Righteous Jews
Who, exactly, is a Righteous Gentile?

By Marilyn Henry - (April 22, 1998)

Since 1986 Yad Vashem has declined to honor a Lutheran pastor killed in the fight against Nazism. Undaunted, the lawyer grandson of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise has gone public in his campaign to get Dietrich Bonhoeffer the recognition he feels he deserves.

Fifty-three years after the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis, Stephen A. Wise, a Connecticut lawyer, is tangling with Yad Vashem, trying to get the German resister recognized as a "Righteous Among the Nations." The dispute is not new. Yad Vashem's Commission for the Designation of the Righteous has been declining the designation since 1986.

While not the first to seek the designation for Bonhoeffer, Wise is the first to turn it into a public crusade. In an article published February 25 in The Christian Century, a prominent ecumenical weekly in the US, Wise asked: "Why isn't Bonhoeffer honored at Yad Vashem?" He subsequently assailed Yad Vashem for what he called its "blackballing rules" and "procedural obstacles."

"The issue," said the director of Yad Vashem's Department for the Righteous Among the Nations, Mordechai Paldiel, "is not whether Bonhoeffer deserves our admiration for his courageous anti-Nazi stand, which eventually doomed him - he is a martyr in the struggle against Nazism. Our program of 'Righteous Among the Nations,' however, is geared to persons who specifically helped Jews, and this aspect has not been established with regard to Dietrich Bonhoeffer."

Yad Vashem's decision on Bonhoeffer said Paldiel, "is a question of principle and sticking to the main outline of the program. This is not about the good guys vs. the bad guys. He's one of the good guys." But, he added, "we wish to underline that the Righteous program was not designed by the Israeli parliament to cover all those who died as martyrs in the anti-Nazi struggle, but to honor non-Jews who specifically addressed themselves to the Jewish issue, and risked their lives in the attempt to aid Jews."

Yad Vashem remains prepared to re-examine the Bonhoeffer case, he said. "We are still looking for that piece of evidence that will link him directly to the rescue of Jews."

Bonhoeffer advocates maintain the evidence already exists. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not only a theologian and a member of the anti-Reich Confessing Church, but, with his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, he was an active conspirator against Hitler. Yad Vashem, they say, just is not prepared to relate to the German resistance.

WISE INVOKES his family connections with Bonhoeffer, which go back as far as 1931. It was then that the Lutheran pastor met Wise's grandfather, Stephen S. Wise, the pre-eminent Reform rabbi and American Jewish leader of the age.

Rabbi Wise, the long-time Zionist leader who founded the American Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress, is widely revered for alerting the US government, and then the American public, to the Holocaust. He conveyed the information that had been obtained by Gerhart Riegner of Geneva, whose August 1942 telegram warned the West about Hitler's plan for the "Final Solution."

In one of a series of salvos, the grandson insisted that Yad Vashem had incomplete information about Bonhoeffer. Further, he said, while rescue is the general standard, a person could be recognized as righteous for publicly speaking out against the persecution of Jews while residing in Germany. And this Bonhoeffer did, Wise said, quoting a Jewish scholar who said that "during the Nazi years, Protestants uttered barely a word of protest against the treatment of the Jews, with the sole exception of Dietrich Bonhoeffer."

Some of Yad Vashem's responses to Wise's numerous queries just seemed to goad him. For example,in a letter dated April 8, 1997, Paldiel wrote that "no direct evidence has surfaced linking Bonhoeffer to the rescue of Jews - that is, of his personal involvement in either sheltering or extending other forms of aid to persecuted Jews (to persons still adhering to the Jewish faith!)."

Retorting in his article in The Christian Century, Wise asked "What is the measure of adherence: Orthodox Judaism? Conservative? Reform?" But "adherence" apparently remains an issue. Recognition was not conferred, despite testimony that Bonhoeffer risked his life to save Charlotte Friedenthal, a Jewish convert to Christianity, who escaped to Switzerland with 13 others, said Peter Hoffmann, author of The History of the German Resistance 1933-1945.

WISE HAS also attempted to model his petition for Bonhoeffer on successful applications made on behalf of other candidates. He asked for copies of the proposals submitted on behalf of three Germans who were recognized as among the righteous: Oskar Schindler, Armin Wegner and Heinrich Gruber. Gruber was a Lutheran pastor in Berlin who rescued many Jews who had converted to Christianity, was interned and survived Dachau.

The Wegner designation seems to parallel elements of the case being made for Bonhoeffer, that "rescue" is not an absolute requirement. Wegner, who was recognized in 1967, challenged the Nazi regime's antisemitism in a March 1933 letter that criticized Hitler. Wise argues that Wegner was interned for his letter, while Bonhoeffer's criticism - which began two days after Hitler became chancellor on January 30, 1933 - ultimately cost him his life.

"We felt this was an exception to the rule," Paldiel explained regarding the Wegner case. "There are cases that are unique. In all these unique cases, there is a direct reference to the Jewish issue. When we come to Bonhoeffer, we cannot find direct reference to the Jewish issue in Germany."

Historian Peter Hoffmann, of McGill University, finds this argument unconvincing. While the Nazi regime's motivations for executing Bonhoeffer and von Dohnanyi included reasons other than rescuing Jews, "the most profound motivation of these men for risking their lives in opposition to Hitler was the persecution and murder of the Jews," he said. "If Yad Vashem allows this case, they recognize the German resistance," Hoffmann said, "and I don't think they want that."

Wise does not speculate on Yad Vashem's reasons. Instead, he charges that it is "stonewalling" in failing to provide information that would enable him to "properly submit for recognition one whom Dr. Paldiel already recognizes as a 'courageous martyr of barbarism.' Without the information which I am asking for, preparing a petition is like trying to apply to a private club whose charter is sealed, whose application procedures are withheld, and whose blackballing rules are absolute and unreviewable," Wise told The Jerusalem Post.

Paldiel said he was sympathetic to Wise's appeal, "but we have a certain program that does not address itself to all those who fell to Nazi tyranny or opposed the Nazis from their own perspective. It is not a matter of bureaucracy or narrow-mindedness," Paldiel said wearily. "If we were to recognize Bonhoeffer, and the next day you ask me why, I would say that he opposed Hitler in church-state policies. Is that what the program is for?" Bonhoeffer is not the only dauntless individual who has not been recognized by Yad Vashem, Paldiel added. The Bishop of Muenster, Clemens August von Galen, spoke out forcefully in 1941 against euthanasia. "He was a very courageous man," he said. "He should be included on some list of righteous - but not this list."

BONHOEFFER'S role as a resister cannot be separated from his ties with the von Dohnanyi family. Married to Bonhoeffer's sister Christine, Hans von Dohnanyi was a special director in the Abwehr (German military counterintelligence), and was once described by the Gestapo as the "intellectual head of the movement to remove the Fuhrer."

The von Dohnanyis and Bonhoeffers formed a link of family, resistance and execution. Bonhoeffer's brother Karl-Friedrich was married to von Dohnanyi's sister Grete. Bonhoeffer's sister Ursula was married to Ruediger Schleicher, another member of the resistance. Schleicher and another Bonhoeffer, Klaus, were executed by the SS in Berlin on April 22, 1945. These connections of marriage and conviction led SS Gruppenfuhrer Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who was convicted at Nuremberg and hanged in 1949, to note the "treacherous antagonism of the whole clan."

It was von Dohnanyi who brought pastor Bonhoeffer into the Abwehr, which under Wilhelm Canaris was the locus of a key group of conspirators against Hitler. They plotted coups, appealed to the Vatican, informed western nations of Hitler's plan to attack France, and compiled extensive files on the crimes of the National Socialist government.

Their office ceased to be a central link of the resistance when von Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer were arrested on the same April day in 1943 - an arrest that was seen as the first victory of the SS in its war against the Abwehr.

They were both executed on the same day two years later, in two different camps. Von Dohnanyi was tortured and hanged in Sachsenhausen. Bonhoeffer and Canaris were hanged on April 9, 1945, at Flossenburg.

Yad Vashem's Paldiel said that "Bonhoeffer's arrest and execution by the Nazis is linked to his courageous opposition to the Nazi regime in matters dealing with church-state policies and his involvement in the anti-Hitler plot of July 1944, and not, to the best of our knowledge and the known record, to any personal aid rendered to Jews."

Some 16,000 people have been recognized as among the Righteous by Yad Vashem, including "several hundred Germans," Paldiel added. "That's not the issue."

THE RESISTANCE, though seems to be another matter. The goals of the resistance were not to save Jews, but to save Germany. Many resisters were nationalist, authoritarian, anti-democratic and antisemitic. Bonhoeffer himself wrestled with the traditional Lutheran anti-Judaism. Other resisters are discounted as collaborators because they were part of the Nazi hierarchy - which, in turn, undercuts a designation by Yad Vashem.

That appears to be the case with von Dohnanyi, who particularly seems to illuminate Yad Vashem's uneasy response to the German resistance. Although - with assistance from Bonhoeffer - he rescued a group of 14 Jews, von Dohnanyi has also not been recognized by Yad Vashem.

Posing as members of the SS security force, the 14 rescued in the mission known as Operation Seven, were able to flee from Berlin to Switzerland. That group included three Jews - Dorothee Fliess and her parents - and Jews who had converted to Christianity.

"The others were in danger [as Jews] under Nazi laws; we, because we were Jews," Dorothee Fliess said in an interview in Switzerland. "When we came here in October 1942, the Jewish community here in Basel thought we were spies. They didn't believe we were Jews because no one could emigrate from Germany."

The Gestapo discovered that Bonhoeffer, von Dohnanyi, Canaris and Hans Oster had used their official positions in the Abwehr for the rescue, and also discovered illegal money transactions that had aided the 14 as well as other Jews, said Hoffmann. "It was precisely this issue that led to the arrests of Bonhoeffer and von Dohnanyi on April 5, 1943," he said.

Fliess was rejected in 1991 when she asked Yad Vashem to recognize von Dohnanyi. The Commission for the Designation of the Righteous, which is chaired by a justice of the Supreme Court, declined conferring the title on von Dohnanyi because Operation Seven had the full backing of the highest authority in the Abwehr.

"With all our respect and admiration, the decision was that he had not risked his life in the operation, because he had had the full knowledge and consent of the organization, of Canaris," Paldiel said. "von Dohnanyi was executed, but this had nothing to do with this operation."

"Which part of the rope was for that, and which part was for something else?" countered Hoffmann. "There is no doubt that Bonhoeffer and von Dohnanyi were arrested because of their activities on behalf of the 14 Jews, and equally there can be no doubt that they placed their lives in danger through those activities, regardless of whether or not they had the approval of Canaris." Especially troubling for Yad Vashem seemed to be von Dohnanyi's connection with Canaris, whom Paldiel called "one of the most powerful men in the Third Reich. How do we separate the role of von von Dohnanyi and Canaris?" he asked.

It is that connection and von Dohnanyi's role in the Abwehr that militated against recognition by Yad Vashem, Paldiel acknowledged. "For any person in a position of authority in the Nazi hierarchy, especially in Germany, we are very careful," he said. "They may have saved some Jews because they may have had a special relationship with them, but with their position in the Nazi hierarchy, to recognize them would make a laughing matter" of the Righteous program.

Fliess does not believe that von Dohnanyi's recognition should be denied because he worked for the Abwehr. Quite the reverse. She insists that his position saved her and her parents from the Nazis, while her sister was safely in Jerusalem, studying at the Bezalel art academy. "von Dohnanyi could not have helped us if he had not been part of the structure," she said.

But, while she supports Wise's efforts for Bonhoeffer, Fliess expects he will be rebuffed again by Yad Vashem. "They just don't want to do it," she said. "And now, they have said 'no' so often, that they cannot say, 'Yes, you are right and we were mistaken.'"

Paldiel, however, has not closed the books on Bonhoeffer. "We are, as we have been, prepared to re-examine the Bonhoeffer case upon the receipt of new and yet-undisclosed documentation testifying to a personal involvement of the man in the rescue of Jews."