A Latvian priest has been awarded the title “Righteous among the Nations” by Yad Vashem for risking his life to save Jews during World War II.
Father Kasimir Vilnis was parish pastor in Riga, Latvia during the war. He hid Jews from Nazi persecution in his church and in houses belonging to the church. The heroic actions of Fr. Vilnis were attested to by David Packin, a man who later left for the United States.
When the communists were about to occupy Latvia in 1944, Father Kasimir had to flee to Sweden, where he lived until his death in 1988.
The Catholic Diocese of Stockholm brought proof of Father Kasimir’s actions to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority. Yad Vashem decided to name the priest “Righteous among the Nations” on March 27. Father Kasimir’s name will be inscribed on the Righteous Honor Wall in Yad Vashem, and a medal and diploma will be given to his relatives in Latvia later this summer.
Bishop of Stockholm Anders Arborelius said in a press release he was glad Father Kasimir had been recognized.
“I am grateful that an effort, done secretly, is acknowledged,” Bishop Arborelius said. “It also shows the close bonds between Jews and Christians. Father Kasimir’s effort is one more proof that even during the hardest of times we human beings have the possibility to reach out to our fellow man and make the choice to do what is good and just.”
The priest himself never discussed how he helped Jews during the war, though in the year before he died he was awarded a medal for his deeds by a Latvian Jewish society in the United States.
According to a press release from the Catholic Diocese of Stockholm, Catholics in Sweden remember Father Kasimir as a good-hearted man, a good priest who loved a joke.
Since its establishment by the Israeli Knesset in 1953, Yad Vashem documents the history of the Jewish people during the Holocaust and preserves the memory of each of its six million Jewish victims. It also recognizes the “Righteous among the Nations” to convey the gratitude of the State of Israel and the Jewish people to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Those named Righteous among the Nations, Yad Vashem’s web site says, come from all backgrounds. “The only common denominator,” the web site says, “is the humanity and the courage they displayed by standing up for their moral principles.”