The same way it is crucial to remember the evil perpetrated by the Nazis in WWII so it is essential to remember the sacrifice of those among the gentiles who risked their lives and in quite a number of cases gave up their own lives to save Jews during that period. Recently I was invited by a member of the Polish-Jewish Dialogue group to attend an exhibit by the Polish Jewish Museum in the Polish Consulate in Manhattan. A crowd of about 150 attended and the director of the museum explained the resurgence of interest among the Poles of Jewish culture that existed in Poland for a millennium before the war. He gave examples of how Jews contributed to the economy via financial methodology and culturally through popular songs.
However, the heart of the exhibit had to do with the issue of the approximate 6,000 Polish citizens who saved Jews during the war. It is also approximated that sadly approximately a third of them may have sacrificed their own lives for the cause. Many of us have heard stories of anti Semitism from the Jewish
survivors of that period including myself when I heard my mother, may she rest in peace, that as a young girl she wouldn’t be allowed to play with the neighbor’s little girl because my mother was a Jew and that the neighbor’s father told my mother to go back to “Palestinia” - as if my mother was ever in “Palestinia”. However what is also emerging from the research and stories from the period’s survivors both Polish and Jewish over these past decades is the incredible sacrifice from the very dedicated Polish Catholic souls who did sacrifice for their fellow Jewish neighbors.
While there were not “ghettos" of Jews before the war, as the museum director explained, there were concentration of Jews in different towns as is common with ethnic minorities. When the Nazis took over Poland, these enclaves then became ghettos or prisons of Jews of which they could not readily leave. If
one were to escape he or she had to take refuge in the other part of town, over the line, so to speak, with a gentile family. As such, the gentile family either had to falsify records to keep the Jewish escapees in their home which sometimes involved also making Jews look more Aryan such as by dying one’s hair or they had to hide their illegal Jewish guests in a place where the Nazi soldiers would generally not look such as attics, basements, sheds or barns. The punishment to the Polish hosts for hiding Jews was getting shot by the soldiers right on the spot. Besides the fear of dying themselves, the Polish good samaritans sacrificed much even just financially to feed, clothe and provide medications for their Jewish fugitive guests. It is estimated that these Poles saved about 250 to 300 thousand Jews. Considering that there were only 3 1/2 million Jews in Poland before the war and Hitler, may he burn in Hell, annihilated 3 million Polish Jews, then roughly 1/2 of the Jews who escaped Hitlers extermination did so on account of these wonderful and lofty Polish Catholic souls.
Poland itself lost 3 million of its people both from the military end and purges that the Nazis perpetrated on Polish citizens such as the intelligencia and those who were seen not to be compliant with the Nazi regime mentality. Polish people also died at the hands of the Soviets. Polish soldiers were sent to horrendous work camps in Siberia because the Soviets didn’t trust the Polish soldiers to be loyal. My father who was a captured Polish soldier ended up in Siberia and not because he was Jewish but because he was Polish. There was the infamous case of the Soviets killing off 20,000 Polish military officers and
burying them in the forest of Katyan. Later when the Germans discovered the mass graves, Stalin accused the Germans of this massacre but at least with this event the Germans were not the culprit. After the war Poland still did not have peace as it was a satellite of the Soviet empire. Only in 1989 when the Iron Curtain fell did Poland again attain its independence.
Through all this and as younger generations of Poles are reconnecting with the culture that preceded the horrific events of the 20th century, Polish people want to reconnect with the Jewish culture also that was a part of their country for hundreds of years. They also want to correct the record that Poland was just a bastion of anti Jewish hate. My mother and other Holocaust survivors were not mistaken when they recount experiences of Jew hatred but I can guarantee that had my mother been exposed to the uncovering through research and testimonials of all of this extreme righteousness on the part of the Polish people that she would not have made blanket statements about Polish anti Semitism. Just anecdotally I can say that I feel a love and camaraderie from the Polish people that I meet through this experience. After the director finished his presentation I spoke with different people but one interaction really touched me. As I was studying the writing on the exhibit panels, a man who seemingly was not Jewish patted me on the back and said “It is beautiful how you want to study this so specifically”. I thanked him for his recognition of my appreciation of how 6,000 Polish people were willing to sacrifice to save their fellow Jewish brethren. And for those who did not, I do not judge them, because the ultimate culprit of the Jewish Holocaust was the Nazi regime and the Polish people had no power to change the Nuremberg laws. Poland itself was just a victim of the Nazis. Was there perhaps a considerable amount of anti Semitism in Poland before the war? Were there some retched souls who exposed Jews to the Nazis for financial gain or just plain hatred - undoubtedly, but so would there have been in virtually every other country. Of the 24,000 righteous gentiles of the world that Yad Vashem recognizes, 1/4 of them were Polish. I think that its high time that we tell this part of the story of the Holocaust as well as the evil that was unleashed at that time.