Poland's Dueling Holocaust Monuments to 'Righteous Gentiles' Spark Painful Debate

How To Honor Poles Who Saved Jews in Shoah?

Righteous Ribbon: A ribbon emblazoned with names of Polish ‘righteous gentiles’ would wrap around a church in a planned memorial in Warsaw.
city of warsaw
Righteous Ribbon: A ribbon emblazoned with names of Polish ‘righteous gentiles’ would wrap around a church in a planned memorial in Warsaw.

By Donald Snyder

Published April 27, 2014, issue of May 02, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

In Poland, where 3 million Polish Jews died at Nazi hands, not one but two new monuments are being planned in Warsaw that will memorialize — and, some fear, distort the role of — the several thousand non-Jewish Poles who tried to save them.

As Holocaust Remembrance Day approaches, both projects are generating heated criticism. But in their respective approaches, they also reflect competing narratives and competing political agendas in contemporary Poland.

One proposal, put forward by Jews but also controversial among Jews, is to build a monument in what was once the Warsaw Ghetto honoring these rescuers. This monument, still in the planning stage, is expected to go up sometime next year, near the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Its intent is to honor the 6,454 Poles that Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum and research institute, has identified as so-called Righteous Gentiles.

A second proposal, to locate a memorial in Grzybowski Square, adjacent to All Saints Church, has already been approved by the Warsaw City Council. In March, the council okayed the monument’s design and appropriated funding for it. This monument, also slated for completion in 2015, will be a concrete ribbon inscribed with the names of 10,000 Poles who allegedly saved Jews. The ribbon will curl around three sides of the church. These names will be selected according to different criteria than that used by Yad Vashem, which is known for its rigorous examination of applications.

Spearheading the Grzybowski Square project is historian Jan Zaryn, editor-in-chief of In the Net of History, a monthly historical publication. Zaryn, 56, is a passionate defender of Polish heroism during World War II. Critical of Poland’s detractors, he condemns authors like Princeton University historian Jan Gross, who has written several books that purport to document a significant role by Poles in aiding, abetting or profiting from the Nazis’ genocidal project.

“I am obliged to the past generations of Poles, as long as I am alive, that the lies about their attitudes and beliefs be finally buried,” Zaryn wrote in an email response to a question from the Forward.

According to Zaryn, whose parents Yad Vashem has recognized as Righteous Gentiles, it’s time for the Polish side of this period of history to be told, and with it should come recognition of the great numbers of Poles who saved Jews. “Ten thousand names is only a beginning,” Zaryn said in his email. “In my opinion, at least 1 million Poles provided [Jews] assistance,” he said, whether it was “constant [assistance] or more often sporadic assistance, situational help.”

Jews lead the other memorial project, adjacent to the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, under the auspices of the Poland-based Foundation for Remembrance, chaired by Sigmund Rolat, a Polish Jewish survivor of a forced labor camp who today lives in New York. The planned monument is to be titled “To Rescuers From Survivors.”

Rolat, 83, who worked tirelessly to establish the museum itself, argues passionately about the need for a monument of gratitude to the Righteous Gentiles.

“Those people who risked their lives, and the lives of their families, to save Jews were every bit as heroic as those who were going to die in Treblinka and heroically chose to die by jumping out of their windows from the burning houses in the ghetto,” Rolat said. “Sure, there were many bastards, but that makes the individuals who saved Jews even more heroic.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Selma. Nearly 50 years ago it was violent Selma, impossibly racist Selma, site of Bloody Sunday, when peaceful civil rights marchers made their first attempt to cross the Pettus Street Bridge on the way to the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama." http://jd.fo/r50mf With the 50th anniversary approaching next spring, a new coalition is bringing together blacks, Jews and others for progressive change.
  • Kosovo's centuries-old Jewish community is down to a few dozen. In a nation where the population is 90% Muslim, they are proud their past — and wonder why Israel won't recognize their state. http://jd.fo/h4wK0
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.