100th Anniversary of Władysław Bartoszewski’s Birthday
“There was also Warsaw – my city, in which which every third resident was a Jew. Significant aspects, apart from the churches, were the synagogues. In some parts, of the city, there were both prayer-houses and synagogues. […] I grew up on the border between the Polish and Jewish parts of the city. Less than 200 metres from our apartment, on Bielańska Street, was the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street”, recalled Władysław Bartoszewski in his book Warto być przyzwoitym (It’s Worthwhile Being Decent).
Władysław Bartoszewski’s connections with POLIN Museum
He grew up in inter-war Warsaw amongst his Jewish peers. Not long after, during World War II, he was a witness to the Holocaust. At the age of twenty, he joined in the work of “Żegota”, a Polish-Jewish organisation, established on 4th December 1942, with the aim of helping Jews in occupied Poland.
“You never know what pays off in life and what does not – so you know what is worthwhile”, he said during one of his meetings with young people at POLIN Museum. “Was I scared? I was very scared – very. But does that explain it all? Does fear explain everything? Well, no”.
Throughout his life, he impressed with his commitment and his attitude. His priorities were evidenced not only by his activity in the Council to Aid Jews or in the structures of the Polish Underground State. Proof of his social activity is the long list of important positions which he held after 1989. At every stage of his life, Jewish issues occupied a special place.
“During my several years spent with Władysław Bartoszewski, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews was a permanent element of his public activity – apart from his involvement in the work of the International Auschwitz Council and, later, in the creation of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk or the establishment of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation”, notes Marcin Barcz, Bartoszewski’s longtime secretary.
“I remember the enthusiasm with which the Professor – by then over eighty years of age – approached the idea of the possibility of using audiovisual technology in the new POLIN Museum. He often stressed, when addressing a German or, more broadly, an international audience, that a unique European institution was to be created in Warsaw – a place where, due to the latest technology, the spirit will revive, sounds will echo and images of the heritage of Polish Jews will be revived. Although he didn’t say it directly, I think that, deep down, perhaps even subconsciously, he also counted on a certain ’return’ to his Warsaw – the city of of childhood and youth”.
Władysław Bartoszewski was an ardent supporter of the idea of creating POLIN Museum and then to become an advisor to its organisers. Among other things, he supported the fundraising for the creation of the Core Exhibition, which was conducted around the world vy the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland
“In his later years, he was a member of the Museum Council which, with the participation of such eminent historians as professors Janusz Tazbir and Henryk Samsonowicz, he managed to accomplish the immense task of verifying the Core Exhibitions’s content – the Exhibition which we know today. Władysław Bartoszewski’s authority played a major role, especially in the field of Polish-Jewish relations in the 20th century”, emphasises Marian Turski.
Every year, on 4th December, the anniversary of the establishment of “Żegota”, Władysław Bartoszewski would meet with young people at POLIN Museum, to lay flowers at the “Żegota” monument. He particpated in every anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
“I remember the ceremonies at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, once without and then with the Museum’s impressive building in the background. Every year, there is a smaller and smaller handful of witnesses to those events”, recalls Marcin Barcz.
We met Władysław Bartoszewski for the last time, at POLIN Museum, on 19th April 2015. We listened to his words spoken at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, opposite the entrance to the Museum. At that time, he had a paper daffodil pinned to his coat- the symbol of the collective memory of the Ghetto Uprising, distributed every year, by volunteers. He said,
“This is not a speech by a government representative, but by a person who was and is a witness to historical and extraordinary events. It is the fulfillment of my life that, seventy-two years after those events, I can speak about them on behalf of those who are absent”.
The 100th anniversary of the birth of Władysław Bartoszewski: new items on the Polish Righteous website
POLIN Museum is the custodian of not only the memory of Władysław Bartoszewski, but also of the invaluable artefacts that he donated to the Museum’s collection in 2013. Presented to the Core Exhibition, they include the false identity card of Leon Feiner – the leading representative of the Jewish resistance movement and the last chairman of “Żegota”. Amongst the items donated is Władysław Bartoszewski’s Righteous Among the Nations medal, presented to him by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem.
Bartoszewski travelled twice to Yad Vashem – first in 1963, to plant a “Żegota” tree in the Garden of the Righteous and then in 1966, to plant his own. At that time, together with Zofia Lewinówna, he published a monumental and classic work entitled Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej. Polacy z pomocą Żydom 1939–1945 (This one is from my homeland. Poles aiding Jews 1939–1945). Its preparation was initiated by the collection of memories in a Polish Roman Catholic weekly magazine “Tygodnik Powszechny”. The book, published in 1966 (it appeared in bookstores in April of the following year), established the canonical version of the Polish narrative about saving Jews.
“The time has come to verify the image of Polish society’s attitudes towards the Holocaust. Over the past decades, research has significantly developed. Outlined by Władysław Bartoszewski – co-author of the book and a participant in events presented in it – the image of the mass participation of Poles in the resscue of Jews, both individuals and institutions, should today be corrected”, stressed Prof. Tomasz Żukowski.
Therefore, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Władysław Bartoszewski and the 55th anniversary of the publication of Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej..., we will take a new look at the author-witness book in a study by Prof. Tomasz Żukowski, literature historian at the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences, which deals with issues of public discourse in Poland.
» Read: Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej… by Władysław Bartoszewski and Zofia Lewinówna (1966): a critical reading [online from 24 Feb. 2022].
A collection of over one thousand stories of aid, including that of Bartoszewski, is presented on the Polish Righteous website, against the background of the socio-political context of the German occupation of Poland, taking into account the complexity and diversity of Polish society’s attitudes towards the Holocaust.
The stories of the Righteous are read in a universal dimension, relating them to people who need help today and about those actively working for them. We are prompted to do so by, among others, the current humanitarian crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border. The question, posed by Władysław Bartoszewski, “Does fear explain everything?”, still remains relevant.