“I come to you with what is perhaps a strange request – to commemorate the name of a man who has been dead for many years, but I owe him a debt that I couldn’t repay after the war – for having saved my life and the lives of my family who were saved because of his help. Since I am nearing the end of my life, this weighs heavily on my conscience, and this is why I am turning to you...”
(from a letter to the Department of the Righteous)
The term “Righteous Among the Nations” (Chasidei Umot HaOlam) was taken from Jewish tradition – from the literature of the Sages – where it was used to describe non-Jews who came to the aid of the Jewish people in times of need, or non-Jews who respect the basic tenets set down in the Bible – including the prohibition of bloodshed. The Yad Vashem law took the existing term and added new meaning to it. The law went on to characterize the Righteous Among the Nations as those who not only saved Jews, but risked their lives in doing so. This was to become the basic criterion for awarding the title.
Parallel to the State of Israel's decision to honor the rescuers, there were also the Holocaust survivors who came forward and turned to Yad Vashem with the wish to express their gratitude to the people who had saved them. The Avenue of the Righteous, where trees were to be planted in honor of the rescuers, was inaugurated on Holocaust Memorial Day in the year 1962. An independent public commission chaired by a Justice of Israel's Supreme Court, was established in order to define the criteria and decide who would be awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations. The Commission’s first meeting was held on 1 February 1963. The Commission’s chairman, Justice Moshe Landau, spoke of the importance of the mission and the need to approach the task with awe. The discussion then went on to grapple with the regulations and procedures, the definition of the criteria – including the evaluation of the element of risk and the rescuers’ motivations – the role that should be accorded to the Righteous in Yad Vashem’s work, and the forms of commemoration. Many of these issues continue to challenge Yad Vashem until this very day.