May 4, 2016 — Hungarian Jesuit Father Jakob Raile, who risked his life to save over 100 Jewish people during the Holocaust, was recognized for his heroism at a Boston College event last month.
“It is important to remember the rescuers firstly because they represent a morally significant part of 20th-century history,” said Jesuit Father James Bernauer, director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College, which hosted the event. “They show that institutions, not people, failed during the Holocaust.”
Although the Jewish community in Hungary was once thought to be safe from the terrors of mass deportation and extermination, the Hungarian Jews faced some of the harshest acts of brutality seen during the Holocaust, said Deborah Dwork, director of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University and the main speaker at the Boston College event.
Deborah Dwork, director of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, spoke at the Boston College event honoring Fr. Raile.
As German fortunes in World War II declined during 1943, Nazi leaders focused their efforts on the Hungarian Jews, the last remaining community to be spared from the horrors of concentration camps. Throughout an eight-week period in 1944, the Nazis murdered half of the Hungarian-Jewish population.
Fr. Raile, born on October 6, 1894, was a native of Hungary and a member of the Hungarian Province of the Society of Jesus. He entered the Jesuits on August 14, 1912, and served as the director of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, the location of the Jesuit community in Budapest, which he used as a hiding place for some 150 Jews.
When Hungarian extremist Arrow Cross gangs attacked the church, Fr. Raile stood in the doorway, arguing with the intruders until the Jews inside had time to hide. On more than one occasion, Fr. Raile was forced to let the Arrow Cross men enter the building. He led them from room to room, from the top floor to the basement. At the end of one such search, the Arrow Cross men entered the coal cellar, where Jews were hiding atop a pile of coal, under a dark blanket. Fr. Raile remained calm, turned out the light and said, “There is only coal here, be careful you don’t get dirty.” The Arrow Cross men quickly left the basement without carrying out a thorough search.
Plaque outside Sacred Heart Catholic Church commemorating Fr. Raile’s heroism.
During the battles of Budapest, Fr. Raile braved the constant bombing, wandering the city streets looking for food for the Jews hidden at Sacred Heart. Additionally, Fr. Raile entered the Jewish ghetto with representatives of the Swedish Red Cross, distributing food and medicine to ghetto residents. He gave out police uniforms and priest and nun outfits and forged passports and blank baptism certificates to help them escape. One of the people Fr. Raile helped save, John C. Harsanyi, later won the Nobel Prize in Economics.
When the Communists took over in Hungary, Fr. Raile escaped to the United States and taught German at Boston College High School until his death in a traffic accident in September 1949. He was buried in the Jesuit cemetery in Weston, Massachusetts.
The grave (front row, center) of Fr. Raile at the Jesuit cemetery in Weston, Massachusetts.
On February 27, 1991, Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Memorial Center, formally recognized Fr. Raile as "Righteous Among the Nations" for risking his life to save the Jews. Fr. Raile is one of 14 Jesuits honored by Israel's Holocaust Center, but the only one buried in the United States. The Jesuits in Boston added a plaque to his grave in 2015 noting the honor.
The memorial plaque in front of Fr. Raile’s grave.
While the state of Israel has formally recognized and celebrated the non-Jewish individuals who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust with the “Righteous Among the Nations” award, Fr. Bernauer said that, on the whole, there has been very little recognition of these people — something that the Boston College event aimed to rectify.
Certificate of honor from Yad Vashem designating Fr. Raile as “Righteous Among the Nations.”
“I hope it helps us look anew and with greater respect for the desperate refugees we see on the news every day,” Dwork said of Fr. Raile’s work. [Sources: The Heights, Boston College, Raile Family Website, Yad Vashem]