The Righteous Among the Poles – and their antisemitic neighbors

"Those among the Poles who helped Jews survive exemplify the highest modes of ethical conduct and humanitarian behavior."

THE NAMES of the Righteous Among the Nations, at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE NAMES of the Righteous Among the Nations, at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the current heated debate on the role of Poles with regard to Jews in their midst during the Holocaust, I was led to reflect on my 24 years of work as head of the Righteous Among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem.
I remember coming across thousands of stories about the rescue of Jews by non-Jews from all European countries under German domination during World War II. What struck me the most in these accounts was the courage demonstrated by Polish rescuers of Jews, residents of a country under the harshest form of occupation (when compared with other occupied countries), where the Germans executed those apprehended sheltering Jews.
The German threat of the death penalty was repeatedly made public on large printed posters plastered on bulletin boards in the major cities of Poland. There can therefore be no doubt that Polish rescuers of Jews, who were aware of the risks to themselves in helping Jews escape the Nazi dragnet, and yet decided to shelter Jews or afford them other forms of protection, deserve our highest admiration, and many of them were justifiably awarded the prestigious Righteous title by Yad Vashem.
At the same time, in canvassing the many stories by survivors that landed on my desk, stories written in praise of their Polish rescuers, I could not help noticing, interspersed in these narratives, also accounts of harassment and persecution by many other Poles, including those who wished to do away with Jews on the run before the Germans got their hands on them. Survivors who benefited from the aid of Polish rescuers highlighted their courage in that they braved not only the risk of apprehension by the German occupiers, but also physical threats from neighbors to themselves and their Jewish wards, and the threat of fellow Poles informing on them to the authorities.
I will illustrate with two such examples of harm by members of the Polish underground.
Eli Ashenberg wrote that he was sheltered by Jan and Stefan Sosnowy in their Komodzianka village hamlet, when they found him hiding in their barn, after he had jumped from a deportation train from Frampol. The rescuers hid Ashenberg, a stranger to them, in a hole under their house for 20 months.
In March 1943, a local Armia Krajowa unit invaded the Sosnowy home and threatened to kill the couple unless they disclosed where the Jewish fugitive was hidden. They, of course, denied the charge, and were then led out to be shot.
At the very last moment, the intruders changed their minds and released the couple.
Ashenberg then told his rescuers that he wanted to leave in order to avoid a repetition of a similar life-threatening confrontation. Stefania Sosnowy refused to let him go, saying that after all they went through to save him, she could not consent to his leaving, and he remained hidden with them until liberation.
Jan and Stefania Sosnowy were awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations for risking their lives – not at the hands of the Germans but at the hands of the Polish underground.
Similar was the story of Stefan Sawa. At first, he smuggled food to his friends in the Kielce Ghetto; then he offered them shelter in his village home of Brzechow, free of any payments.
One day, a local Polish underground unit ordered him to get rid of the Jewish refugees, but Sawa disregarded the threat. On February 16, 1944, the unit, led by a certain Marian Soltysiak (“Barabasz”), raided Sawa’s home and set it on fire. All six hidden Jews were consumed by the fire – including their rescuer, Sawa, who paid with his life at the hands of a unit of the Polish underground for sheltering Jews in his home. He, too, was recognized with the Righteous honor by Yad Vashem.
In my estimation, those among the Poles who helped Jews survive exemplify the highest modes of ethical conduct and humanitarian behavior – for the risks they faced equally from the brutal German occupiers and from the threats to their lives by many, too many, of their antisemitic Polish compatriots.
Let us then continue to praise these rescuers. Let us also not forget that Jews in Poland faced a climate of local antisemitism that affected large strata of the population, which led in many cases to participation in the hunt for Jews on the run.
The writer, of Yeshiva University, is a former director of Yad Vashem’s department of the Righteous.