If you visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, you will find an oasis of green in the heart of the City of Gold.
I went there in August, on the last day of my first trip to Israel, through the Taglit-birthright israel program. The trip changed my life and it changed me.
The evergreen trees planted around Yad Vashem honor not only the lives of the victims of the Holocaust, but also the life-saving acts of a special group of people known as Righteous Gentiles.
These people were not Jewish, yet they risked their own lives and the lives of their loved ones, for no reward, to save Jews from the Holocaust.
Of all the facts, figures and photographs in the museum, their stories left the biggest impression on me. Maybe this was because hearing about the Righteous Gentiles made look me look inside myself and ask some painfully difficult questions: What would I do in their situation? Would I willingly put my own life and the lives of my family members in jeopardy to save somebody else?
It scared me that I did not know the answers. While I would like to think that I would do what was obviously right if faced with this moral dilemma, realistically, I might be too afraid.
Like many people, I learned the difference between right and wrong at an early age. My parents and teachers taught me the fundamentals of how to share, work together and treat other people as I would have them treat me. But as I got older, and faced situations that weren’t so black-and-white, things tended to get more complicated.
Even in serious life-and-death situations, the Righteous Gentiles did not lose sight of the basics. I admire them for having the courage to stand up for what they knew in their hearts was right, in the face of such incredible danger.
According to the Yad Vashem website, 21,758 Righteous Gentiles have been officially recognized with a plaque, medal or tree, as of this past January. But this number is too low, failing to include those people who refused any sort of recognition.
While we may think of them as heroes, many of the Righteous Gentiles would say they did nothing out of the ordinary-—nothing different from what any decent human being would (or should) have done.
It is fitting that our tour of Yad Vashem was framed by information about these Good Samaritans. Without them, we would have mourned the deaths of even more than 6 million Jews. But more importantly, the Righteous Gentiles left us a legacy and an example to follow, in order to ensure that a tragedy like the Holocaust never happens again.
I left Yad Vashem feeling slightly heavier than when I came, because of the burden I challenged myself to carry: I want to be a person who strives to do the right thing, even when no one else does. I want to be someone who steps up and intervenes, instead of waiting for someone else to do so.
We are all capable of acting in a righteous way.
Among the endless themed rooms inside the museum, one display stood out in my mind – a quote from Pastor Martin Niemoller, a German Lutheran priest who lived during the Holocaust:
"First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me."
As Jews, we have a unique responsibility to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves because we know what can happen if we turn the other way.
Rachel Weisel is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania. She is thinking about majoring in political science or communications. She is originally from St. Louis, Missouri, and is an active member of the Jewish community at home and at school.