Humane heroes of war times
‘Righteous Among the Nations: Serbia’ discussion by Stefan Radojković, which hosted Judita Simić, Mirjana Akrap and Gordana Todorić, was held in the Great Hall of the Cultural Centre of Novi Sad within the programme ‘Freezing Silence Speaks’. At the beginning there was screening of 30-minute film entitled ‘Righteous Among the Nations: Serbia’, which showed short testimonies about people who deserved this important acknowledgement with their courage and humanity.
We had the honour and privilege to host Ms Simić, one of the surviving members of Jewish community from Zrenjanin and Ms Akrap, daughter of Marija Tomić, the Righteous from Novi Sad who managed to save Ms Simić, her mother and grandmother. Ms Marija Tomić was declared Righteous Among the Nations in 2009, and the title was awarded posthumously to her daughter, Ms Akrap. In discussion with Ms Simić and Ms Akrap, the image of Marija Tomić was illuminated, and the visitors had a chance to find out about her work, and in that way pay due respect to person who rightfully has a title of the Righteous Among the Nations.
In a very emotional testimony of guest speakers, especially strong impression for the visitors was the answer of Ms Simić when she was asked if she remembers those days and how much. She said that she remembers certain things and that they are horrific, and those things she does not remember she does not even want to know.
During the four war years, 1941-1945, Jewish community was exposed to brutal anti-Semitic politics in occupied areas by the occupying power and collaborators.
In those days, on the territory of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, there was circa 82,000 Jews, and on the territory of present day Serbia 37,000, i.e. 45% of the total population. Around 15,000 survived the war, which makes less than 20% of the pre-war population in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. There were various methods of survival. Certain number of men from Jewish community survived due to the fact that they were soldiers and officers of the Yugoslav Army, imprisoned in prison camps after the April War. Furthermore, circa four and a half thousand members of Jewish community joined the Partisan movement and fought in the National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia. Regarding the other members of Jewish community, change of identity and false documents, hiding in neighbours’ houses or in villages that were hard to access for occupation forces, transfer to Italian zone of occupation or in some of the neutral countries were the most common ways to increase their probability of survival in those years.
However, in order for the above mentioned attempts of rescuing and surviving to be successful, Jews often had to rely on the help of people closest to them, neighbours and other unknown, but humane people, whom they met during these four years. All of them, later called the Righteous Among the Nations, helped their fellow citizens from Jewish community in various ways to the extent they could and out of sheer philanthropy. The most common manner was obtaining false travel documents, hiding them on farms or in houses, and often these humane people took upon themselves to raise Jewish children, sensitive to exhausting run from one occupation zone to the other, as their own. So far, Yad Vashem registered 131 people from the Republic of Serbia that helped save over 150 Jews. It is estimated that today they have circa 3,000 descendants.