Do Poland’s Righteous Gentiles deserve a monument?

The Polish intelligentsia think not

Filip Mazurczak
22 September 2014

A group of about thirty illustrious Jews, many of whom would not exist if Polish Gentiles had not rescued them or their families, want to build a monument to wartime Poles who aided Jews in Warsaw. In any normal society, this would have been greeted joyously as a sign of friendship between nations. Not in Poland, where its famous self-critical intelligentsia has protested. However, its sometimes-illogical arguments conveniently ignore inconvenient evidence.

 

“The Rescued to the Rescuers”

Zygmunt Rolat, a Polish-Jewish émigré from Częstochowa to the United States, has initiated the building of “The Rescued to the Rescuers” monument. He is also the initiator and main sponsor of the building of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, next to which the monument will be built. “This commemoration has been my dream for many years. […] I survived the war in Poland and witnessed how Poles rescued Jews. We must particularly remind the younger generation of this; this is our moral responsibility,” he told the Polish Press Agency. Almost thirty Jews formed a committee supporting the monument. Its names are the crème de la crème of Jews of Polish ancestry: sculptor Samuel Willenberg, klezmer composer Leopold Kozłowski, and former speaker of the Knesseth and Israeli Ambassador to Poland Shevah Weiss figure on the list.

 

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The Museum of the History of Polish Jews

However, Poland’s leftist intelligentsia is protesting this monument. They have chosen the online edition of Krytyka Polityczna, a leftist publisher, as the platform for their letter. In the letter we read the monument is an attempt to “chase away the Jewish narrative, inconvenient to the [psychological] well-being of the majority.” The authors write: “it touches us painfully that this idea came out of a Jewish initiative.” They later ask that the space next to the museum be one of “autonomous, independent Jewish narrative.”

The authors, on the one hand, claim that this idea is contrary to the Jewish narrative, yet they acknowledge that Jews proposed this monument. A few of the signatories have Jewish ancestry, but by no means do all. Additionally, Krytyka is not a Jewish institution and its employees are overwhelmingly Gentiles. By contrast, Jews proposed the monument.

Among the committee supporting its building is Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland. Who are they, a group of largely non-Jewish persons, to tell Jews, including the religious leader of Poland’s Jewry, what the Polish-Jewish narrative should be? The monument is an “independent Jewish narrative”; however, it is also “independent” of the signatories and Krytyka’s views. Furthermore, if the monument is proposed by Rolat, the man behind the museum, it would seem logical that he should decide what is or isn’t next to his brainchild.

Later, the authors evaluate Poland’s Righteous Gentiles: “They did NOT act in the name of the Polish nation.” For this reason, they also criticize a Łódź monument by Polish-Jewish architect Czesław Bielecki showing a Polish eagle shielding a Star of David.

 

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Zygmunt Rolat

 

Anti-Semitism in wartime Europe

In a way, this is correct. People who act heroically generally do not think about abstract notions such as the raison d’etat. Rather, they are simply decent people who do so out of good will, not to serve a political ideal. However, this is a salient point. Did the Poles who helped Jews run counter to the Polish state?

In Nazi-occupied Europe, most nations formed collaborationist governments (Petain in France, Pavelic in Croatia, Quisling in Norway, Tiso in Slovakia, etc.). However, the Poles did not. Of course, there were avaricious Poles who blackmailed hiding Jews to the occupiers, and in some cases they directly killed their Jewish neighbours. These individual Poles were guilty of collaboration, yet the Polish State was not.

Given significant anti-Semitism in Poland at the time, the Poles were far from perfect, yet compare favourably to most other Europeans. Jewish historian Walter Laqueur writes that “[i]f the Poles showed less sympathy and solidarity with the Jews than many Danes and Dutch, they behaved far more humanely than Romanians or Ukrainians, than Lithuanians and Latvians. A comparison with France would be by no means unfavourable for Poland.”

While collaborationist governments in France, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere were helping the Nazis kill Jews, Poland’s London-based government-in-exile alerted the Allies of the genocide of their Jewish compatriots. In 1940, Witold Pilecki, the only Auschwitz volunteer, wrote the first reports documenting the extermination of European Jewry, sending them to the West. Jan Karski, an underground courier representing Poland’s government, tried to persuade Washington and London to act to stop the murder of Europe’s Jews, yet was brushed off.

 

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Jan Karski monument, Warsaw

Meanwhile, Edward Raczyński, Poland’s foreign minister, gave the Allies the first reports of the genocide of Europe’s Jews, and appealed to Western governments and the Vatican to halt this slaughter. Poland’s government-in-exile in London also helped finance Żegota, an underground Polish organization led by Gentile and Jewish Poles with the express purpose of aiding Jews, the only such institution in occupied Europe.

 

“Fear God, Sir! They are human beings”

The letter later claims that Polish Righteous were but “a handful.” They add that often their biggest threat was other Poles and claim that they acted contrary to the majority. The letter also notes that before the war Polish anti-Semitism grew greatly.

These claims do not expose the whole picture. First, were Righteous Poles “a handful”? It is difficult to say precisely how many Poles aided their Jewish neighbours. Several historians have estimated their number; it ranges from 200,000 to upwards of one million. At that moment there were about 22 million ethnic Poles. Yale University historian Timothy Snyder estimates the number of Poles complicit in killing Jews – be they blackmailers or those who killed them directly, such as the members of the Blue Police, whose numbers peaked at 16,000 – at 100,000. Of course, this second number is evidence that, like any other country, Poland had its own wicked citizens. However, the first number of Polish helpers is larger, and Poles should take pride in them.

Thus, Polish rescuers were indeed a minority. However, this must be contextualized. During the war, the Poles themselves suffered greatly – 2-3 million non-Jewish Poles died, while Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia simultaneously. Starvation, concentration camp deportations and random shootings of civilians were everyday Polish life. Thus, many Poles themselves were busy suffering.

As Boruch Spiegel, a veteran of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, put it: “What a lot of people don’t realize is that the Poles had it pretty bad, too. Most of them were too busy trying to survive. They had their own problems.” Furthermore, Poland was the only Nazi-occupied country where entire families were killed if one person aided a Jew.

 

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The Warsaw Uprising

Given these horrible conditions, this minority’s size is all the more impressive. Israel Gutman, a noted Israeli historian and Warsaw Ghetto Uprising participant, wrote that: “The Poles should be proud that they have so many righteous lights that Ringelblum [chronicler of the Warsaw Ghetto] wrote about, who are the true heroes of the flood. We can never do enough to thank these exceptional people.” Indeed, it is stunning that hundreds of thousands of Poles shared their meagre resources and risked their families’ lives to help others.

It is true that for Jews hiding among Poles, the greatest danger for the former were Polish blackmailers. However, the authors of the monument protest letter do not tell the whole truth. First, if a minority of Poles risked everything to aid their Jewish neighbours, an even smaller minority blackmailed or killed Jews, and such behaviour was not socially acceptable.

Marek Edelman, a Polish Jew and veteran of the Warsaw Ghetto and city-wide Warsaw Uprisings (later a noted cardiologist and Solidarity activist) noted, whenever Polish blackmailers accosted Jews (Edelman himself was their victim several times), they would do so in an alley corner, because they knew they would be denounced as scum by society. Writing in the New York Review of Books in the 1980s, Israel Shahak, a Polish-Israeli who survived the war on false papers, confirmed that when he was at a railroad, a man noted his satisfaction that the Jews are dead. Yet not all Poles were like this. Shahak notes that after “a short silence another person exclaimed—and I am translating him literally as his words are branded in my memory: ‘Fear God, Sir! They are human beings’.” Shahak noted that whenever Poles expressed joy that Jews were being killed, they usually heard a similar rejoinder.

In addition, historian Gunnar S. Paulssen (the son of a Jewish survivor) notes that although 70-90,000 (out of one million) Varsovian Poles aided Jews, 3-4,000 blackmailed them. Jan Grabowski, a Polish historian who has protested against the building of the Righteous memorial, gives a higher number of blackmailers, 5-10,000. Regardless of which number is more accurate, it is clear that such people, a disgrace to the Poles, were not representative of Polish society, and Righteous Poles outnumbered them.

While it is almost certain that a greater proportion of Poles in Warsaw engaged in aiding Jews than elsewhere because it the Polish intelligentsia, much less likely to be anti-Semitic than the rest of society, was fairly large there, as was the number of assimilated Jews, who had Gentile acquaintances who could help them, numbers shown above indicate that across Poland more people aided than harmed Jews.

Paradoxically, however, more Jews likely died by being denounced by Poles than were successfully saved. As Icchak Cukierman, a leader of the Polish-Jewish wartime underground, noted: “It takes only one Pole to betray a hundred Jews, but it takes ten Poles to save one Jew.” This was often the case. Władysław Szpilman, the Polish musician of Jewish origin whose wartime experiences were captured in Roman Polański’s The Pianist, survived thanks to thirty Poles. Hanna Krall, a famed Polish journalist of Jewish ancestry, survived the war as a child thanks to nearly fifty.

 

Not all Poles were anti-Semites

It is true that anti-Semitism raged in inter-war Poland, especially among the right-wing National Democrats. After Józef Piłsudski’s death in 1935, the nationalist “Sanation” regime that took over harassed Jews and other minorities. Anti-Semitic violence broke out across Poland, and right-wing politicians – and the Catholic primate of Poland, Cardinal August Hlond – supported economic boycotts of Jewish businesses.

However, not all Poles were anti-Semites, and in interwar Poland growing anti-Semitism countered resistance from other Poles, especially the intelligentsia, socialists and simply good-hearted people. Furthermore, Laqueur has noted that, given the scale of anti-Semitism in Poland at the time, it is surprising that the aid Poles gave to Jews was so large, not so small.

It is also worth noting that people do not choose their nationality, but they do choose to act virtuously or not. In Poland, there were both good and evil Gentiles (and Jews). While the Germans started the most horrible war in European history, there were heroic German foes of Hitler, such as Dietrich Boenhoffer, Claus von Stauffenberg, and Sophie Scholl. There were German concentration camp guards and SS-men who secretly aided Poles and Jews. If the Germans have the right to be proud of their saintly compatriots, the Poles all the more have the right to celebrate their Righteous Gentiles. Furthermore, while Polish society had both heroic and evil individuals, the monument will commemorate Polish Righteous individuals, not to the whole Polish nation.

Humanity is capable of great evil and altruism. Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto were horrific, yet they also led to the heroism of Janusz Korczak and Maximilian Kolbe. Poland’s Righteous Gentiles – people who, despite the threat of the execution of their families and themselves suffering poverty and terror showed remarkable human solidarity and Christian self-sacrifice – deserve a monument, and Zygmunt Rolat has every right to realize his dream.

 

Filip Mazurczak studied history and Latin American literature at Creighton University and international relations at The George Washington University.

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