THE FACES OF THE RIGHTEOUS - Prof. Jacek Leociak
The album „Poles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust – Recalling Forgotten History“, however, allows us to hope that it is possible to extricate, from the grand cause that is the saving of the life of a fellow man, the truly human “pure current” - to use the words of Adolf Rudnicki. For me this hope is found in the faces I meet here.
The face is the mirror of the soul. It is the home of that which is most deeply human within us. That is why we sometimes attempt to mask it - but the face is harder to fake than words. The faces of the Righteous tell us their stories without the need for words. These faces contain within them the drama of human existence, which realizes itself through meeting the other. This album invites one to read into the faces of those who had the courage to extend a helping hand to the other: the stranger, the stigmatized, the branded - excluded from the laws of God and man - to the man who was set outside the limits of moral responsibility, and who was to no longer be a man, and later to no longer be alive.
We continue to fall victim to two sorts of denial, both ritual in a sense. Polish collective memory basks in the light of the Righteous, never admitting the darker elements of the experience of the war. Jewish memory is filled with the pain of the Shoah, feeding on the darkness of crime, betrayal, and spurn, and seemingly failing to acknowledge anything else.
The Polish memory is eager to suggest that, during the occupation, we witnessed a general movement of aiding Jews. It was a mass movement. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Poles deserve the Righteous Among the Nations medal, awarded by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem. Thousands, if not tens of thousands of Poles were murdered for helping Jews. But despite the immensity of the Polish sacrifice and the Polish victims, it is Jewish martyrdom that is widely known, overshadowing that of the Poles. This context is conducive to a sense of injustice: the world does not appreciate our heroism, and the Jews themselves repay our help, at best, with indifference, and at worst - with slandering the Polish nation.
The Polish discourse of the help given is constantly threatened by three demons; the demon of rivalry (in martyrdom, in selflessness, in nobility); the demon of statistics (tallying the rescuers and those killed for their actions - to prove the theory of “the more the better”); the demon of trivialization (after all, the commonness of help undermines the often-stressed heroic character of the act). This ill-serves both the Poles, including, above all, the Polish Righteous, and the Jews, as both sides become merely tools in the political game played over their heads.
There are no simple and unambiguously edifying stories of help and rescue. Each of them is entangled in the historical circumstances, the knotted web of mutual human dependencies, determined by the often-disparate characters and temperaments of the protagonists, and their respective social and financial status’; and each plays out between the tensions of paralyzing fear and desperate courage, between greed, envy, loyalty and self-sacrifice. A situation of endangerment creates a psychological trap with no escape. In the long run, fear is a destructive force, the temptation of money eclipses nobility, greed clashes with selflessness, mutual prejudice hinders communication, falling into absolute dependence, and lack of trust breaks every bond. Thus we need to admire the bravery and endurance of those who resisted these temptations.
Those who sought to save Jews during the war, who managed to show them help, who in one way or another supported them, are a category above, in relation to the select group recognized by the Yad Vashem Institute and awarded the Righteous Among the Nations medal. The Righteous come from among these incalculable ranks. In order to receive the title, one must fulfil specific criteria and undergo set procedures. According to the definition adopted by the Yad Vashem, “a Righteous Among the Nations is a person who had actively and continually supported the rescue of people for a prolonged period of time or a person who had sheltered Jews expecting no remuneration.” However, the definition neglects not only those whose attitude could not be proven by the rescued Jews because of the latter’s deaths, but it also omits the occasional acts of assistance, dictated by a merciful impulse, not evolving – and often unable to evolve – into regular aid. Who today can prove that such actions carried less weight and involved lesser risk?
In discussing assistance we are ensnared between over-generalization and over-particularization. On the one hand, we use great quantifiers (Poles, Jews), general terms (heroism, fear, nobility, baseness), refer to statistics, trying to capture numbers or percentages, believing that we can discover the truth through them. While on the other hand we are interested in the personal fates, individual perspectives, specific people and situations, and specific circumstances.
Here is Noemi Szac-Wajnkrantz, who came from a rich, assimilated Jewish family, which settled in Warsaw generations ago. During a large expulsion operation, she managed to escape from the ghetto and hide in the village of Sławek near Warsaw. She doesn’t go underground; she has Aryan documents and “good looks”. In the autumn of 1942, she takes a train from Warsaw to the village where she lives. A nun accompanied by a two-year-old girl boards the train at Warszawa Wschodnia station. The child had sad, frightened eyes and began crying. Sympathetic passengers tried to calm her down. The nun gave her a rattle. “The child stopped crying, took the rattle, and calmly said: ‘Ring, ring, ring. … A bwockade, come down, bwockade, come, evewybody huwwy, huwwy, a bwockade.’ This made my skin crawl. A Jewish child. The tragic song of the days of displacement.” writes Noemi. The journal, written at the time, features another typical scene. “Two Jewish children from Jadów are wandering near Sławek , around the local villages. Their parents, siblings, family, were murdered in the ghetto. The fourteen-year-old girl and her eight-year-old brother managed to hide, and later escape to the forest. The poor things were wandering, clothed in rags, around the woods, the fields and meadows, shyly knocking on doors, asking the residents for anything they could spare, avoiding any roads. They walked, never knowing when and at whose hand they might meet death. Here, people would set the dogs on them, there they would beat them, but a merciful hand would give them a slice of bread, give them some warm soup, let them wash their rags. Still, no one would agree to take them in for the night, to let them inside – they were afraid to do that.” One day the children knocked on the door of the house where Noemi was staying. The maid, Frania, immediately took care of them: “She cooked them soup, cut thick slices of bread and boiled water for them to wash in. The children sat down in the corner, like hunted animals, greedily devouring the grits from their bowls, looking around with distrustful eyes. ‘G’wan, eat,’ Frania encouraged them, ‘there’s still half a pot for you. ... After the meal the girl washed herself and her brother in Frania’s washbowl, and later, when she was washing their rags, the boy, clean and with his hair cut, stood by the stove, soaking up the warmth, watching the fire. ... No, the little boy did not have the good fortune to see freedom. Two months later, a Polish policemen caught the miserable children in a village and took them to the station, where the pair were murdered.” The author of the journal survived until the end of the war. In January 1945, in the first days after liberation, she went to Łódź and was killed by a stray bullet shot by a German marauder hiding in the city.
Neither the Daughter of Charity with the two-year-old Jewish girl, nor Frania feeding the pair of siblings, nor many others are among the decorated. But was it injustice? Should we consider them wronged? Can all crumbs of good be counted, catalogued and officially recognized? Their reward is a place in our memory, because they too saved the world.
The story of the Righteous is the story of the meeting of Jews and Poles in that most difficult of lessons of humanity. The story of a meeting between two human beings; of looking into each other’s eyes, and of the dilemma, different for each side: can I endanger my life, the life of my family, to save a stranger’s life? Can I ask for my life to be saved and risk the death of another?
It is astonishing how often speaking of assistance is inevitably intertwined with speaking of denunciations, blackmails, manhunts – not only of the Jews, but also those who sought to save them. The paradox is inescapable. The dispute on the assistance has two faces. The light one is a tale of heroism, sacrifice, altruism. The dark one – a tale of fear of the neighbours’ betrayal, of blackmail, of ignominy. Both theses sides are an indivisible entirety. We cannot merely distil the light strands from the tapestry of the story of the Righteous. They are inseparable from the dark strands, akin to Norwid’s “dark thread” present “in every breath” and “in every smile”.
Heroism is not the social norm and does not set the common standards of behaviour. Not everyone can or wants to be a hero. There is no mass heroism. Heroism is a “deviation from norm”, an exception, a contradiction to self-preservation in the name of values greater than protecting one’s own life. If we do not recognize that, we betray the memory of the Righteous and condemn them to the abyss of banality.
For each and every one of us, it is a natural reflex to withdraw our hand when it comes too close to the flame. Those who chose to aid Jews, risking the lives of their families and their own, managed to keep their hand in the flame, never pulling it back.
In the end, the story of the Righteous is the story of us. The story of our own, individual relation to the experience of saving Jews, of our relation to our own selves. As Wisława Szymborska wrote years ago: “We only know about ourselves as much as was tested.” How can we, the people of today, measure up against that? How much of it can we comprehend? Do we wish to treat the Righteous as a bargaining chip, an ideological shield, an entitlement to glory, which after all, we least deserve?
Let us once again look on the faces of the Righteous, as these faces reflect the entire bitter knowledge of man. Of man’s greatness and beauty; the knowledge of the fragility of these values and of the enormous effort required to protect them.
From the Album "Poles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust – Recalling Forgotten History", Łódź 2009