The title of Righteous Among the Nations

The title of Righteous Among the Nations is awarded by the State of Israel to people from all over the world for the selfless help they provided to Jews persecuted by Nazi Germany during World War II. More than twenty-eight thousand people from fifty-one countries, including seven thousand Poles, have received the title of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Who are the Righteous?

The Righteous Among the Nations are non-Jews who, during World War II, risked their lives, freedom or position to selflessly help Jews persecuted by Nazi Germany. Since 1963, this title has been awarded, by the State of Israel, to rescuers from all over the world.

To date, 28,217 people from fifty-one countries have been granted the title of Righteous Among the Nations, including 7,232 Poles (as at 1st January 2022).

The title of Righteous Among the Nations is the highest, civilian, state award in the State of Israel. 

Aid provided to Jews during World War II

The title of the Righteous Among the Nations is awarded to those who, during the Holocaust, took selfless actions to save one or more Jews. The help could be individual or organised. As a rule, it involved hiding a person or persons for a short time or long-term, organising hiding places for them, organising escapes from ghettos, providing false identity documents, money, food, clothing or medicines.

Providing help to persecuted Jews, be it selflessly or in return for financial gain, was very risky. In the countries which remained under German occupation, all aid to Jews was severely punished. Depending on the location, sanctions varied from financial penalties or loss of a job or property, to beatings, imprisonment, forced labour or concentration camps, through to the death penalty. In Poland under the German occupation, as well as in other East-European countries such as Ukraine, Belarus and Serbia, the punishment was the most severe. According to the studies carried out by the Institute of National Remembrance, several hundred people were executed for providing help to Jews (the identity of 341 of them is known).

Who can become a Righteous?

The Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem decides on who is awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations through a special committee which assesses the submitted applications. The committee consists of historians and witnesses to history. The key document for the decision on granting the title is the account of the person who received the help. Some applications are rejected due to insufficient documentation or accounts of financial gains obtained in return for the help provided.

Ceremonies of honouring the Righteous

The Righteous are decorated – some posthumously – at formal ceremonies which are organised all around the world, mainly in the place of residence of those honoured or their families, or in Israel at the Yad Vashem Institute. The ceremony is often attended by members of the families of both the rescued and the rescuers, high government officials, representatives of non-governmental organisations and students.

The Righteous or their descendants receive the medal and honorary diploma from a representative of the State of Israel and the names of the Righteous are engraved on a commemorative plaque in the “Garden of the Righteous” in Jerusalem. Thousands of olive trees grow in the Garden to commemorate the Righteous from all over the world. Each tree bears the name and surname of the person so honoured. However, due to the lack of space, the trees have not been planted since 1996.

The Righteous in Jewish tradition

Each medal awarded to the Righteous, apart from the names of the decorated, contains words: 

“Whoever saves one life saves the world entire”

These words come from the Talmud, a collection of religious laws that are binding in Judaism.

According to Jewish tradition, the term Righteous Among the Nations (Hebrew: Hasidei Umot ha-Olam) originally meant non-Jews who were just and God-fearing people. According to the Talmud, there are thirty-six hidden “righteous” in every generation (tzadikim nistarim) who, by the virtue of their actions, protect the human race from God’s wrath.

The Symbolism of the Righteous Among the Nations medal

The obverse of the medal shows two hands clutching at ropes covered with barbed wire. The ropes surround the globe. It is a symbolic expression of the idea that the rescuer makes the globe revolve and, thanks to him, the world exists. The sphere is surrounded by the words: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire”.

The reverse of the medal shows the outline of the building which houses the Yad Vashem Institute’s Memorial Chamber. Ceremonies, honouring the Righteous, are held there. Underneath, there are inscriptions in Hebrew and French – words of appreciation from the Jewish people. 

The medal was designed by Nathan Karp. It has a diameter of 59 mm and, nowadays, is made of copper (in the past it was made of bronze or silver).

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