Władysław Bartoszewski
POLAND

What if I could have saved another one or two people, and I didn’t do it?

The Holocaust

In September 1939, Poland was occupied by the two neighbouring countries – Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. In the territory incorporated into the Third Reich and within the borders of the General Government created by the German occupying power, the German Nazis pursued the policy aiming at the total genocide of the Jewish people.

Initially, the German policy was to isolate the Jews from the Poles. The Jewish population was publically humiliated, forced to wear armbands or patches with the Star of David, drove to force labour and – since 1940 – resettled to the ghettos. Since autumn 1941, leaving the ghetto, hiding on the “Aryan side” or providing aid to Jews – be it arranging a hideout or an ad hoc support – was punishable by death.

On 20 January 1942, during the conference in Wannsee near Berlin, the “final solution” to the Jewish question was sealed and the total genocide of the Jewish people in death camps was formally approved. On 16 March 1942, the liquidation of the ghettos, i.e. mass deportations of Jews to extermination camps, began.

Some Jews resisted the order to move into ghettos. There were some who – having moved into a ghetto – took the risk of escaping to the “Aryan side.” It is estimated that in the Polish territory, 30,000-40,000 Jews survived in hiding or under a false identity. Some survived thanks to selfless help extended by Poles. It also happened that Jews managed to rescue themselves owing to their own resourcefulness, or – much more often – received support in exchange for an ample financial gratification.

“Do not feel sorry for yourself; God did not spare you so that you should brood on the difficulties and problems. You survived to bear witness to the truth, to be aware what atrocities may a human being suffer in life, and to do everything possible to save other people from such atrocities.” Return good for evil. These words of Rev. Zieja became the guiding light for Władysław Bartoszewski.

Władysław Bartoszewski, 1944. Photo: family archive, POLIN Museum

A witness to the Holocaust, he was active in the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews. A prisoner of Auschwitz, participant of the Warsaw Uprising, Bartoszewski was an advocate of the Polish-German reconciliation after the war had ended. In the subsequent years, he opposed the rebirth of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish demonstrations. He opposed the dictatorship imposed on his homeland and the Stalinist ideology, for which he was incarcerated twice in the period 1946-1954.

He stood by his principles and expected courage and heroism from others.

“And yet one must remember that they are only humans. The Catholic Church expects sainthood from its members, but what percentage of Catholics meet these expectations? I have no idea. But I do know that such people existed, and they still exist. There are very few of them, but they do exist.”

Władysław Bartoszewski planting tree of “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews in Yad Vashem Insitute, Jerusalem, 1963. Photo: family archive, POLIN Museum

Bartoszewski lived in permanent doubt of whether he had done enough. “What if I could have saved another one or two people, and I didn’t do it? I do believe though that no man is his own judge, therefore no man can say that he couldn’t have done more.”

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The Holocaust

In September 1939, Poland was occupied by the two neighbouring countries – Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. In the territory incorporated into the Third Reich and within the borders of the General Government created by the German occupying power, the German Nazis pursued the policy aiming at the total genocide of the Jewish people.

Initially, the German policy was to isolate the Jews from the Poles. The Jewish population was publically humiliated, forced to wear armbands or patches with the Star of David, drove to force labour and – since 1940 – resettled to the ghettos. Since autumn 1941, leaving the ghetto, hiding on the “Aryan side” or providing aid to Jews – be it arranging a hideout or an ad hoc support – was punishable by death.

On 20 January 1942, during the conference in Wannsee near Berlin, the “final solution” to the Jewish question was sealed and the total genocide of the Jewish people in death camps was formally approved. On 16 March 1942, the liquidation of the ghettos, i.e. mass deportations of Jews to extermination camps, began.

Some Jews resisted the order to move into ghettos. There were some who – having moved into a ghetto – took the risk of escaping to the “Aryan side.” It is estimated that in the Polish territory, 30,000-40,000 Jews survived in hiding or under a false identity. Some survived thanks to selfless help extended by Poles. It also happened that Jews managed to rescue themselves owing to their own resourcefulness, or – much more often – received support in exchange for an ample financial gratification.