The Thirty-Six Righteous People By David Weiss
There is one wonderful old Hasidic (Orthodox Jewish) story that I absolutely love. It is one of those lessons that has a beauty that transcends religion. While I can’t say I believe that things literally unfold in this fashion, it’s a great legend with a timeless lesson.
According to this very old Jewish mystical tradition, there are always 36 righteous people who wander the earth unknown to everyone else, including one another. As long as there are 36 Righteous individuals, God stays satisfied. Even if the world were to become a total mess, for the sake of these few righteous people, “doom” will not fall on the world.
There is a wonderful point to this legend. Since we do not know exactly who these “36 righteous ones” are, we should all strive to be kind to everyone we meet. Age, gender, nationality, race, sexual orientation and social status do not play a factor in the make-up of the 36. According to legend, when one of the 36 Righteous passes away, someone takes their place.
This story stresses that the world doesn’t exist because of the mighty or the powerful, but rather, it exists thanks to the Righteous. When we think this through, it makes sense and is a warm, pleasant thought. The world’s most prominent people are not movers and shakers on the Forbes 500 list or the rulers of the most powerful nations, but rather, they are the 36 Righteous, unknown people.
I have a couple people that I think may have spent time on the 36 Righteous People List. One is Hermine Wilhelm who guided my grandmother from closet to closet during the Holocaust. The other was a Slovak soldier who was in charge of rounding up Jews to be deported and killed…. but instead saved my grandmother’s life and the lives of many, many others. Unfortunately, she did not remember his name, so he will be remembered by me simply as an anonymous and wonderful soul.
Hermine Wilhelm was born Jewish but married a non-Jew and converted to Catholicism. Hermine and her husband raised their children Catholic and were living very comfortably in the midsize Slovak city of Trnava. They were accepted by the ruling party of Josef Tiso as Slovak patriots and embraced as model citizens. Hermine, however, was not satisfied to sit back and “see no evil, hear no evil”. Instead, she guided multiple members of her extended family, including my grandmother, through the treacherous terrain of Nazi-influenced Slovakia. She connected my grandmother with people who would hide her in small closets and she even, for a time, hid my grandmother in one of her own cellar closets. The penalty for hiding Jews was death. It could be deportation and then death or just on-the-spot-death. Either way, helping Jews in any way was not allowed. The Nazis and the Slovak Puppet Government needed more Jewish slaves and then wanted to exterminate the Jews once they were too sick/abused to work. Hermine could have kept leading her upper middle class life, enjoyed her children and husband and “minded her own business”. Instead she risked her life to save her distant cousins and others who were facing near certain death. What made Hermine take such a courageous stand? What made her operate her own underground survival system? Why would she risk everything for people she didn’t really know all that well? She was certainly one of the righteous ones. Was she one of the 36 Righteous? Perhaps.
My Grandma Weiss had another encounter with someone that I believe would qualify as one of the 36 Righteous. One older lady, Mrs. Courtland, hid my Grandma for almost a full year. While Mrs. Courtland isn’t the subject of this nomination for the Righteous 36, she certainly did a great deal to help my grandma. She lived in the lower part in a duplex. Grandma stayed in one of her small closets to avoid being seen through a window or avoid being heard. The lady who lived upstairs turned my grandma in. When the Slovak Guards came, one of them recognized my grandma from their time together in school as children. He pulled her aside and told her that he knew where she had been since early in the war. He knew where several former classmates had been. He raised his hand and swore that he would do everything her could to help her. He had a system for changing reports in order to save the lives of Jewish people. My grandma was just one of the Jews he saved. True to his word, he knew of her next hiding spot and made sure that the other Slovak Guards in the area understood that he would be patrolling the area. He had devised his own highly risky anti-Nazi operation.
Why did this man in his 30’s with a family of his own and a good place in society risk his own life? While his co-workers were making all kinds of justifications for why they had to follow orders, why did he buck the system? To create a system to protect others while risking his own life was remarkable. While the death toll of the Holocaust was horrific, many people were saved by people who showed this type of incredible bravery. I don’t know this man’s name and history will never be able to reward him, but I do know that in my mind, he belongs among the 36 Righteous.
What makes people put their own life on the line to help others? What inspired people to leave their comfortable lives to help earthquake victims in Haiti or landslide victims in Bangladesh? What about those people we meet that take every opportunity to help others in big and small ways? Perhaps the 36 Righteous aren’t out doing that incredibly risky work. Perhaps they just have an inner righteousness and dignity.
Live as if you are one of the 36 Righteous. Treat all others as though they are one of the 36 Righteous. I am sure there are well more than 36 Righteous. While there may have originally been 36, it does seem that Righteousness is Contagious. It is not the influential and powerful who rule the world…It is the Righteous.
Learn more at www.HolocaustLegacyBooks.com
Photo features Hermine Wilhelm.
David Weiss was born, raised and still lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Being the grandson of four Holocaust Survivors has always been an integral part of his identity and life. David earned a Bachelors of Arts in Education from Cardinal Stritch University and a Masters of Arts in Education from Viterbo University. He spent eleven years as a second and third grade teacher before starting his own promotions business. David is also an author and teaches at the college level. David and his wife are the proud parents of a six year old daughter.
Purchase the author’s book “The Everyday Remember: Holocaust Legacy”
Purchase the author’s book “Czech Mates: Holocaust Legacy”
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Read more about David Weiss’ new book HERE.