Wednesday, June 30, 2010

“Because they had a heart”: Yad Vashem Honors Bulgarian and Polish Righteous of the Nations

As a granddaughter of a survivor, I grew up with the horror stories of what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust. I have walked hand in hand with my grandfather through Auschwitz, listening to his real-life nightmares. After each story I am always left with the same question: how could people stand by and allow such atrocities to happen to a fellow human being?

The families of Reiber and Lisieczynski
in the Garden of the Righteous of the Nations

This past week, however, I heard the stories of three unique individuals who did speak out and fight for those who were victimized and persecuted by the Nazis. In fact they put their own lives on the line to help others. On Monday and Wednesday, ceremonies were held to honor Bulgarian Vladimir Kurtev and Polish Jan and Julia Lisieczynski as Righteous Among the Nations.

On Monday, Kurtev’s grandchildren, Jasmin and Vladimir Kurtev received the award on their grandfather’s behalf. Kurtev was a teacher in Kyustendil who maintained strong ties with the leaders of the city’s Jewish community. In February 1943 Kurtev and other fellow Bulgarians found out about a decree to deport 20, 000 Bulgarian Jews and decided to act. Kurtev was one of four delegates who set out for Sofia to stop the deportation. The four delegates met with the Minister of Interior, Gabrovski and insisted that the edict be revoked. With the help of the other three delegates, Kurtev’s courageous and determined actions succeeded in releasing all arrested Jews from old Bulgaria.

Avner Shalev, Chairman of Yad Vashem, perfectly described Kurtev as a truly unique individual who was “a Bulgarian patriot, courageous fighter and loyal friend to the Jewish community.”

From left to right: Avner Shalev (Chairman of Yad Vashem), Jasmin Kurtev, Foreign Minister of Bulgaria, Nikolai Mladenov and Vladimir Kurtev

“Kurtev understood that he is a part of a civic society and, therefore, it was his civic duty to put a stop to what the Germans wanted,” said Shalev. “Kurtev was a unique man who changed the course of history.”

Like Kurtev, the Lisieczynskis also changed the lives of Ben Zion and Yehezkel Reiber. The family repeatedly took both boys and their father into their home. After the boys’ father, Yitzchak was shot on his way to work; the Lisieczynski rescued the boys by hiding them under a pit inside their home.

“They saved us,” said Reiber. “They hid us. They guarded our lives while risking their own.”

I find bravery, such as Kurtev’s or the Lisieczynskis’ perplexing. When the majority of Europe ignored the murder of millions of Jews, how were these few willing to risk their own lives to save the lives of others? Reiber responded simply, “Because they had a full heart.”

Today, at the end of ceremony, all of Ben Zion’s children and grandchildren stood around their grandfather and the Lisieczynskis’ granddaughter, Krystyna Kudiuk, arm in arm, smiling at the camera. It is no small significance that in saving the Reiber brothers, Kudiuk’s grandparents also saved many future children and grandchildren.

“The [Lisieczynskis] are a special family,” said Reiber with tears in his eyes. “Jan, Julia, Krystyna – I love you.”


  1. I really like how you personalized this. The question you ask is the same question asked by many everyday for all atrocities that go on in the world. To read about your encounter with people who are hero's is truly uplifting.

  2. It is truly heartwarming and reassuring to know that there were individuals and families around the world that fought back against the atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust and it so important that they be recognized.