Israel Recognises Czech Righteous

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For the first time since arriving in Prague ten months ago, the Israeli ambassador to the Czech Republic, Arthur Avnon, opened up his residence yesterday to guests. On the invitation list: Holocaust survivors, people who saved Jews during the war, Jewish community leaders, Czech politicians and others. And the occasion: recognising the late Otakar Nesvadba as a "Righteous Among the Nations" - the highest Israeli tribute to non-Jews who saved the lives of Jews during the Second World War.

As a portrait of Otakar Nesvadba watched from atop a mantelpiece in the elegant living room of the Israeli ambassador's residence, the ambassador, Mr Arthur Avnon, presented Mr Nesvadba's daughter with a medal issued by Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust remembrance authority. On the medal an inscription: "As a sign of thanks and gratitude from the people of Israel."

Mr Avnon is himself named after a man who helped his parents during the Second World War. I asked him why it was so important for Israel to publicly recognise the "Righteous":

"The State of Israel was born kind of out of the ashes of the Holocaust. It became the refuge for survivors of the Holocaust. The State of Israel is there to assure that the Holocaust will not happen again in the future. So therefore not only remembering - just for the sake of memory - the past, but also learning the lessons for the future. That is very important for the State of Israel. I think that we know how to recognise good deeds made by others, and we would like to do that. When good people risk their lives to save Jews, we want to recognise them."

Israel was unable to publicly award these medals to Czechoslovak citizens during part of the communist period, for the two countries did not have diplomatic relations. So how was it done? Mr Avnon again:

"It was not done. Czechoslovakia under the communist regime disrupted relations with Israel back in 1967, and we had no representation in this country. So these ceremonies did take place, but unfortunately not for citizens of this country. But now with the reopening of relations about eleven years ago, we are glad that we are able to do this small thing for the people who saved Jews during the war."

Otakar Nesvadba is the one hundred and fourth Czech to be recognised as a "Righteous Among the Nations." A political prisoner at the Mathausen concentration camp, he saved the lives of many Jews and non-Jews. One such person was the Jewish prisoner Thomas Luke, who requested that Yad Vashem recognise Mr Nesvadba as a "Righteous Among the Nations."

The two met at Mathausen in January 1945, when Mr Luke was just eighteen years old and fatally ill. Nesvadba took care of him, saw to it that he received medical care, and hid him from SS squads that earmarked prisoners for extermination. I asked Mr Luke how he would define the continuing significance of figures such as Otakar Nesvadba:

"One sentence: if it weren't for people like Ota Nesvadba, and if it weren't for some of the people who were here, whom I suggested to the ambassador to invite, we would all live in a dictatorship."