Bartoszewski Władysław

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“I was very afraid”. The story of Władysław Bartoszewski

Great Man. Polish patriot. A friend of Jews and Germans. Auschwitz prisoner, a soldier of Armia Krajowa (the Home Army). Historian and social activist. Member of “Żegota” Council for Aid to Jews, Righteous Among the Nations.

At the beginning of the war, the young Władek Bartoszewski worked at a Polish Red Cross clinic, employed  as a caretaker, messenger and janitor. On 19th September 1940, Władek was nabbed in a German round-up in the street in Żoliborz. The first German looked at his papers and waved his hand, indicating that he should go into a shed for the next selection. The second German disregarding his Red Cross employment credentials, claimed that Władek was unemployed (arbeitloss) and sent him to Auschwitz. There he became just a number – 4427.

At that time, from the autumn of 1940 to the spring of 1941, when Władek was in the camp, there were still no gas chambers. But there was hunger and superhuman labour. In a camp which held several thousand, dozens lost their lives every day.

The Polish Red Cross managed to get him out. They asked for help from the German Red Cross who, in turn, referred the matter to the International Red Cross office in Geneva. As a result, he was freed on 8th April 1941.

After leaving Auschwitz

Władek thought that God was love. Before the war, he attended a private Catholic school. Following his experience in the camp, he faith was tested. He went to a priest for confession to somehow restore his faith. He only went in 1942. He was not able to go to confession immediately upon release from the camp in 1941. The priest was in his forties. His name was Jan Zieja. Władek was twenty years old. Later, both men became well-known:

– How could all this be God’s will?
– Don’t think about why God allows evil. Think about why God saved you. It was for a reason, wasn’t it? It was for a purpose. Bear witness to the truth. You saw how people are suffering. Help them!
– Help who?
– Help those who need it.
– But who needs it?
– Those who are suffering the most.
– But, I’m a student, Father. I have no resources with which I can do anything great.
– So do something small, but don’t turn your face away. People in the ghetto are suffering. Help them.

Not long after, Władysław Bartoszewski met the writer Zofia Kossak, a Catholic from a landed gentry family. She was active in the underground and, due to this activity, she was in hiding from the Germans. She said,

– Władek, I’ll call you by your first name and you call me Auntie.
– Good, replied Władek. – But can I make myself useful somehow?
– You can be useful. I’m helping a few groups of Jewish children and we want to expand this activity. Will you help us?

“It was hard for me to say no. I could have made some excuse, but we were raised to respect the authority of our elders”.

Help for Jews

He recalled how, before the war, he had lived on 12 Bielańska Street, on the border of the Jewish district. A little further on was Teatralny Square and a totally Polish neighbourhood. But on Bielańska, Władek had played mainly with Jewish children.

Before the war, his parents had had Jewish friends. They visited each other’s homes. He mother had warned him, “Don’t discuss religion with them. We have our rites, they have theirs and we should respect that”.

He had been in a camp. He could imagine the hunger and suffering of the people in the ghetto.

In 1942, during the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, Zofia Kossak, together with Wanda Krahelska, established Tymczasowy Komitet Pomocy Żydom (the Temporary Committee to Help Jews), financed by the Polish Government-in-Exile.

On 4th December 1942, the Committee became “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews. Władysław Bartoszewski w as one of its co-founders. He was active in a Catholic group, Front Odrodzenia Polski (the Front for the Revival of Poland). He wrote reports on the situation of Jews in German-occupied Poland. He dealt with all the formalities – help in finding employment, medical assistance for children, obtaining and forging documents. Father Jan Zieja, Bartoszewski’s spiritual adviser, supplied baptismal certificates for the Jewish children.

“During 1942–1944, we know that we produced over 50,000 documents. Did every document save a life? Who knows? We didn’t keep those statistics. People needed to be rescued. We did whatever we could – we had to do something”.

“Was I afraid? I was very afraid. But does fear explain everything? No, not really”.

* * *

After the war, Władysław Bartoszewski worked as a historian, a journalist and a diplomat. Under the Stalinist regime, he was sentenced to eight years imprisonment, falsely accused of spying. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, he was active in the anti-communist opposition. When Poland regained its freedom, he served as a Senator and as Minister of Foreign Affairs.

For many generations of Poles, he became an unquestionable moral authority.

He travelled twice to the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem – in 1963 to plant a tree in honour of “Żegota” and in 1966, to plant a tree in his own honour. A year earlier, he had been honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. In 1967, together with Zofia Lewinówna, he published a monumental work: Ten jest z Ojczyzny mojej. Polacy z pomocą Żydom 1939–1945 (This is my Homeland. Poles Who Helped Jews 1939-1945). In 1991, he became an Honorary Citizen of the State of Israel.  

Statements used in this text were recorded on 4th December 2014, at POLIN Museum, when Władysław Bartoszewski met with students from the Aleksander Fredro Comprehensive Senior High School on the occasion of 77th anniversary of the “Żegota”.

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