On Aug. 15, 1942, a 12-year-old boy named Shmulik slipped out of the Bobov ghetto in search of a place to hide. The day before, all of the inhabitants of the ghetto had been taken into the woods and shot. Shmulik, who was still wearing his pajamas, managed to survive by hiding in a crawl space between the roof and the attic.
As he wandered out of the ghetto, he found his way to the home of Polish peasant woman, Balwina Piecuch, who had treated his family kindly in the past. When he arrived at her doorstep, Balwina immediately took Shmulik in, locked the door and hid him in the attic. After a few days, Balwina decided that Shmulik needed to be moved; too many people in the area knew who he was. So she gave him a new name, Josek Polewski, and taught him how to pass as a Polish peasant child looking for work. He found a job on a farm in another town, and moved there, while Balwina sent her son Stanisław to check on him and bring him supplies, under the guise that they were “brothers.” The rest of Shmulik’s family perished in the Holocaust, but because of Balwina he survived.
What motivates people like Balwina and Stanisław to risk their lives to rescue others? Certainly it is not education or choice of profession. More than half of all German physicians enrolled in the Nazi party, surpassing all other professions. Here was a simple peasant woman and her son endangering themselves in order to save a Jew, while so many of their intellectual superiors were among the persecutors.
Years later Shmulik would search for an answer to this question. After emigrating to the United States, Samuel P. Oliner became a professor of sociology, and the lead author of a groundbreaking study entitled “The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe.” Oliner conducted extensive interviews with 406 rescuers, and identified three primary types of motivations that the rescuers had: empathy, strong ethical principles and loyalty to a group that was committed to rescue.
Oliner found that rescuers’ upbringing often had a profound impact on them. Parental values played a significant role; the parents of rescuers educated their children through reasoning instead of physical punishment, and emphasized independence and empathy for others.
The story of these exceptional rescuers is now considered to be an essential chapter in Holocaust history. The founding charter of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Center, tasked the new institution with commemorating those “high-minded Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews” as one of nine founding principles. These rescuers were awarded by Yad Vashem the title “righteous among the nations,” a term borrowed from rabbinic literature. Since 1963, nearly 28,000 non-Jews have been recognized by Yad Vashem as such. Balwina and Stanisław are two of those honored.
At first glance, the decision to include the “righteous among the nations” as a central component of Yad Vashem seems strange. While their heroism was extraordinary, it affected a very small percentage of European Jews. But the decision has substantial precedent in the Tanakh, at the very beginning of last week’s parsha.
Right at the beginning of the enslavement, two narratives about prominent Egyptians who refuse to participate in Pharaoh’s decrees are told. First, there are the midwives Shifrah and Puah (hameyaldot haivriot) who are tasked with quietly killing all the male children; but they resist and refuse Pharaoh’s orders.
It is unclear from the text if the words “meyaldot haivriyot” are meant to be interpreted as “midwives who are Hebrews” or “midwives to the Hebrews.” The grammar of this point is debated by the Rashbam and Bechor Shor. While Rashi and several other commentaries say that Shifrah and Puah were Jewish midwives, the simple reading of the text would indicate otherwise. As Abarabanel points out, it would seem very improbable that Pharaoh expected Jewish midwives to kill their own kin.
It was Pharaoh’s own daughter, however, that was the most significant resister. Bathing at the side of the river, she sees a basket with a little boy, whom she correctly identifies as a Jew. Yet Pharaoh’s daughter decides to raise the boy as her own, even hiring the baby’s mother to be the wet nurse.
This was a dramatic act of defiance. As the Talmud in Sotah (12b) says, her servants were shocked that she would even entertain adopting a Jewish child. They turned to her and said: “Our mistress, the custom of the world is that when a king of flesh and blood decrees a decree, even if all the world does not fulfill it, at least his children and members of his household fulfill it; and yet now you are violating the decree of your father!”
Much like the rescuers during the Holocaust, the heroic Egyptian women in our parsha have varying motives; the midwives are deeply principled, God fearing women, who refuse to commit murder. Pharaoh’s daughter sees the weeping baby, and “had compassion on him.”
What exactly motivated her is unclear. Some, like Malbim and Seforno, say that she detected that the baby had unique qualities, and for this reason chose to save him. But the obvious interpretation is this: Her heart broke when seeing this unfortunate child, crying and alone. Empathy leads the daughter of Pharaoh on a heroic path.
It is impossible to underestimate the importance of the daughter of Pharaoh. Because of her, the redeemer of Israel lives; Moses’ very name, “because I drew him out of the water,” places her legacy at the very center of the redemption from Egypt.
Including the vignettes of the heroic Egyptian women at the very beginning of the Book of Exodus sends a powerful message: This is a moral battle between those who enslave and those who come to save. Yes, the exodus represents national redemption, and the beginnings of the Jewish people, but it at the same is the earliest call for freedom and a universal redemption. And the rescuers, both in biblical and contemporary times, answer this divine call for goodness and freedom.
Unfortunately, too few hear the call. Elie Wiesel points out that the deeds of the righteous among the nations remind us that such heroism is possible. Unfortunately, as he points out, that leaves all of humanity with a troubling question: “Why were there so few of these exemplary and valorous people?”
Until we answer this question, the world will remain unredeemed.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.
This article was originally published by The Jewish Journal.