Survivors laying wreaths at the Wall of Death during the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau (Photo by Adam Jagielak/Getty Images Poland/Getty Images)
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We need to talk about Holocaust issues, but also remember righteous heroes

Marking the European Day of the Righteous, the Polish Ambassador to the UK says that public debate on the Holocaust must remember the praiseworthy acts of righteous people

A lively debate around Polish-Jewish relations has been ongoing for many years in Poland, with the difficult issue of collaboration with Nazi Germany raised as one which needs to be discussed as much as Poles’ widespread aid to Jews.

Let me be clear: this debate is open and all who argue fairly and truthfully can participate in it. When talking about Holocaust truth, we must face the uncomfortable facts. Yes, some Poles collaborated with the Nazis – but they were a minority. And we must remember thousands who risked their and their families’ lives to save their Jewish brothers and sisters.

Frank discussions are taking place in Poland on the different attitudes towards the Holocaust

The Second World War started when Germany invaded Poland, with the Soviet Union attacking 16 days later. Poland became the war’s first victim by experiencing the armed aggression of two ruthless totalitarian regimes. It was also the first country that fought to defend free Europe. Under the German occupation the citizens of Poland were exposed to every kind of atrocity imaginable. The wartime crimes culminated with the Nazi murder of six million Jews, including three million Polish citizens, and other minorities as well as people of different nationalities.

Unfortunately, among the Polish population there were some individuals who were forced by the Germans to collaborate with the cruel Nazi machinery of extermination, or even did so of their own will. Their acts are heinous and deserve condemnation. And frank discussions are taking place in Poland on the different attitudes towards the Holocaust. The state of public debate on the Holocaust, then, is in good health, but while it rightly features the dark chapters of our history, the debate must also remember the praiseworthy acts of righteous people, especially today, on the European Day of the Righteous.

Among the 27,712 Righteous Among the Nations, the most populous group – 7,112 – are Poles. And there are sure to be many more who have yet to be officially recognised by Yad Vashem, but are righteous nonetheless. They ranged from state officials through resistance fighters to average citizens, and their help for Jews was far and wide: Poland, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Hungary, Japan, China, Cuba, Turkey, and who knows how many more locations.

The assistance from Poles to Jews during the Holocaust was omnipresent and global

In Switzerland, the Bernese Group of Polish and Jewish diplomats and activists, headed by Poland’s Ambassador Aleksander Ładoś, produced fake Latin American passports, which saved thousands of Jews. Fake passports were also provided by “the Polish Wallenberg”, Henryk Sławik, in Hungary, saving more than 30,000 Polish refugees, including 5,000 Jews. Meanwhile, in Japan and China, Polish Ambassador Tadeusz Romer aided 2,000 Jewish refugees from Poland and Lithuania through obtaining visas and founding the Polish Committee to Aid War Victims, while in Turkey, Consul General Wojciech Rychlewicz helped to save hundreds of Jewish people by providing them with fake Catholic documents, enabling safe passage to American and Middle Eastern countries. Then, the Polish consulate and legation in Havana represented the last link in the multistage evacuation of Jews from Western Europe by helping them to have their documents recognised in Cuba. And in mentioning Polish state’s direct aid, we must not forget Żegota – the Polish Council to Aid Jews, who helped up to 60,000 Jews in occupied Poland.

The actions of the Polish authorities extended to informational efforts. In December 1942, Poland’s London-based government-in-exile published “The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland”, the first official government document informing the West about the atrocities of the Holocaust. This very important document informed the 17 December 1942 Joint Declaration by Members of the United Nations pledging to punish those guilty of the genocide. This and other reports were made possible thanks to the courage, selflessness and determination of men like Jan Karski and Witold Pilecki, who smuggled out information from places including the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz.

Then there were Polish helpers who stood up against the cruelty without state assistance. Warsaw Zoo owners Jan and Antonina Żabiński hid Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto on their premises. Father Marceli Godlewski, whose parish was within the ghetto, facilitated escapes. Meanwhile, poignantly, the murder of the Ulma family, who were killed together with the Jewish people they were hiding, has become a symbol of Polish heroism and suffering during the Second World War.

Evidently, the assistance from Poles to Jews during the Holocaust was omnipresent and global. Many helped despite facing and often paying the ultimate price. Their actions give us all an example to follow when we encounter injustice. And while the evil acts committed by the few are undeniable, on this special day, let’s remember those who risked and often sacrificed their lives to help others.

Arkady Rzegocki is the Polish Ambassador to the UK.

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