Poland’s complex battle for its image decades after the Holocaust

Poland is promoting the stories of the righteous who saved Jews in the Shoah, but critics of the ruling Law and Justice Party charge that it is politicizing memory and stifling a debate.

Jozef Jarosz inside the dugout where his family sheltered 14 Jews for almost two years during WWII (photo credit: PIOTR SADURSKI)
Jozef Jarosz inside the dugout where his family sheltered 14 Jews for almost two years during WWII
(photo credit: PIOTR SADURSKI)
IT IS written in the Talmud that “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
But Jozef Jarosz didn’t save just one life; together with his father, Franciszek, and his family, for almost two years, he sheltered and saved 14 Jews in a tiny underground hideout high up in the Carpathian Mountains above Nowy Sącz in southern Poland, where a flourishing Jewish community once made up a third of the town’s population.
As the snow falls gently and then rages through the window of the charmingly restored wooden cabin in the village of Stankowa that, until a few years ago, was his home, and now belongs to Piotr Gmosinski, a local photography teacher, Jozef Jarosz tells his story.
“I was only 12 when the war started,” recalls Jarosz, now in his late eighties, but still standing upright and tall like the birches in the forest beyond the cabin. “My father knew a Jew very well. He sold geese. He came to my father and asked for shelter. He was in a very bad way and he was kissing his hand and begging for him to take him in.
My father agreed and took in his wife and kids, as well. Some other people heard that my father was sheltering Jews and two or three days later more people came. My father couldn’t refuse them, so he took in all the Jews the dugout could contain.”
Every year on All Saints Day, Tadeusz Jakubowicz, head of the Krakow Jewish community, visits the graves of the Poles who helped save him and his family (photo credit: PIOTR SADURSKI)Every year on All Saints Day, Tadeusz Jakubowicz, head of the Krakow Jewish community, visits the graves of the Poles who helped save him and his family (photo credit: PIOTR SADURSKI)
Franciszek Jarosz took them in at considerable risk to his own life and the lives of his family. “If the Germans had known what was happening, I would not be here,” says Jozef, wiping the moisture from the corner of his eye with the sleeve of his thick brown overcoat.
He tells how one day as he was coming back with his father from buying supplies they saw a house on fire across the ridge in the neighboring village. “There were many Germans with guns and there was a Jew hiding in the attic and the Germans set the house on fire because they wanted him to jump out of the house so they could shoot him in public. Father said to me, ‘Look what happens when they are hiding just one Jew; what are they going to do if they realize we are hiding 14 people.’” The Germans burned the Jew alive, together with the family that hid him.
Hearing Jozef talk, I was reminded of Chaim Cheffer’s poem “About the Righteous of the World”: In a sea of hate stood my home, Could I shelter a foreign son in my home? Would I be willing along with my family Constantly be threatened by certain evil? Sheltering a Jew was punishable by death in Poland ‒ the only country under Nazi occupation where that was the case ‒ and as many as 1,500 Poles are believed to have been killed for defying the ban.
Why then did the Jarosz family risk their lives to save Jews? “There was no other choice,” says Jozef simply.
As we sit in the cabin over hot coffee and biscuits, baked by Jozef’s wife Kazimiera, there is not a dry eye in the room. The question, “Could I have done the same?” is one that is on everyone’s mind.
I am there as part of a Jewish leadership delegation brought to Poland by From the Depths ‒ a nonprofit that deals with Polish-Jewish heritage and Holocaust memory ‒ in coordination with the Polish Foreign Ministry.
Several members of the group are of Polish-Jewish heritage, including the children of Holocaust survivors from Poland.
Meeting with Jozef and other righteous Poles softens the conceptions some of us have about Poland and deepens the realization about just how difficult it was to resist or shelter Jews.
“I was moved by the trip. I’m not as hostile to Poland, my feelings for Poland are not as black as they used to be,” says Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, and a member of the delegation.
After telling his story, Jozef takes the group out of the cabin and down into the hideout ‒ a stone-lined bunker measuring a mere five by two-and-a-half meters that the family had originally dug out to store potatoes and beetroots below a shed that no longer exists.
Temperatures in the winter would drop as low as minus 30 Celsius. It is hard to imagine so many people living in such a small space for so long.
“I became like a mole because my mother was afraid to let me come above ground because she feared I would not go back into the hiding place,” recalls Anna Grygiel-Huryn, the only remaining survivor among the 14 Jews who hid with the Jarosz family, when we meet her later in the day at a hotel in Nowy Sącz. Born in the town’s ghetto, Anna was just two years old when she arrived in Sankowa. “I was not allowed to cry and they [my family] would keep my mouth shut. Later, I would cover my own mouth so as not to cry. My mother’s brother, who was with us in hiding, said that was the most painful experience of the war for him.”
SITTING NEXT to Jozef, Anna, who still lives in Nowy Sącz, tells how she escaped from the ghetto with her mother and uncle on the day the liquidation began in late August 1942 thanks to former employees of her grandfather who came to rescue them.
For a year and a half they shifted between safe houses and hiding places before finally being taken in by Jozef’s father, staying there until after Soviet forces liberated the area in early 1945.
Anna tells how she heard from her mother how her father had been left behind crying at the perimeter fence of the ghetto when German soldiers approached, making it too dangerous for the rescuers to come and get him out. Together with the remaining members of Anna’s extended family, he was transported to Belzec death camp near Lublin, where the Nazis first used gas chambers for industrial extermination.
There they were murdered along with more than 90 percent of Nowy Sącz’s prewar population of 30,000 Jews.
As an infant Anna Grygiel-Huryn survived the war hiding with the Jarosz family (photo credit: PIOTR SADURSKI)As an infant Anna Grygiel-Huryn survived the war hiding with the Jarosz family (photo credit: PIOTR SADURSKI)
The story of Anna’s family, some of whom met a horrific fate and some of whom were saved, is, says From the Depth’s founder Jonny Daniels, a story of “how low humans can stoop, and on the other hand how great they can be.” Daniels, who is involved, together with TSKZ, Poland’s largest Jewish organization, in building a center in Warsaw dedicated to the memory of righteous Poles ‒ some 6,500 have been recognized by Yad Vashem ‒ says it is very important to get their story told, as well.
“When you come and you just tour the death camps you leave dejected with no faith in humanity,” says Daniels. But when you hear the stories of the righteous you leave Poland with a different feeling.”
Earlier on our visit, we were taken to the Warsaw Zoo where the zookeeper, Jan Żabiński, and his wife Antonina, members of the Polish underground resistance, provided a haven for some 300 Jews throughout the course of the war. The Zabinskis hid Jews in their villa and in the animal enclosures, as the zoo became a transit station until alternative safe houses were found for them. Their remarkable story was immortalized in Diane Ackerman’s 2007 book, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” and a movie based on the book directed by Niki Caro is scheduled for release in March.
At the zoo, in the room where Antonina would play on the grand piano “Go, Go to Crete!” from Offenbach’s operetta “La Belle Hélène” as a signal to the Jews that German soldiers were coming and they should go to their hiding places, we meet with Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Dziedzicak.
Here, the story evolves from a straightforward tale of heroism to a complex battle for Poland’s image.
Dziedziczak, who is in charge of Poland’s public diplomacy, presents a narrative that emphasizes the role Poles played in saving Jews, but seems to play down the darker chapters of Polish history in the Second World War, including the murder of Jews by Poles themselves.
“IT IS time for a positive narrative for the Poles in World War II,” says Dziedziczak, a statement which, in view of historical research that suggests at least 200,000 Jews were betrayed to the Germans or killed by their fellow Poles, is, despite the many remarkable tales of heroism that we have heard on our trip, difficult to accept for a visiting Jewish delegation.
Since coming to power in October 2015, Dziedzicak’s right-wing nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS) has been accused by its critics of using history for political purposes.
Indeed, promoting the memory of the righteous appears to be part of a well conceived strategy to reshape the historical narrative of Poland’s wartime years.
“The theme of Poles who saved Jews is to be an important area for Polish diplomacy in the effective fight against stereotypes that hurt Poland and the Polish people, and to popularize knowledge and historical memory,” Dziedziczak said at the opening in March 2016 of the Ulma Family Museum in the village of Markowa, in southern Poland, where German Nazis killed a Polish family ‒ the Ulmas ‒ for sheltering Jews in 1944.
As well as playing up the role of the righteous, the PiS has attacked historians and cultural figures who have exposed the role of Poles in wartime atrocities against Jews.
In February 2016, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda threatened to revoke a medal given to the US-based Polish historian Prof. Jan Tomasz Gross for his dissident anti-communist activities during the Soviet era because of his 2001 book “Neighbors” about the 1941 massacre of some 1,500 Jews by Poles in the village of Jedwabne.
Prior to that, an investigation was opened against him for “publicly insulting the Polish nation [and] the Republic of Poland” in an article in the German daily Die Welt, where he said Poles had killed more Jews than Germans during the war.
In August, Poland’s Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro proposed legislation that would criminalize the use of the term “Polish death camps,” making it punishable with up to three years in jail. “There will be criminal consequences taken against persons who publicly, and against the facts, say the Polish nation participated, organized, is responsible or co-responsible for committing the crimes of the German Third Reich,” Ziobro said.
In December, the director of the Polish culture institute in Berlin, Katarzyna Wielga- Skolimowska, was removed from her job after the PiS appointed ambassador to Germany, Andrzej Przyłębski, reportedly complained her programming included “too much Jewish-themed content.”
Against the wishes of the ambassador, Wielga-Skolimowska had screened Pawel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning film “Ida” about a novitiate nun in 1960s Poland who finds out that her biological parents were Jewish and had been murdered by their neighbors during the war.
The movie has generated enormous controversy in Poland. The Polish League Against Defamation, an NGO that “defends the name of Poland,” said the film presents an overly negative picture of Polish people’s actions during the Nazi Occupation and organized a 40,000-strong petition demanding it be screened with captions providing historical context.
Laurence Weinbaum of the World Jewish Congress, who has authored several books on Polish-Jewish history, says that, in order to understand current developments in Poland, one has to understand the centrality of history and memory to Polish consciousness.
In Poland, he says, borrowing a quote from William Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Poland has, and not without good reason, traditionally seen itself as a victim, says Weinbaum.
“NO COUNTRY suffered more than Poland in the Second World War. Much of its infrastructure and economy were laid waste. Its wealth was plundered or destroyed and millions of Poles lost their lives. Polish arts and sciences suffered a devastating blow as a great part of the intelligentsia was wiped out. Then the country was subjugated by the Soviets. So Poles say to themselves, ‘Look at the price we paid in the war; we fought the invaders ferociously from the beginning of the war to the end. How dare anyone suggest that we were anything other than victims?’ “However,” he continues, “one can be a victim and also a perpetrator at the same time, but this is a notion that many Poles are loath to accept.”
In the last 25 years, since the collapse of Communism, an intense national debate has taken place, and, as Weinbaum explains, Polish society underwent a process of historical introspection that had no real parallel in any other country in post-Communist Eastern Europe. Many sacred cows were slaughtered and national myths deconstructed, largely thanks to the relentless efforts of courageous Polish historians such as Gross and Jan Grabowski.
It is the ambience that was the backdrop to this activity, he says, that has changed under the PiS.
“When you have a government with a nationalist-parochial orientation that sees itself as protecting national honor and upholding traditional values, the very idea that some Poles ‒ not merely the scum of society ‒ could have behaved anything but honorably and heroically is rejected in almost knee-jerk fashion,” Weinbaum says.
“Ironically, on this particular point, Polish Catholic nationalists and Communists generally saw eye to eye.”
Weinbaum does not believe that PiS should be seen as an antisemitic party, however. “You can say many things about PiS, but antisemitism is certainly not a part of its platform,” he says, qualifying that this doesn’t mean “that some of its supporters or even stalwarts don’t have negative perceptions toward Jews.”
When you talk about antisemitism in contemporary Poland, explains Weinbaum, it’s not so much about living Jews.
“It’s above all about how dead Jews are depicted in the Polish narrative, not about occasional acts of anti-Jewish vandalism. In other words, it revolves largely around what happened to the Jews who were such an enduring feature of the Polish landscape. Who was responsible for their suffering and death? To what extent was antipathy to Jews widespread before, during and immediately after the war and how was it manifested? There is, of course, also the traditional, clerical, nativist antisemitism. Today, a fierce struggle is being waged over how to understand the role of Poles in the Shoah. Were they selfless rescuers, apathetic bystanders, venal enablers, or bloodthirsty killers ‒ or all of the above?”
Weinbaum concludes that what is often missing in the historical debate over the role of Poles in the Holocaust is a measure of nuance. This is lacking, he says, not only among Polish officials who are determined to convince the world that most Poles behaved with dignity, empathy and even heroism, but also among those ‒ including Jews ‒ who carelessly conflate Poles with Germans, the primary perpetrators of the destruction of European Jewry.
“People are often reckless in the way they relate to history,” he says. “They would like the story of Polish-Jewish relations during the Shoah to be conveyed in a Twitter-size bite. Unfortunately, the history of Polish- Jewish relations defies any such simplistic characterization. It is a chilling story, but also a very complicated one.”
Our trip concludes in Krakow’s former Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, once a flourishing center of Jewish life and today a monument to a lost past whose cobbled streets host kosher-style restaurants and klezmer bands alongside restored synagogues and cemeteries.
There, inside the magnificent Tempel Synagogue, we meet community head Tadeusz Jakubowicz, a Holocaust survivor.
Along with his parents, Jakubowicz was saved by Poles after fleeing the Plaszow labor camp run by the sadistic Austrian SS officer Amon Göth. Every year on All Saints Day he goes to visit and clean the graves of the Poles who saved his family and lights candles for them.
As he tells his story in a soft, melodic voice, tinged with melancholy, that bounces faintly off the high-arched ceilings of the neo- Romanesque synagogue where, he relates, the choir would resonate on the High Holy Days, the former musicologist has one request of his visitors: “Don’t just call all the Poles anti-Semites. That’s too simplistic.”