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.
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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.”


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