WHAT THE RIGHTEOUS TEACH US - Prof. Władysław Bartoszewski

During World War II the attitude of Nazi Germany towards the Polish people was indisputably negative; however we must recognize a specific difference: whereas every Pole was under threat of death, every Jew was condemned to death. Up until this moment in world history in no other wars in the Euro-American civilisation were people exterminated, and this included the elderly, women and infants, those persons who neither participated in the war nor in its politics. Consequently, aiding Jews pursued by the German occupier was an event without precedence in the history of war.

Hitler’s standpoint with regard to the Polish nation as a whole was particularly horrifying. It cannot be compared to the attitude of the German fascists towards the French or Norwegians, not even towards the Czechs, Slovaks, or Ukrainians. From the beginning of the war in occupied Poland the forces of repression were directed against the best and most influential parts of Polish society. Teachers, priests, army reserve officers, attorneys at law, physicians, writers, and journalists were sent to concentration camps, hanged or murdered in the woods surrounding the cities. And this took place across the country: Pomerania, Silesia, Greater Poland, Łódź, Warsaw, Cracow. As an object of persecution the Jewish population was not treated in a selective manner, they were all condemned to death. And to this end an industrial method of murder was employed.

Talking about the Righteous Among the Nations brings to my mind the Old Testament parable in which God announces to Abraham that in order to save Sodom it would be suffice to find 10 Righteous. But there were not that many to be found in the city. In Poland thousands of Righteous were found.

The presumption of killing a whole nation in the name of a sick ideology compelled many people to demonstrate impulses of far reaching solidarity, independently of the Government of the Republic of Poland in Exile, which itself formed the Council for Aid to Jews in 1942. All Poles, not only educated ones, but also the simpler people had no illusions. They knew that the price was immeasurably high. Only in Poland, occupied by the German fascists, was any aid given to the persecuted Jews punished by death. Entire villages were burnt down and whole families were murdered. Here we can recall the tragic fate of the Ulm family.

At the present we have thousands of petitions in the course of verification procedures at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. These petitions are for the recognition as Righteous among the Nations of the World of Poles who saved the lives of Jews. Six thousand and four Polish citizens have already received this distinction, sometimes entire families, sometimes several members of the family.

What were the people helping Jews, risking their own and the lives of their families, driven by? Some, with their faith in God and a love for their neighbours, overcame fear and accepted the weight of the responsibility for their fate and the fate of others. For agnostics who were indifferent to religion as such there were certain general principles of tolerance and human rights which existed and from which any group of people could be excluded. First and foremost, however, they should be applied to those pursued by evil.

In the film, ‘The Pianist’, the story of Władysław Szpilman, the principal character, rescued from the condemned working prisoners by his Polish colleagues from the radio, had to be moved constantly because the many people who in turn helped him were under threat of reprisals if they were caught. Aiding Jews was doubly concealed not only from the occupier, but also from possible traitors – compatriots. This was in effect a two fold conspiracy.

Today in Europe, voices can be heard saying that it was a German who saved him, but they forget those Poles who had hidden him earlier. For that German, Wilhelm Hosenfeld, this was a gesture of mercy whereas the Poles who had hidden Szpilman for many months exposed their own and the lives of their families to the threat of instant death.

What we, people of today, can learn from the Righteous? Civil courage, the capacity to oppose falsehood, to take a stand against the confusion of concepts. The achievement of Żegota and the Righteous is perceived by moralists and sociologists in the category of timeless, universal, supranational values. These values and achievements have the power to increase our sensitivity to the suffering of others around us. We are in constant need of human solidarity which is independent of the political or historical situation.

We, even today, nurse a grievance with the Anglo-American world and many of the then neutral countries for not being able to comprehend or put themselves in the situation with which people were faced in the occupied territories during World War II. So why now, we who live in a free country, should we not try to identify with the situation of other oppressed, humiliated, discriminated people? Each one of us has to stand vigilant against evil, each one of us, the believer and the agnostic following their ethical convictions. Christians turn to God each week with a plea for forgiveness for their sins committed in thought, speech, action and through neglect. Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, and Orthodox ask for forgiveness for failing to abide by His commandments, one of which is: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thou dost love thyself.

Fortunately Poland today complies with the conventions of the civilized world. If chauvinistic or extremist voices are heard anywhere in the world they have to be denounced loudly. We must have the courage to stand against what assaults our sense of honesty and justice. Today, personal courage is necessary to surmount the fear of publicly addressing unpopular subjects. This is why it is necessary to teach young people that it is important to stand by their principles even if there are moments of pain and hardship. We must be careful not to allow any deviation to counteract certain positive patterns of normal behaviour. The deeds of the Righteous should teach us courage.

People, Jews mostly, often ask me if I did not fear saving the persecuted. I answer that I feared horribly, for when I decided to save the Jews I stood on a stage surrounded by tigers, jackals, criminals and their henchmen. Sometimes I ask myself the question: Have I really done enough? What if I could have saved one or two people more, but I did not? Nevertheless, I can say, that no man can judge his own life. So no man can say that he could have done more. The older I get, the greater the certitude I have, that it is the correct, sincere answer. It is possible to expect courage from people and even heroism. But it is necessary to understand the simple fact that they are people. The Catholic Church expects from the faithful a certain sanctity, but how many fulfill this expectation? I do not know. But I do know that such people lived and are living. Not enough of them. But they are out there. From this I find great consolation.

From the first edition of Album “Recalling Forgotten History For Poles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust”, Warszawa 2007