Poland’s once vibrant Jewish community turned out to pay tribute to the non-Jewish natives who fought to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust, at a unique public ceremony in Warsaw.
Whilst Poland has long been known for having housed the largest global Jewish population before WWII, the ceremony organised by New York-based The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR), sought to raise awareness of the 6,350 Righteous Gentiles it also produced, more than any other country.
These unsung heroes have already been officially recognised as “Righteous Among Nations” by Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem but their selfless acts were long-overlooked by the world at large and their country in particular, as formerly Communist Poland failed to redress its chequered past .
Addressing the audience at the reception to honour the forgotten Polish rescuers, Stanlee Stahl, executive vice president of the JFR said: “You, the righteous of the world, think your behaviour was ordinary, but we all know it was something more than that. It was truly extraordinary.”
The righteous themselves were quick to refute praise, with 89 year-old Halina Szaszkiewicz insisting: “We did what we had to do. There was nothing heroic about it.”
81 year-old Ewa Ligia Zdanowicz, whose family hid a Jewish teenager in their home during the Holocaust, under threat of execution by the Germans on discovery, added: “It wasn’t considered anything to be proud of.”
According to Israeli Ambassador to Poland Zvi Rav-Ner, the Polish authorities are increasing taking pride in the wartime heroics of it citizens, shunning the previous quiet recognition ceremonies in honour of more public acknowledgements of the rescuers.
Rav-Ner, who travels around Poland bestowing Righteous awards on newly-discovered heroes, said: “Now most are proud to have it made public. That’s the big change,” adding: “Before, people did go to Israel and met the people they saved, but in a hushed way. I wouldn’t say secretive, but they didn’t make it public.”
The JFR was founded in 1986 to provide financial aid to brave rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust and now supports more than 750 rescuers from 22 different countries.
Poland has made increasing efforts in recent years to distance itself from its reputation for wartime anti-Semitism. US President Barack Obama evoked a diplomatic dispute with the Polish administration when, on posthumously awarding a Polish underground hero with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he inaccurately referred to Auschwitz as a “Polish death camp”.
Despite the White House immediately issuing a statement saying the president had “misspoken”, the Polish government sought a stronger expression of regret, highlighting that culpability of the Polish people should not be implied because Nazi death camps were established by Germany in occupied Poland.
In light of the incident, Poland's President Bronislaw Komorowski sent a letter to Obama "counting on (...) cooperation in correcting this unfortunate error" which "I am certain in no way reflects the thoughts or views of our American friend."
Meanwhile, in a more positive sign of Poland accepting its past, it was announced last week that a Jewish history museum whose opening was twice delayed due to finance shortages is set to open in Poland in Autumn 2013, thanks to two large private donations.
The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is now scheduled to open in Warsaw in Autumn 2013, it was confirmed by Poland’s Minister of Culture and Natural Heritage Bogdan Zdrojewski last week, following the completion of a multimedia exhibition that will focus on 1,000 years of Jewish history in Poland, taking in everything from the Middle Ages to the present day.
The launch date is timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The museum itself will cost $70 million (€57 million) and its aim is to attract 1 million visitors each year.