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Honoring Muslim Circassians who saved Jewish children

Monday 6 June 2016

The Peace Museum organized an event to honor Circassian villagers who saved a group of Jewish children during the Holocaust.

As part of a project to create within WAS-NS a garden of the righteous (see article), the Peace Museum director, together with Yair Auron, organized a special event to honor Circassians. As told in Yair’s new book, "The Banality of Compassion" (Hebrew) (review) [1], a Circassian village in the Caucasus region came to the rescue of 32 Jewish evacuee children who found themselves there during the second world war.

A number of guests were invited to the event. Three people came from the Caucasian village, Beslenee, in Southern Russia, including the daughter of one of the surviving children. In addition, a contingent of adults and children came from the village of Kufr Kama in the Galilee, one of two villages inhabited by Circassians in this country. The children and one of their teachers came in traditional costume treated us to a performance of Circassian dance.

The first part of the program was occupied by a number of short speeches, beginning with words of welcome by the WAS-NS peace museum’s director Dyana Rizek and the municipal chair Adnan Manaa.

Prof. Yair Auron explained the significance of the project and told the story of the rescue of the Jewish children.

In the height of World War II when the German army was at the gates of Leningrad, there was an attempt to evacuate a group of 13 - 14 year old Jewish children by train to Georgia, which was under Soviet control. While in the northern Caucassus, the train was bombed by the German army and one carriage was destroyed. It is unknown how many perished in the bombing. Unable to proceed by train, the surviving children proceeded by four horse carts, accompanied by a Russian officer. He was warned by locals not to try to enter Circassian villages because they could be slaughtered. Nazi forces were already in the area.

Yet the children were in a severely weakened state by this time and he had no choice but to try his luck. When they entered the Muslim Circassian village of Beslenee, most of the menfolk were away due to the war effort. The villagers held a meeting at which they decided that every household would shelter one child. The villagers knew the Jewish identity of the children and realized that to shelter Jews was an act that could endanger the entire village. So they registered the children at the town hall with Circassian names and passed the children off as their own. For a period of 152 days, with the German army in their village, they were able to continue with this deception. Only one child was discovered and shot by the Nazis during this period. After the war, some of the children were reunited with their families and some simply remained in the village for the rest of their lives.

Yair, in his talk, stressed that the children who reached Beslenee survived due to the bravery of the people in this particular village. Others, who happened to be taken to another village, where they were summarily shot by the Nazis.

The women in particular deserve praise - both for their bravery and their willingness to look after these children and raise them. The decision to save the children was ultimately that of the women.

Two representatives from Beslenee spoke. One was the village mayor, Alexander Ochtov. After telling the story, he stressed that the villagers are not seeking recognition or remuneration for what happened. The other, named Julia, was a daughter of Katya, one of the Jewish children who had survived and continued to live in the village. Julia was visibly moved by the occasion.

Two representatives from Kufr Kama also spoke; the mayor, Zakaria Napso, and Zoher Thawko, the director of the Circassian Heritage Center. Thawko is trilingual in Arabic, Hebrew and Circassian (Adyghe). According to Thawko, the motivation for saving the children was deeply rooted in Circassian culture. He said that Circassians have a long tradition of hospitality for strangers and did not differentiate between their own children and those of others. He said that he had attempted on several occasions to interest Yad Vashem in the story from Beslenee but had been told that it would not qualify for recognition as an example of "righteous" action towards Jews because the motivation had not been to save specifically Jews per se. (Yair Auron is continuing his struggle to get recognition for the Beslenee villagers by Yad Vashem.)

Shay Wineapple, a senior researcher who has been assisting Yair Auron in his efforts to uncover stories of rescuers in times of conflict, also spoke. He gave some context regarding stories of Palestinians who have saved Jews, and Jews who have saved Palestinians.

Dyana Shalufi Rizek said that as a Palestinian, she feels that it is important for there to be solidarity between victims of persecution. If we can admire righteous acts from the past and elsewhere in the world, it is in the context of the oppression taking place here and now in our historical homeland of Palestine. Humane actions unite us at the level of our common humanity.

Yair Auron said that he did not draw a distinction between righteous action (action to save fellow human beings in times of genocide, ethnic cleansing, etc). He said that it is worthy of recognition, whether in Rwanda or the Caucasus or here. He and others said that they hoped that the recognition given to persons who had bravely rescued other people in other places could inspire us to do the same ourselves in similar circumstances.

After the speaking was over, 5th and 6th graders from the WAS-NS school joined the audience and the children of the Tipsa dance troupe of Kufr Kama gave a short performance of several dances, in their traditional costume. Then the children from WAS-NS sang a couple of songs with their music teacher.

The final event on the menu was a buffet meal in the Pluralistic Spiritual Center, organized (and mostly prepared) by Dyana.

This event was the first to take place in the intended location for the Garden of the Righteous: the olive grove below the Spiritual Center. As an example of what could be, provided that funding becomes available, there was a display with the names of the Circassian families and the children saved, and a sculpture created by a local artist.

Go to Photo Album

Video clips:

Circassian dance

WAS-NS children


[1read review by Avraham Burg, Haaretz - http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/books/.premium-1.727542

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