My grandmothers, the war survivors

I was there for the first time eight years ago with my wife and two children. I seldom have a knot in my throat, but that was the moment.

February 26, 2019 13:44
My grandmothers, the war survivors

A WALL is inscribed with the names of Polish officers who died, during a commemoration ceremony at a memorial complex in Katyn forest. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Visiting the Polish military cemetery at Monte Cassino is an unforgettable experience. Raw, white gravestones, clear sky, uneasy silence. Intrepid soldiers fallen in one of the crucial battles of WWII.

I was there for the first time eight years ago with my wife and two children. I seldom have a knot in my throat, but that was the moment.

We even found a tombstone with the name “Boleslaw Magierowski” engraved on it. I know nothing about his life. Perhaps I’ll have more time to study it when I am in blissful retirement. Odds are high he was a distant relative, given that Magierowski is quite a rare surname in Poland – like Ferdynand Magierowski, a Polish navigator in the Royal Air Force who perished in one of the air strikes in Germany just three months before the end of the war. I feel genuinely ashamed that I have not yet inquired into their biographies.

But I know the stories of my grandmothers. The paternal one, Maria, lived in a small village in Eastern Poland, now belonging to Ukraine. She survived the war, but after Poland was betrayed at the Yalta conference and sold to the Soviets, she was repatriated to the so-called “recovered lands.” Her family was uprooted, lost its property and part of its identity. Nevertheless, my grandma remained cheerful and jovial until her very last days.

My other grandmother, Henryka, was more reserved. She became an orphan during the war at the age of 13, and had to raise her four-year old sister by herself. After the war, she gave birth to five children. She lost one of her sons when he was five. Her husband, my grandfather, died in a car accident. I always admired how stoically she bore all the sorrows.

My wife’s grandmother Irena became a widow in June 1944. Her husband was a fighter in the Polish underground Home Army. He was executed by Germans in 1944 along with approximately 100 villagers as a retaliation for a sabotage operation carried by a Home Army unit (they blew up a trainload of German weapons at a railway station). Irena was left with two little boys, ages seven and two. She never remarried. And she never visited her husband’s grave. Nobody knows where exactly the men were killed and buried.

My wife’s other grandmother Helena spent the war in solitude, taking care of a newly born daughter. Her husband was forced to work in the Third Reich. As a slave.

The stories of my grandmothers are tragic but by no means extraordinary, let alone spectacular. No Polish generals leading a charge on German tanks, no heroes of the Warsaw Uprising, just one relative (as far as I know) shot by the Soviets in the back of the head in the Katyn Forest Massacre. My grandmothers were also lucky not to be tortured and sentenced to death after the war – by Polish communists.


THE THREE women had at least two traits in common – they were not particularly keen on telling their wartime stories. Too much of a trauma, probably. And on the infrequent occasions they did recall the horrors of the German occupation, they never used the word “Nazis.” I assume they were not even familiar with the term.

Now, if some people suggest that those brave women were partially “responsible” or “complicit,” or “guilty” for what happened during the Holocaust in occupied Poland; that the Poles should eventually atone for their sins, “as Germans or Austrians did a long time ago”; that we should be eternally contrite for “the inherent hatred we bear”; I can only say to them: You are talking to the dead. And the dead deserve respect.

When I heard the infamous quotation about “Polish milk”, I was not furious, not even upset. I was sad. I had the bitter feeling that all my efforts aimed at reconciliation and better understanding between our nations were flushed down the drain in three seconds. Since I arrived in Israel seven months ago, I’ve spoken and written many a time about our common history, without concealing any obscure chapters or any crimes committed by my fellow countrymen against Jews. And I never expected forgiveness. I expected a frank, but fair debate. This debate has yet to begin.

On the final note, let me quote the German chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the historic declaration he made in the Bundestag on September 27th, 1951: “The overwhelming majority of the German people abominated the crimes committed against the Jews and did not participate in them.... There were many among the German people who showed their readiness to help their fellow Jewish citizens at their own peril.”

The statement was painstakingly negotiated and finally agreed to by both the German and Israeli governments.

Let us see what would happen if I replaced the word “German” with “Polish” in the aforementioned sentences: “The overwhelming majority of the Polish people abominated the crimes committed against the Jews and did not participate in them.... There were many among the Polish people who showed their readiness to help their fellow Jewish citizens at their own peril.”

This paragraph is now strikingly similar to one of the passages of the joint declaration of Prime Ministers Mateusz Morawiecki and Benjamin Netanyahu, signed in June 2018. I wonder why, in this specific context, the absolution of the “German people” is acceptable, whereas any mention of the “Poles helping Jews” provokes immediate uproar.

There is a recurring, unpleasant thought I cannot get rid of. What would my grandmothers say if they were alive and heard some of those outrageous remarks about “Polish complicity” in the genocide orchestrated and perpetrated by the Wehrmacht, the Waffen-SS, the Gestapo?

My grandmothers were never vengeful. They never demanded apologies or compensation for what the Germans did to them and to their families. They died in peace.

The writer is ambassador of the Republic of Poland in Israel.

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