone knows who Himmler and Göring are, but nobody who knows who Aristides de Sousa Mendes is even though there are hundreds of thousands of people alive today because of him.

Zibby: Wow. That was the most striking part of Schindler’s List, was all the people who are alive because of the people that he saved. Do you remember that, when all of them came out at the end?

Richard: I’ve had this experience, which is really powerful, where not only will people email me and say, “I’m alive because of this person,” but I’ve had so many people that I know, like friends or acquaintances, who will email me and tell me that, and I had no idea. You know the famous line: you save one life; you save the world. That’s part of what it is. Every generation, there’s more and more people who are alive. There could be a million people alive just from the ten stories in my book today.

Zibby: As you point out in the book, there are many more people who tried but then ultimately weren’t successful. Their stories should be told as well.

Richard: How many of them we don’t know and will never know. Twenty-seven thousand people have been recognized as Righteous, which sounds like a lot, but it was super rare. If you fill out Madison Square Garden with a representative population of Europe at the time, you’d have one person who was a Righteous. It’s remarkable.

Zibby: When you analyzed all of the Righteous, what differentiated them from people who were not heroes? Why these people? Was it something temperamental? What was it, or do you not know?

Richard: I have a theory, which I’ve talked about. I will tell you right now. Let me put aside group rescue because that’s a different thing, and the place is Denmark or Albania where you had almost a hundred percent survival rate. After the war, there was a lot of interest in evil. You had the Milgram experiments and the Stanford experiments. You had a lot of interest also in bystanders and very little interest in rescue and what they call altruism. There was one study done by Freudians who were also Holocaust survivors. The only correlation they could find was that how you were punished as a child correlated, whether you were punished in a crazy manner versus a loving manner. That’s not a very satisfactory answer. This is what I concluded. I’ll circle back to that. It’s very relevant for your audience and your podcast. First of all, one thing I noticed is that there are patterns. People, for example, who were in creative professions or international professions that brought them in contact with other people and peers in other countries or other religions, they tended to be more rescuers. One thing that didn’t correlate at all, by the way, was education, which I think we’re seeing today on campuses. Everybody at the Wannsee Conference had a PhD.

Religion was probably the single biggest motivator. I have Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Muslims in my book. It was people who were interested in religion not because of hierarchical or outward displays of piety and much more about people who really internalized, love thy neighbor as thyself. The parable of the good Samaritan probably saved more Jews than anything else during the Holocaust. Ultimately, the one thing I found, and this is really relevant to your podcast, is early childhood and childhood. I’d say almost every rescuer I looked at, not just the ones in the book, but I’ve looked at probably thousands of them at this point, had somebody in their life, usually one or both parents, including the Scholls — in their case, it was the father — who did a couple of things. One is probably more obvious than the other. The first is that they taught them you shouldn’t be bigoted. You should respect other people and expose them to other people and had this message that we’re all one family of humanity. The other thing they did is, most of the rescuers actually came out of loving homes. They also told them, you have to act. There’s a woman in my book, Irena Sendler, who saved 2,500 Jewish children in a Warsaw ghetto. Her father told her, if you see someone drowning, you have to save them. He died when she was younger catching typhus from Jews he was treating, poor Jews. He was a doctor.

The other thing is that a lot of them grew up in very loving homes where their interests were valued, where they were valued. That’s really important for creating self-esteem. If you think about being a rescuer, it’s a little crazy. Everybody around you is doing something different. You’re also, in many cases, risking your life or your family’s life. You really have to have a lot of self-confidence not only that your moral compass is the correct one, but also that you can take action and make a difference. More than anything else, everything comes back to your early childhood and the home you grew up in and the values and the way you were treated. Actually, when you look at group rescue, I think it’s the same thing. A lot of it is, can you create an environment where the majority of people stand up for what’s right and say, this isn’t our values? That’s why this anti-bullying campaign that people make fun of I think is actually quite important. Again, a lot of that starts in schools. It starts with children. That was my conclusion just from fact, pattern recognition, and having gone through so many of these stories. Again, it’s belief in something higher than yourself, exposure to others, and tolerance and then really how you were brought up and treated as a child.

Zibby: Wow. Which one of the characters is the one that you just can’t stop thinking about? Which one do you either identify with or just think is the most amazing or you have a personal connection to in some way?

Richard: It’s like asking which is your favorite child.

Zibby: That will be my next question. Which is your favorite child?

Richard: They’re equal. Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who I mentioned, who was this Portuguese diplomat who saved thirty thousand people, the Christian Science Monitor — again, the book has gone way beyond a Jewish audience — called him the breakout star of the book. His is an amazing story. I open the book with his rescue of the people who wrote Curious George. He saved a lot of very famous people as well as very not famous people. To me, the one that I’m most fascinated with probably is Gino Bartali, who was an Italian cyclist. He was probably the famous athlete, certainly in Italy, and maybe in Europe, at the time. He won the Tour de France in 1938, was an anti-fascist, a very devout Catholic, which was really the only other power center in Italy at the time. He didn’t dedicate his victory to Mussolini, unlike the football team and the Olympians, and so he was kind of on the outs. He was this very famous celebrity. Then he did a couple of things. He hid a family of Jews in his basement. He hid another Jew and a Romani in a bicycle shop during the war. Maybe even more interesting is that because he was this champion cyclist, he was one of the few people in Italy that had not only the ability to bike hundreds of miles a day, but also the excuse. He would be out biking, and in his bicycle — he was recruited as a courier for something called the Assisi Underground, which was run by the church in the north.

After 1943 when we invaded, Italy was partitioned around Rome. Ironically, that’s when the Germans came in. The Italians really didn’t round up Jews anywhere. They thought it was kind of crazy what the Germans were doing. The Germans, when they came in, then the Italian Jews were in mortal peril. A lot of them were hidden, actually, in convents and monasteries and even in the cloisters. Assisi, where I don’t think any Jew had ever lived, was a center for this. They would hide them there and then either smuggle them south or they would just stay until the liberation. People needed false identity papers. That was critical. Bartali was recruited by the archbishop of Florence, who was his priest. He was a celebrity, so of course, his priest is the archbishop. He was biking all over bringing false identity papers. They would stop him. Because he was so famous, he’d say, don’t touch my bike because it’s perfectly calibrated. People would say, don’t touch Bartali’s bike. Then there’s another scene where he showed up at a train station and caused this huge stir because it would be like if LeBron James showed up. Then in the background, the partisans moved Jews from one train to the other. He was this hero. Then he never really told anybody. There were rumors after the war. He said, I want to be remembered as a cyclist. He confided in his son, who, after he died, ultimately wrote a book. Then this family came out that he had hidden. He has this wonderful line, though. I’ve seen footage of his eightieth birthday party where people asked him about this.

He would always say, I don’t want to talk about it. It takes away from it. You do good for doing good, not to take credit. Then he said, there’s some medals that you win in this life for cycling, and they go in a museum. Then he said, there are other medals you get in the next life, and they’re pinned to your soul. That is a very common, almost universal, spookily universal refrain from rescuers. They all say, I didn’t do anything special. I did what any normal person would do. I just did the decent thing. A lot of it is very sincere. It goes to your question about their personality and why they were so rare. Then he went back in 1948 and won the Tour de France again. I think he’s one of the oldest people to ever win it. Again, he was this national hero in Italy. He lived into his eighties, athlete who chain-smoked and cups of coffee a day. A beloved figure, but never did this. A few years ago, they actually had the Giro d’Italia for the first time outside of Europe. The first three stages were in Israel. He was made an honorary citizen of Israel. I find that story so fascinating because he was such a famous celebrity athlete who just never told anybody and certainly had a platform if he wanted to have used it.

Zibby: Wow. It’s inspiring to know that these people exist. I know you gave some statistic about how it’s one half of one one-hundredth of one percent. It’s hardly anybody. Still, it is immensely inspiring to know that there are such good people out there. You hope that those actions are replicated in the craziness of the current environment. You just have to hope.

Richard: For sure, there are some people doing that. I just met, actually — I don’t know if you’ve even seen the movie Hotel Rwanda. This was a guy who was the manager of the hotel in Rwanda. He saved 1,600 people by hiding them. I just met him. When I spoke to him, it was like talking to somebody out of the book. I asked him why he did it, how he did it. It was exactly the same story. I think these people still exist today. The other thing I learned is the criteria to be called a Righteous Among the Nations in Israel is very high. You have to have risked your life. You have to have eyewitness testimony. Primo Levi wrote about a guy when he was interned, a laborer named Lorenzo. He would bring him soup every day. He said that this man kept him alive because he felt like somebody cared. Not everybody is going to be a rescuer. In Poland, if they caught you rescuing, they would kill you and your family. I can tell you right now I wouldn’t have done that. There’s no way. There’s a spectrum. I think we have to be careful to judge.

These small gestures make a difference also. They don’t give you the Righteous Among the Nations for bringing somebody soup. When you look at the testimony of people who survived, a lot of these gestures, letting somebody stay in your house for the night, sometimes just smiling at somebody knowing that they were on the run, that’s very important. There was a rescuer in Holland who said, we were the tip of the spear. He was one of the guys on the front lines. He said, what allowed us to do it — this is true. The reason why, the further east you went, the worse it got because the worse the anti-Semitism was. He said, everybody around us was sort of quietly sympathetic and looked the other way. Whereas in other countries, people ran to turn in Jews for very small amounts of money or for spite. I do think not everybody has to be a rescuer to make a difference. The other thing is I actually had the really fascinating experience of interviewing a lot of the children of the rescuers. It was kind of a mixed bag. Hiram Bingham, who was a diplomat, his kids view him as a saint. Varian Fry, who was his partner, they called it, in the crime of saving humans, between the two of them, they saved most of the intelligencia of Europe, all of the surrealists and Marc Chagall and all the German writers. Varian Fry’s son thinks he was a horrendous father.

Even, I interviewed — there’s a Protestant town where the pastor and his wife were very famous figures in the nonviolent movement. I interviewed their daughter, who’s ninety-five. She was amazing. She told me, the carpet in my parents’ living room was this color, not this color. Her parents were these very famous — they knew Martin Luther King and Gandhi. She said, they were amazing parents, but you know, they didn’t come to my piano recital. I know why they didn’t, because they had more important — it still bothered her when she was — it humanizes these people when you talk to their relatives. Most of them were not saints. They weren’t people who set out to go save the world. They were people that found themselves in really difficult situations and ended up making decisions that most people didn’t make. To me, I find that actually really inspiring because they’re like everybody else. They’re flawed. They’re human. Yet they were extraordinarily heroic and inspiring.

Zibby: What do you think the secret is to making history really come alive? I feel like there are so many accounts of Holocaust stories or stories of survival or whatever. Obviously, there’s something innately interesting in them, but I feel like you do a particularly good job of the vibrancy with which you describe everything. Tell me a little bit about that even from a writing perspective.

Richard: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. That’s very nice.

Zibby: It’s true.

Richard: The comments I’ve got on the writing are the most meaningful to me because usually with a nonfiction book, people look at the substance of it. I tried to pick stories that, first of all, gave a cross section of what happened but also were sort of cinematic in some way, so the Bartali story. There’s another story that takes place in a circus. You have this wonderful Danish story. You have King Charles’s grandmother, who nobody knows saved a family of Jews. The stories themselves are interesting. I tried to give as much context and background to what was going on at the time. Obviously, it’s one of the most dramatic moments in human history, World War II. In some ways, it’s kind of easy to write about that and make it punchy. I’m very grateful to my editor, who took a hatchet to a lot of the — I unearthed a lot of material. The whole story of Varian Fry is fascinating because you have all these famous people who — he single-handedly moved the center of the art world from Paris to New York, pretty much. It’s not meant to be an academic — we have a thousand footnotes, but it’s meant to be a general interest read. I’m really gratified people — they really liked reading it just as a group of stories. The other thing about rescue — Holocaust is really tough. I was on the radio in Arizona. The guy said to me, “Can you tell our listeners what the Holocaust was?”

Zibby: Oh, come on.

Richard: He didn’t mean it — he knew what it was. Also, with children, it’s really hard. Even middle schoolers, you read Night. It’s a hard way to get in. I have a friend who did a documentary on Le Chambon, which is in one of my chapters. It’s this town in France that rescued a lot of children. He said that the rescuers are, in some way, like a banister you can hold onto to start thinking about the Holocaust. I think for a lot of people, it’s really hard when you get into — forget the academic kind of language, but even just a really intense story of the — it’s so horrific what happened. People just turn off. We’re seeing that a little bit now with the barbarity that happened on October 7th. A lot of people, they can’t even look at it. When you start by looking at these glimmers of light in a very dark moment, it’s a way of starting to talk about it. Then you say, okay, why were they rescuing people? Because something really bad was happening. It also is a way of countering Holocaust denial. There would be no rescuers if there wasn’t a Holocaust. Thank you for asking. I did spend a lot of time trying to make the stories come alive and these people come alive and talk about their backgrounds and what motivated them and what else there was beyond just this moment when they did their rescue, which in some cases, was over years, but in some cases, was a week in their life. They had a lot more to them than that, and then looking at the arc of what happened to them after the war. Many of them had very sad endings because of what they did. They were, in some ways, punished. I hope people like it. I scour the Amazon comments. Four and a half out of five is good.

Zibby: Oh, my goodness, that’s funny. Very relatable. Richard, thank you so much. Thank you for talking about your book. Thank you for all the research and highlighting these inspirational stories and reminding people that sometimes handing someone a bowl of soup can change a life. All these little things add up. It’s worth doing. Thank you.

Richard: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: My pleasure.

IN THE GARDEN OF THE RIGHTEOUS: The Heroes Who Risked Their Lives to Save Jews During the Holocaust by Richard Hurowitz

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