THE MEMORY OF THE RIGHTEOUS - Konstanty Gebert

The Righteous will ourish like a palm tree, they  will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will ourish  in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green. PSALM 92:13-15

The Talmud, in a well-known passage teaches that, when Cain killed Abel, he killed not only his brother, but also all his yet-unborn descendants (TB Sanhedrin 4:5). For “he who kills one life is considered as if he had destroyed an entire world”, and therefore “he who saves one life is regarded as if he had saved an entire world”. This Talmudic quotation, which is part of the Yad Vashem diploma awarded to the Righteous, should be treated literally: not only those Jews who have been personally saved by the Righteous owe them their lives, but all their descendants as well.

Thousands upon thousands of Jews worldwide are alive today because one day, decades ago, someone had decided to risk his life to protect a hunted individual from the most implacable killing machine the world had ever known. And just as the Pesach Haggadah teaches us that we all should consider ourselves as having personally stood at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given, so should all the descendants of those saved by the Righteous consider themselves as having personally stood at their doors, awaiting the decision which meant the difference between life and death. The heroism the Righteous had displayed was an event which was limited in time; our gratitude, however, can know no limits. It will remain for as long as the Jewish people exist.

When a string of Righteous Gentiles, from acquaintances in Warsaw to a former employee in a small village near Jasło in south-eastern Poland, as well as their relatives and friends, saved under German occupation my maternal grandfather from death, my mother was already an adult, a soldier in the Polish Army in Russia. Neither she, nor I, her descendant, nor my children, owe their lives directly to these heroes. And yet I, too, feel as if I had stood at their doors – for, by protecting my grandfather, they not only saved his life, but also saved for his descendants the belief in a world which is not irredeemably evil. Had there been no Righteous, had the only thing which could stand between a Jew and his death been a machine gun, such as the one my mother had carried in her years in the trenches, some Jews would of course had still survived – but would the world they had survived into have been worth living?

Nowhere in German –occupied Europe had there been as many Righteous Gentiles as in Poland – and we have to remember that those who have been recognized, under Yad Vashem’s very strict criteria, are only part of a larger group, whose numbers we will never know. It is true that this was due not to some alleged moral superiority of the Polish people over all other occupied nations, but to the fact that it was here, in Poland, that the greatest number of Europe’s Jews lived; had the Poles not been the largest group among their saviors, this would have been a damning indictment. And yet this in no way can reduce the Poles’ legitimate pride in their heroism, for, in each individual case the decision to save a Jew - often a pre-war friend, but in many cases a perfect stranger - could mean death. And not only to the Righteous her- or himself (most of the Righteous were women): the Germans often would not hesitate to murder, in revenge, not only the Jew’s savior, but his family, and sometimes neighbors as well.

Death, indeed, was the penalty for remaining human in the face of inhumanity. We know of at least 800 Poles murdered by the Germans for the crime of helping Jews; as it is the case with the Righteous in general, the real number was certainly much greater. The archives of a German court in occupied Warsaw contain i.a. the death verdict passed in 1943 on an elderly Polish woman, Stanisława Barbachowska, for “having given milk and shelter” to a Jewish child. Let us recall here the names of the judges: Dr. Leitsmann, presiding, and Judges Mohr, Knoll and Richter. No less than the deeds of the Righteous, the acts of the vile deserve to be remembered for all eternity.

I did not quote the names of those to whom my grandfather owed his life, as very often the Righteous avoid the limelight: they genuinely feel that their acts merit no special recognition, for they had simply done what should be done. And yet I sense in that attitude more than just naiveté: the Righteous, in their determination to save lives, must have been anything but naiveté. Rather, I sense a stubborn belief in human decency being not the exception, but the rule – and were the Righteous to be considered exceptional, this belief would fail. Therefore, they would rather give up their recognition, than their hope.

And yet, this nobility of spirit is not the only reason for their avoidance of the limelight. Under German occupation, the Righteous had to fear their neighbors more than the authorities: a Jew in hiding was a potential threat to all those who lived nearby, and often the Righteous had to transfer their charges elsewhere, under pressure from terrified neighbors. Then there were also those, who believed that the murder of Jews by Germans benefits Poland, so Jews should not be helped. Yet we should not hasten to condemn these neighbors, acted out of cowardice, and not vileness, just as we should not hasten to condemn those who for that reason refused a tracked Jew their aid: while one can expect heroism, one has no moral right to demand it. And I can only thank my Maker that I myself had never been put to such a test.

This, unhappily, does not close the debate, however – for many Righteous encountered hostility in Poland even after the war was over. When in the immediate post-war years the Cracow liberal Catholic weekly “Tygodnik Powszechny” started to publicize the heroism of Poles who had saved Jews, many Righteous named in the articles called in to complain: their neighbors were angry, they said, that their safety had been compromised to save detestable Jews. Even today, many descendants of the Righteous refuse to accept the Yad Vashem award, for fear of irritating their neighbors – or inviting burglars, eager to lay their hands on the Jewish gold the Righteous must have amassed.

Antonina Wyrzykowska, who saved seven Jews in Jedwabne, the site of a mass murder of Jews by Poles under German occupation, was after the war hounded out of her town for having helped the enemy; even today, she would not return. Henryk Sławik, Polish representative in wartime Hungary, who saved thousands of Polish Jews by issuing them IDs identifying them as Catholics, and who was martyred in a German camp, still has not even a street named after him in his native Sosnowiec. Most damningly, the Polish Parliament in the 90s had repeatedly refused to grant the Righteous veteran rights, until it finally, just a few years ago, conceded.

There seems also to be a Poland which considers the Righteous traitors, not heroes. Yet this is a Poland which, grotesquely inflating their numbers, trots them out each time when accusations of Polish anti-Semitism are heard, as if, is some obscene moral arithmetic, the heroes would cancel out the villains. Though, mercifully, the claim of the detractors of the Righteous to represent Poland is as spurious as it is insulting, the proposition that it is the Righteous who are the nation’s true face is also open to challenge. Each country has its share of heroes and villains, and it is by choosing those whom it wants to honor that it identifies its true representatives. Those who in Poland honor the Righteous, deny their detractors the right to speak in Poland’s name – and yet the latter always try to get moral credit through the heroism of those they otherwise condemn. Hypocrisy, as La Rochefoucauld had famously said, is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

And as for me, the choice is simpler still. Ha-Shem would have saved Sodom had there been ten righteous there; yet more than ten people were involved in saving my grandfather, and occupied Poland was no Sodom, but a country atrociously oppressed by an evil not of its own making. I will not be more demanding than my Maker was. If the Jews and Roma were singled out by the Germans for extermination, the fate of the ethnic Poles was only somewhat better: persecuted themselves by murderers, the Poles might have possibly been forgiven, had they not been able to help others, for by doing so they were reducing the chances of their own survival.

Yet this was not the case, as the numbers of the Polish Righteous so dramatically show. While I believe no conclusive moral judgment can be passed on those who, under these circumstances, denied Jews their aid, I do deny those Poles who betrayed them the right to claim to have acted in Poland’s name, while I affirm that the Righteous acted both in that  name, and in that of all humanity. I stand in awe of their sacrifice, and have immense gratitude to those who, like the organizers of this ceremony, exhibition and catalogue, make their acts known to the world. The memory of the Righteous is indeed a blessing.

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