The Israeli government, members of our Knesset, Cabinet Ministers, Yad Vashem are among the voices recently raised criticizing the Israel-Poland agreement on the revision of Poland’s recent Holocaust law.
I begin by stating my identity as a religious Jew whose family had served as rabbis in Poland from 1727-1927, 200 years of recorded family history. I am aware of anti-Semitism in Poland through centuries of Jewish population centers. I am aware of the anti-Semitism that was rampant in Poland supported by the anti-Jewish teachings of the Polish Roman Catholic church and its priests.
I am personally aware of the pogroms and murders of Jews in Jedwabne and in Kielce during and following World War II.
But I am also aware of numbers. Numbers are highly significant. And the numbers of Polish Christians who helped Jews, who hid Jews, who rescued Jews, who provided food to Jews in hiding and in the Polish forests, 6,800 of them, is the largest population of the Righteous Gentiles recognized and honored by Yad Vashem. More Poles helped Jews than any other peoples in occupied Nazi Europe.
It is extremely important to disclaim charges made by some of our fellow Jews that the Polish government did nothing to help. It must first of all be remembered that the Polish government was not the official government in Poland from 1939-1945. Poland was governed, particularly in Warsaw, by the Nazi officer, Hans Frank, who was later sentenced to death by the post-war Polish government.
The “official” Polish government was in exile in London. And in December 1942 the Polish Government in Exile, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, published a booklet entitled “The Mass Extermination of the Jews in Poland Under the Nazi Regime”, and copies of it were sent to all members of the United Nations.
Additionally, the government in exile sent a Polish diplomat to Washington, DC to make President Roosevelt aware of the situation of the Jews in Poland. Jan Karski appeared at the White House and met with President Roosevelt and Secretary of the Treasury, Morgenthau, in the oval office.
Karski provided the American president with maps showing the location of concentration camps and death camps in Poland. He urged the president to contact Winston Churchill and together create a plan in which the railroad tracks leading to those camps would be bombed, thus preventing further deportations of Europe’s Jews.
President Roosevelt examined all the evidence and thanked Jan Karski. He stated that the allies would punish Germany severely for war crimes once the war had ended.
Ambassador Karski left the White House without a promise of immediate help for the Jews. Upon his return to the Polish Government in Exile in London, he published results of the meeting and noted his very deep disappointment with the American president’s response.
In 1942, the London-based government in exile created an organization called Zegota. Its full title from the Polish was “The Organization to Help and to Rescue Jews in Poland”, and it was communicated to the leaders of the Polish underground in Warsaw. Two of the underground members, Adolf Berman and Leon Speiser, were Jews.
There was nothing that Zegota could do to help Jews already confined to the walled area of Warsaw’s ghetto. Their efforts were limited to providing food, clothing and help to Jews whose hiding places were known to them. 4,500 Jews were fed and given aid by Zegota from 1942-1945.
Additionally, Zegota provided 50,000 counterfeit documents, birth certificates, marriage licenses, baptismal certificates, Catholic school education certificates, and gave them to Jews to show to the Nazis when required to produce identification, proving that they were Catholics and not Jews.
Among the active resistance of Christians who aided Jews, one must note with gratitude and pride that 2,500 Jewish children were rescued by the director of Zegota’s Childrens’ Rescue Mission, the blessed and saintly Irene Sendler, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize prior to her death in 2003.
It has been documented that 9,000 Jews, among them 5,000 children, were saved from death due to the humanitarian efforts of members of the Zegota underground.
While comparing those numbers with the numbers of Jews who were murdered by Poles or who informed Nazis were Jews were in hiding, the numbers of saved or aided Jews is much lower.
But as it is recorded in our religious texts “he who saves one life is as if he had saved a world”.
I hope that members of our government as well as Yad Vashem will remember it,
It is time to end the anti-Semitic and anti-Polish accusations and begin to fulfill tikun olam, improving the world in which we live.