The Remembrance of Loss - prof. Jerzy Szacki

I store with pride the Yad Vashem Medal, on which my name and surname were inscribed alongside the name and surname of my mother. However, I have doubts whether I am fully entitled to such pride.

It was not me who offered the hospitality to Irena and her daughters (the younger of them was to be born at our place and baptized so as not to arouse suspicion). The decision was taken by my mother, Barbara (or rather, according to the majority of documents, Anna), surely with the participation of her slightly older sister, Helena, who was, however, too ill at the time to be directly involved. While it is true that mother asked my opinion, she did not make the decision dependent on my advice, as I presume. Had it truly been so, I would have held no grudge against her, for I was less than fourteen years old and surely not as mature as I imagined I was. Otherwise my reaction was not unpredictable to her because she knew, how terrified I was by the opinions on the fate of the Jews closed in the ghetto that circulated in the homes of some of my schoolmates.

After all, it appears to me that my mother was not facing any great moral dilemma at the time. Presumably she did not ponder too much whether to help and why help the Jews. What was a more serious problem for her was how to organize childbirth at home and how to find a trustworthy doctor. At our home we were not accustomed to dividing people into Jews and non-Jews, unless they desired it themselves. To somebody who did not investigate into their family papers, they were no different to other people. It somehow did not occur to us that the attitude towards an individual may depend on what group one belonged to, or in what group one was more or less arbitrarily included by someone else. Why should somebody bear responsibility for something beyond one’s influence?

I believe this conviction was not rationally concocted. I do not recall anybody mention either Christian love of the neighbour or another form of lay humanism. It is hard to say where it was known from that some things should be done and some not. Thus, I cannot be sure whether we truly participated in rescuing the Jews. It just came out like that. That is yet another reason why my medal may not be fully deserved.

To my mother it was obvious that one should help pregnant Irena, who had nowhere to go, along with her five-year-old daughter. Not to mention that it was not about a stranger, but about a lovable person, whose sister was befriended with my mother’s own sister. The fact that in accordance with the law of the Third Reich this person was counted as a Jewess, was an accidental circumstance of minor importance. Apparently, hiding Jews implied risk, but living in Warsaw was risky in itself at the time: my father died few months earlier seemingly only because his murderer in brown uniform was in bad mood. It was not uncommon in those days that the people who consistently tried not to endanger themselves were also dying. The world, in which we found ourselves during the war, was too absurd to make us follow purely rational calculations, for they usually lacked any sense.

Had the circumstances been different, one could have known Irena for years without being aware of her  belonging to the “race” sentenced to death. Not everybody was interested in the descent of their acquaintances and fellow citizens. It is not impossible that Irena herself attached no great importance to her Jewish identity. She might have become strongly attached to it only due to her grandchildren and great grandchildren, who were born Israeli. It was for their sake for example, that she started reading, along with Polish books, even the most difficult Israeli literature, as soon as the Polish translations of it appeared. During first twenty years of her life she might not have reflected too often upon her nationality – in any case, not at the time when she was accepted. She lived in Poland, Polish was her mother tongue and the mother tongue of her relatives. She chose to study Polish philology and did not know too much about the culture of the Polish Jews, for it was not her culture. Maybe her husband – who was hiding somewhere else and visited us only from time to time – might have been able to communicate in Yiddish, but it was neither a first, nor a second language for him. Both of them belonged to this considerable and infinitely varied mass of people who became the Jewish nation only after the experience of the Shoah. Had history been different, they could have become anybody, just like any of us. It is even more true with their children, since one does not receive nationality through genes.

All in all, what my mother needed after having met Irena, was not so much the answer to the question what to do, but rather the feeling that she had someone to share the risk with. She needed to be sure that this someone knew sufficiently enough about the situation, so as not to make a blunder unintentionally. One such blunder would have been, let us say, to bring improper colleagues home, or to forget that our new tenants were not fugitives from the ghetto, but the cousins displaced from Greater Poland. It took no great effort to talk people into believing it.. We persuaded not only the neighbours and more distant relatives, but also my “aunts”, that is the schoolmates of my mother, who were her lifelong friends. I mention the latter ones only because of the fact that many of them were fervent antisemites, proud of their ability to recognize a Jew or a Jewess on the spot, by character, if not by looks.

This time they did not succeed, and no wonder why. The stereotype of a Jew they have known from the National Democracy press was as true as the conviction that each Polish man had a walrus moustache and each Polish woman a flaxen plait. It was as true as every other stereotype. What is more, they might have been even more disoriented by the fact that Irena’s sister – who visited us very often – looked like a perfect model for a Nazi painter specialized in the portraits of the Nordic women. It was of no big importance anyway, because the mentioned “aunts” were the ladies who would never have hurt anybody. Moreover, they were truly convinced that Hitler went too far with the Jewish question, for the better and the really Christian solution would have been the voluntary departure of the Jews to Madagascar.

I was not fully aware what torture it was for Irena to listen from time to time to the tirades on how terrible the Jewry was and would be, and why was it indispensable to get rid of them. She herself told me about it only many years later. Luckily, she did not have to agree during the conversation, for these aunts were constantly babbling and, as a rule, would not have allowed anyone else to speak. No wonder that Irena moved to Israel with the surviving members of her family as soon as she could. The defeat of Hitlerism was not a sufficient guarantee of a normal life in the country of her less legendary ancestors. The decision to leave was for sure influenced by the fear of the communism and the growing awareness that “everybody is leaving”. However, the remembrance of those nightmarish chats, that I willy-nilly witnessed, was an equally important factor.

Sadly, there was a lot of such and even worse prattle. I have heard it many times during my childhood and youth. Unfortunately, I have to listen to it also nowadays. The style of this prattle has admittedly changed a little. It is more common today to prove that there is not and never has been any antisemitism in Poland, only an indispensable self-defenceagainst antipolonism. Nowadays it is easy to recognize an antisemite by the assurance that he or she is not and never has been an antisemite, but simply has to rely on the facts. I rely on them too. It is just that the most important fact that sticks in my memory is a fact of the loss experienced by Poland. The loss of those who died and of the majority of those who survived.

Jerzy Szacki (1929-2016) and his mother Barbara have saved Irena Century (now Holleander), for which they have been awarded the Righteous Among the Nations Medal.

From the Album “Poles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust – Recalling Forgotten History”, Warsaw 2008