WHAT DO WE OWE TO THE RIGHTEOUS? - Prof. Feliks Tych
Recent years have revealed new examples of rescues that ended in a dramatic final, the execution of both the rescuers and the rescued Jews. Although, it is certain that such cases are only a small percentage of all rescues, most of which were successful, we owe special remembrance to those who paid with their and their charges’ lives for their willingness to save Jews.
After the war we could have learned more about the number of rescuers. Those who successfully realized their moral objective, and those who had to pay for that with their lives. Yet, that time did not favor such research.
Of course we could easily say that the responsibility for our current limited knowledge in these matters lies in the historical policy of the first fifty years after the war. It is not, however, the entire truth. The contemporary historical policy was largely dictated by attitudes shared by the majority of society. Remembrance of the Righteous’ merits, in a society where most people still remembered the war, was among the troublesome truths, and therefore unwanted. The majority of society did not want to hear about the Righteous, the people who were rescuing the Jews. Those who, out of various reasons, including fear of capital punishment, did not do anything to save the Jews, and, to a larger extent, those Poles who approved of the German crime of genocide of Jews. Such people were not a small group. It is enough to go through the underground press published by Polish extreme right-wing nationalists from 1943 to 1944 or some Polish diaries written during the war. The Righteous themselves, for different reasons, did not want to discuss these matters either. Moreover, most of the rescued did not want to discuss it as well. The Righteous knew well that they comprised only a small solitary and unpopular part of the society, whereas the rescued wanted to separate themselves from the nightmare of the Shoah. That is why some of them did not contact their saviors after the war. It is difficult to accept such attitude, but it is also difficult to extract it out of the Holocaust trauma context.
Since the majority of society, for various reasons, was not mourning their murdered Jewish fellow-citizens, the subject of attitudes of Poles towards Jews was not brought up by the governments, which usually try to win their citizens’ favor. Even at the cost of historical truth.
A certain consensus in this matter was established between the government and the governed. The fact that it took decades before the authorities, including the Sejm, recognized Poles rescuing the Jews as war veterans proves it was also a subject of political taboo. Their actions were certainly a form of resistance, punished with death, just like participation in the armed underground movement. The slaughter of European Jews was, at least since summer 1941, one of Hitler’s main war objectives. The Führer admitted that not only in his official pronouncements, but also in the political testament he wrote, just before his death, in the bunker under the Reich Chancellery. This is, therefore, a sufficient reason to recognize the help given to Jews as a battle against the invader, part of the resistance to their war objectives.
The solitude of the rescuers resulted from the fact that, both during and after the war, the code of behavior of people considering themselves as Polish patriots did not support helping the Jews, who were then desperately looking for help. Helping the Jews was also not recognized as a form of resistance by the rest of society. In fact, the Poles rescuing the Jews had to keep an eye on their neighbors to a much larger extent than they would on the Germans. The Germans were not omnipresent, yet one was always surrounded by their neighbors.
Majority of people who were turning the hiding Jews in, thus simply sentencing them to death, or blackmailing them, did not treat such behavior as collaboration. Acting against Jews did not collide with their patriotism, they believed. Others, who would not turn the Jews in to the invader, would not help them either. Polish underground courts did pronounce a number of death sentences on people denouncing or blackmailing Jews. The sentences were executed, but the scale of this action was too small to scare the informers and blackmailers.
For decades few of the Rescuers looked for the Polish society to recognize their actions. Many of them did not do that because they perceived their human kindness, so likely to put them in danger, as an obvious behavior in those circumstances, defined by their moral code or Christian imperative. After the war most of the Righteous remained silent, paralyzed by the silence hanging over the subject and the lack of public acceptance of their deed.
A sense of sensibility to the rescuers appeared only among the post war generations of the Polish society. In fact, it became more widespread at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries. As we mentioned earlier, the communist authorities, aiming to legitimize their government among the Polish society, did not want to honor the Righteous, in this case at the cost of remembrance of the murdered Jews and the remembrance of the Rescuers. The subject was also eluded, possibly due to inertia, by the authorities of the Republic of Poland. There was no left or right wing division, as the matters were defined by moral sensibility and the attitude towards Jews as fellow-citizens.
The subject of the Righteous, unwanted for decades, is today an integral part of the Polish narration on WWII, the Holocaust, and on moral attitudes of the Polish society during the genocide of Jews carried out by the German invader. A large role in remembering the services of the Poles rescuing Jews was played by two Polish presidents: Aleksander Kwaśniewski (the first public screening of the film about Henryk Sławik, a wartime hero, whom we will mention later, took place in his Chancellery), and Lech Kaczyński, who contributed to the popularization of Irena Sendler. Yet, the deciding role was played by the change of attitude to the matter shared by the second post war generation of young Poles. Thus, the situation decidedly favors the true insight into the wartime reality, and expanding of the list of the Righteous with new names.
As a result, the historical narration on the Holocaust based on a schema suggesting it was only a matter between the German invader and the Jews was put behind. Indeed, such narration still has its advocates, but their views are no longer dominant in the educational process. Formerly, the popular historical discourse did not account for the Poles helping their Jewish fellow-citizens, or those who aided Germans looking for Jews in hiding. The terrible genocide was described as if it was happening in a social vacuum. Most of the modern history textbooks are free from these false views. The rest is in the hands of the teacher.
The problem of the Rescuers is in fact part of a much broader research field focusing on the social environment of the Holocaust, that is, the attitudes of the non-Jewish people towards the Nazi genocide of Jews. The results of the Nazi hunt for Jews, the crime of genocide, which was to be realized during and under cover of the WWII, as Hitler and his praetorians planned, were largely dependent on the attitudes that ‘local people’ had towards Jews.
The local witnesses of the German hunt for Jews and their extermination were not a homogenic mass. On the contrary, they had very different views on the drama of genocide they saw performed in front of them. At one extremity there were those who risked their lives to help Jews, their fellow-citizens, at the other there were those who approved of the genocide or even actively helped the murderers. Between them there was a bulk of indifferent people.
How did the active help to the invader look? Direct participation in the murder was rare, denouncing of the hiding Jews, or stripping them of their valuables or money which could help them survive on their own was more often. Sometimes, Jews were exposed to murder in both of the above ways.
Both the rescuers and the local assistants to the murderers were usually minority groups in the general population of the countries afflicted with the Holocaust. Most of the people were either indifferent or terrorized by the invader.
Historians estimate that there were about 200 thousand Poles engaged in this life threatening operation. It is approximately one percent of the ethnic Poles population of the time on the territories occupied by the Third Reich. Whether it is a large or a small number is difficult to say. Yet, we should consider the situation Poles were in, suffering incredible losses due to the invader’s terror, and how big the critical mass of people to save was.
It should be remembered that Poland had the largest percentage of Jews in the general population, and that it was the largest Jewish population in Europe. Before WWII there were about 3.4 million Jews living in Poland.
Also, different to western Europe, most of this population was not assimilated and lived within the circle of their own culture, which made the rescue more difficult for people trying to save themselves, and to those who tried to help the Jews. It is difficult to define when a human being or a society who suffer themselves, opens or closes to the suffering of other people. It happens even within families or among friends. Therefore, this factor should be considered when referring to an attitude towards people whom indigenous people perceived not as fellow-citizens of different denomination, but as ‘aliens.’ Thus, a historian, who does not want to venture into cheap moralizing, can only describe the acts of extraordinary courage of people risking their own lives to save the lives of Jews, but also the acts of shabbiness, blackmail, denunciation, and catching of Jews trying to save themselves, then, the acts of indifference to the Jewish plight.
The estimates on the number of Jews who survived during the German occupation vary. The numbers given are from 50 to 120 thousand survivors. The author herein believes this number to be at least 80 thousand people, but not much more. Some Jews survived in the concentration camps and in forced labour camps both in occupied Poland and in the Third Reich, some managed to survive on their own thanks to ‘Aryan documents’, in forest bunkers, among partisans. Yet, how many were saved by ethnic Poles? Supposedly around 50 thousand. Sometimes it was only a momentary help, but given at an important moment, it could have also been e.g. procuring of the ‘Aryan documents,’ which the hiding Jews could then use when facing the threats against them. It could have been a night’s accommodation, offered at a moment when the hiding Jew was completely haunted and needed some rest before they could continue in their fight for survival.
The Rescuers were operating in dramatic and dangerous conditions. One should remember that behind most cases of Germans executing Poles for helping Jews, there was usually another Pole’s denunciation. The Germans rarely picked up the hiding Jews’ trail. They were usually informed about their targets. Ninety percent of exposures were caused either by a street ‘Jew hunter’ or a denouncing neighbor. Very often, a denunciation would not only thwart the dramatic struggle of the Polish family to save the Jew but also result in an execution of the entire rescuing family.
A few examples: in October 1944 a woman, resettled by the invader to the Lublin region from Poznań, was put on trial in Lublin and charged with denouncing two Polish families, her neighbors, helping the Jews. Eight Jews who were in hiding and their rescuers were burnt alive in their houses by the German police.
Another example, from Lviv, taken from the war memoirs of Kurt Lewin, son of the rabbi of the reform synagogue in Lviv who was murdered by Ukrainians. He was one of the 140 Jewish children saved by metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky. Lewin describes how a Polish patrol, just days after the Germans were forced out of Lviv, shot dr. Bartfeld, a person known in the pre war Lviv, upon recognizing him as a Jew. A two year struggle of a Polish family to save the Jew was thwarted by other trigger-happy Poles.
There was also a case when the Germans were informed about an underground bunker at Grójecka in Warsaw where 34 Jews were hiding. Among them, with his wife and son, was dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, a renowned historian, creator of the Warsaw Ghetto secret archives. All of the hiding Jews as well as a gardener and his family, who were rescuing them, were executed by the Germans. The Germans were informed about the hideaway by a nosy neighbor, who was later sentenced to death by the Polish underground movement.
Who was saving the Jews? There were organizations, e.g. ‘Żegota’ the only underground government organization in occupied Europe appointed to save the Jews. The Jewish National Committee (Żydowski Komitet Narodowy), cooperating with ‘Żegota,' was secretly operating on the ‘Aryan side’ of Warsaw realizing a no lesser rescue operation. A very important role in saving Jewish children was played by monasteries and convents. Yet, the largest number of Jews was saved not by organized structures but with the help, initiative, and risk of single people or families.
It is difficult to draft a collective portrait of the rescuers, apart from a single trait: the moral sensitivity to the suffering of others. Jews were thus saved by people with leftist or rightist views, poor and rich, educated and simple, inhabitants of cities and villages. It was the moral sensibility that mattered and not their social position. There were even declared anti-Semites among the rescuers, who believed that Jews should leave Poland after the war but at this moment they need a helping hand in their difficult situation. The most known examples of such attitude are those of Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, a Polish writer and political activist, or Jan Dobraczyński, a Catholic writer.
There were not only Jewish acquaintances and friends who were saved but also people previously unknown, whom they ‘met on the road,’ as one of the rescuers said.
Franciszek Maj, a shoemaker from Warsaw, saw people burning alive behind the ghetto wall during the uprising. ‘Then,’ he writes, ‘influenced by that horrible sight I decided to save every person who asks me for help.’ Seven people he did not know came asking for help. Maj gave them shelter, he was also, successfully, helping others.
The silent heroism of the rescuers was absent from the public discourse for long decades. Except for one important departure; during the well-known official anti-Semitic campaign provoked by the communist government in Poland in 1967-1968, there was an outburst of press articles about Poles saving the Jews that dealt mostly with the Jewish ‘ungratefulness.’ The only publication of the time free from those ‘revealing’ contexts was a broad anthology of memoirs and reports submitted by both the rescuers and the rescued. Ten jest z Ojczyzny mojej. Polacy z pomocą Żydom 1939-1945 (Righteous Among Nations: How Poles Helped the Jews 1939-1945) was edited by Władysław Bartoszewski and Zofia Lewinówna and published by the Catholic printing house Znak in Kraków in 1967, an expanded second edition followed in 1969. The book was reissued in 2008.
The Rescuers were a tiny fraction of the society but without these people it would be much poorer. Some of them became heroes, as we said before, as a result of a moral impulse caused by the drama in front of them. Others tried helping the Jews from the very beginning. Together they comprised the moral elite of Poland. They deserve a place in the pantheon of the WWII heroes. They also play an important role in the creation of the image of Poland in the world, they help in debunking of the stereotype that every Pole is an anti-Semite.
The good image of Poland in the world suffered due to the half a century of silence about people like Irena Sendlerowa, a nurse, who together with her coworkers saved hundreds of Jewish children (there are reports claiming the number of 2500), from the Warsaw Ghetto. About people like Henryk Sławik, a Silesian, a journalist and Polish Socialist Party (PPS) activist, who was a representative of the Polish Government in exile for the war refugees from Poland asking for asylum in Hungary. When in Budapest, he issued around five thousand certificates for Polish Jews stating they were Polish refugees, which was true, and that they were of Catholic denomination, which was a life saving untruth. We do not know how many of these people managed to survive through the war. What we know is that a noble and brave Pole tried to help them. Henryk Sławik was arrested by the Germans when they entered Hungary in the spring of 1944 and executed in August 1944 at the concentration camp in Mauthausen.
Apart from all the other reasons, the knowledge about the Rescuers broadens the historical culture of our country, it informs on the human condition of extreme times, on the courses of history, and on different human behaviors under extreme conditions. Above all, the importance of remembering about the rescuers, and including them in the historical narration of Poland and of Holocaust, lies in the fact that they were the people who, as much as they could, wanted to and did stand up to the evil.
From the Album "Poles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust – Recalling Forgotten History", Łódź 2009