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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No one doubts that the non-Jewish Poles who sought to save Jews were extraordinarily brave. Any Pole caught helping a Jew faced summary execution by the Nazis, as did the members of his or her family. But opponents regard the proposed monument’s location across from the museum, in the district where a few hundred doomed and ghettoized Jews launched a sustained and hopeless uprising in 1943 against the Nazis, as a violation of a sacred space.

“It is even more painful to us, because the idea came from the Jewish community,” a trio of prominent Polish Jews wrote in an open letter in Polish in late March, protesting the plan. “It’s not that we do not want to erect a monument to the Righteous, or pay them respect in a different way,” they wrote. But locating the monument prominently right next to the museum would promote the impression that their stand somehow represented the Polish people’s wartime response to the Holocaust while “chasing away the spirit of Jewish narratives [that are] inconvenient for the majority.”

The few Poles who saved Jews, they emphasized, “did not operate on behalf of the Polish nation. They were a handful, and the most lethal threat to them was other Poles [who] held strong anti-Semitic beliefs.”

According to the letter writers — Helena Datner, a former president of Warsaw’s Jewish community; Bozena Uminska-Keff of Warsaw’s Jewish Historical, and Elzbieta Janicka, a prominent Polish Jewish public intellectual — a tribute to Righteous Gentiles next to the museum will reinforce a stereotype that “still dominates in Poland, making the Righteous the majority.”

Konstanty Gebert, a prominent Polish Jewish author and columnist who serves on the board of the foundation planning the memorial, pointed out that there are already monuments on the mall surrounding the museum, including a statue of the late German chancellor Willy Brandt, who opposed the Nazis during World War II. In Gebert’s view, many of the hundreds of thousands of people expected to visit the museum are simply unaware that Poles rescued Jews, and the monument will inform them of this.

The planned memorial at Grzybowski Square, meanwhile, is provoking critics who charge that it intentionally seeks to promote a view of Polish rescuers as a broadly significant wartime phenomenon.

Grzybowski Square is on the border of the former ghetto, on what was then the Christian side of Warsaw. Priests from the All Saints Church, to which the memorial will stand adjacent, did, in fact, help Jews escape from the ghetto and survive the Holocaust. In 2009, Yad Vashem posthumously recognized the church’s pastor, Marceli Godlewski, as a Righteous Gentile.

But University of Ottawa historian Jan Grabowski, a native of Poland whose father was a Holocaust survivor, deplored the Grzybowski Square monument as part of a wider campaign to rewrite history by making it appear that the major preoccupation of Polish society during the war was to save Jews.

The memorial’s inflation of the estimated number of rescuers is not an isolated phenomenon. Indeed, in a separate effort, Radio Maryja, an archconservative Catholic radio station that has broadcast commentary seen widely as anti-Semitic, claims that listeners have submitted 12,000 names of Poles who risked their lives to save Jews. Those names will be placed in a new Chapel of Remembrance in Torun, Poland, the station said.


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