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Around the Jewish World French Brothers, Born Jewish, Now Honored As Righteous Gentiles

January 22, 2004
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Yair Tsaban is very clear about the way he regards Father Alexandre Glasberg, a Jewish-born French Catholic priest named a Righteous Gentile.

“I know of no other person who saved so many people in so many different places over so many years,” said Tsaban, a former Knesset member. “I would describe him simply as a life saver.”

Last week, Glasberg was posthumously awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in recognition of his work saving hundreds of Jews in the nonoccupied zone of France during World War II.

Glasberg was honored along with his brother Vila, who after Alexandre’s arrest headed the operation to save refugees and provide them with false identities

The war’s end did not mark the end of Alexandre Glasberg’s work saving Jews. He continued the effort for another 36 years until his death in 1981.

Glasberg, baptized a Catholic by his parents before the war in his native Ukraine, put himself at considerable risk as he went around the detention camps of Vichy France helping inmates and searching for safe houses from where they could escape deportation to Auschwitz.

According to French Holocaust historian Serge Klarsfeld, Glasberg “directly saved hundreds of Jews” from Nazi death camps and saved thousands more “by his influence on people who had influence in Vichy.”

Glasberg was among the founders of Amitie Chretienne, a Christian ecumenical group that linked Catholics and Protestants with Jewish welfare groups trying to save Jews.

The group, which benefited from the patronage of Archbishop Pierre-Marie Gerlier of Lyon, the senior Catholic prelate in Vichy France, placed Jewish refugees with villagers across southern and eastern France. Many historians say that work was a major factor in enabling most of France’s Jews to escape the Holocaust.

While both Gerlier and other Amitie Chretienne backers initially were strong supporters of Vichy, Glasberg and others were instrumental in turning them into fierce opponents of the regime.

Moreover, by showing the church the horrors of treatment of Jews under Vichy France, the regime gradually lost backing for anti-Semitic activities in its natural Catholic support base.

“The intervention of Gerlier was very important in saving Jewish lives in the Free Zone,” Klarsfeld said, and it was “Glasberg, who as Gerlier’s delegate, helped bring Gerlier round.”

Glasberg was responsible for what became known as “The Night of Venissieux,” when around 500 adults and more than 100 children were saved from deportation from a transit camp set up near Lyon in 1942.

Activities such as this made him a natural target for the Vichy police and the Gestapo. By the end of 1942, Glasberg was forced into hiding.

Vila Glasberg ultimately was also arrested and murdered by the Nazis.

Winning recognition for the Glasberg brothers as Righteous Gentiles was complicated, because both were born Jewish.

Tsaban said there always was a strong Jewish element about Alexandre Glasberg, despite the fact that “whenever I met him he wore a long black cloak with a large cross.”

Glasberg’s honor at Yad Vashem was promoted by the friends he made in Israel while helping save Jews after the war.

He helped former Knesset speaker Shlomo Hillel bring 12,000 persecuted Iraqi Jews to Israel in the early days of the Jewish state by using connections Glasberg had with Christian monasteries on the Iraq-Iran border.

“Glasberg set the wheels in motion to enable more than 100,000 Jews to leave Iraq,” Hillel said. “He was a special man with a warm heart and very modest.”

Tsaban said, “Even at the beginning of Israel, Glasberg was there, making contacts with the Vatican in order that the Latin Americans should not be pressurized into opposing the United Nations vote on Israel’s independence.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, Glasberg also helped champion the cause of freedom for Jews in the Soviet Union, Tsaban said.

A spokesman for Yad Vashem acknowledged that the Glasberg brothers represented a special case for the institution.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time people born Jews have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations,” spokesman Zvi Newman told JTA in an e-mail message. “This is due to the fact that the Glasberg brothers acted out of their own personal identification and conscience as Christians, utilizing Church resources to save Jews at their own mortal risk.”

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