(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a former inmate of Auschwitz, foreign minister of Poland and an honorary citizen of Israel who was recognized as a Righteous Gentile, died on Friday at age 93.
Active on many fronts and energetic almost until the end, Bartoszewski quipped at meetings with Israeli officials that he was older than Shimon Peres, thus preempting comparisons with the Polish-born and energetic former president.
Bartoszewski, who opposed both the Nazis and the Communists and was incarcerated by both, met Peres on several occasions. One such occasion was in May 1995, when each was his country’s foreign minister. Another was during the 65th anniversary commemorations of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when Peres, then president of Israel, was in Poland on a state visit.
A tall, vibrant and dynamic figure, Bartoszewski joked that he was a year older than Peres, who was then 84, and that he was still looking forward to new horizons in his multi-faceted career. To which Israel Radio’s Polish-born Aryeh Golan, who was covering the Peres state visit, declared: “You’re the Polish Shimon Peres.” The idea appealed to Bartoszewski, who chuckled and said: “I like that. I’m going to tell Peres that I’m the Polish Peres.”
In an interview with Golan on Sunday morning, former Israel ambassador to Poland Szewach Weiss said that Bartoszewski was a true hero of Poland in every sense of the word and in many respects the living conscience of Poland.
Bartoszewski was sent to Auschwitz in September 1940 and spent a little over six months there. He later joined the Polish Home Army, an underground resistance organization of young Catholics. In 1942, he was among the founders and a leading activist of the Polish Council for Aid to Jews, which was code-named Zegota. He was also a delegate to the London- based Polish government in exile and reported on Nazi atrocities.
The author of several books, many of them dealing with the Second World War history of Warsaw, the Jews of Poland and non-Jews who rescued Jews during the war, Bartoszewski was also an academic and a diplomat.
He served as a professor at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, as ambassador to Austria from 1990 to 1995, and as foreign minister in 1995 and 2000, a position he took up again in 2007.
He was a member of the National Council for Polish- Jewish Relations in the office of the President of Poland, and served as chairman of the International Auschwitz Council. From 2001 until the time of his death, he was chairman of the Council for the Preservation of Memory of Combat and Martyrdom dedicated to commemorating the memories of war heroes and victims.
In 1963, Yad Vashem conferred on him the title of Righteous Gentile.
In April 2013, Bartoszewski was among the dignitaries who were present as Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich unveiled the mezuza at the entrance of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews that stands on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto.
Bartoszewski said at the ceremony that he was one of the few people present who had witnessed the unveiling of the Warsaw Ghetto monument in 1948. If anyone had predicted to him then that he would also witness the establishment of a Museum of the History of Polish Jews, he would have told them that they were crazy, he added.
In October 2013, Bartoszewski donated his memorabilia to the museum, including his Righteous Gentile medal; a certificate of his planting of a tree in honor of Zegota at Yad Vashem; his honorary citizenship of the State of Israel; the Elie Wiesel Award, which he received from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington; and an original ring made in the Lodz Ghetto; as well as books and historical documents from the Second World War era.
Bartoszewski had an abiding interest in and affection for Israel and the Jewish people and an unwavering dedication to the preservation of the memory of what happened in Auschwitz.
His 90th birthday was celebrated with an official ceremony at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, where Piotr Cywinski, the director of the Auschwitz Memorial Museum, presented him with the Museum’s Light of Remembrance Award.
In a book of birthday greetings Cywinski wrote: “The gates of Auschwitz did not break him. A man who was supposed to be reduced to nothing survived, won, and became one of the main teachers of the memory.”
On that occasion, President Bronisław Komorowski presented Bartoszewski with a medal bearing his image and inscribed: “To the One Who Dared to Be Disobedient.”