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RIGHTEOUS-PRIEST Sep-18-2008 (420 words) xxxi

Latvian priest to be honored posthumously for helping Jews in WWII

By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM (CNS) -- The family of a Latvian priest posthumously named as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, will receive a medal honoring his work in Riga, Latvia, Sept. 26.

Cardinal Janis Pujats of Riga will attend the ceremony to honor Father Kasimir Vilnis at the Israeli Embassy in Riga.

Father Vilnis' name also will be inscribed on the Wall of Honor at the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Father Vilnis was born in Nautreni, Latvia, in December 1907. His parents, Petris and Eugenija, were farmers. He was ordained in Riga 1933.

As a parish priest in Riga Father Vilnis risked his life during World War II to help Jews fleeing from the Nazis. He hid Jews in his church and in houses belonging to the church, according to testimony by survivor David Packin, who was rescued by Father Vilnis and later escaped to the United States.

Father Vilnis escaped from Riga just before the communists occupied the country, and in 1944 he fled to Sweden, where he lived until his death in 1988. His remained in contact with his family, which remained in Latvia.

"Father Vilnis is remarkable in that not only did he hide Packin, thus saving his life, but he also helped him maintain his religion while in hiding, demonstrating his respect for Packin and his (Jewish) faith. His actions demonstrate the enduring ability of man to choose good even in the face of the surrounding evil and indifference to human life," said a Yad Vashem spokesman.

Catholic officials in Sweden presented Yad Vashem with the necessary testimonies to award Father Vilnis the Righteous Among the Nations medal, the highest award given to those who helped save Jewish lives during World War II despite grave risks to their own lives.

Known in the Swedish Catholic community as a kind-hearted man and a good priest who loved jokes, Father Vilnis never spoke about his wartime efforts to rescue Jews. A year before his death the Latvian-Jewish Society in the United States awarded him a medal in recognition of his efforts.

"I am grateful that an effort, done secretly, is acknowledged," said Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm, Sweden. "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."


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