After 70 years, honoring ‘righteous Gentiles’

By Marisa Martin

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Poland commemorates Yom Ha’Shoah (or Jewish Holocaust) at a variety of memorials on April 16. Some of these are in construction, new this year or under fierce debate. One is at the Warsaw Zoo.

If this sounds racist, refugees who slept safety under gorilla cages and fetid tunnels were thrilled to be anywhere not called Auschwitz or Treblinka. They were also grateful to their brilliant, zoo-keeping saviors, Jan and Antonina Zabinski. Cramming their home with desperate Jews, the couple used extreme creativity to protect their charges (even while Nazis conducted “hunting” expeditions with the animals). Now their Bauhaus villa is renovated into a memorial for children who will visit the zoo.

Jan and Antonina Zabinski
Jan and Antonina Zabinski

Yom Ha’Shoah punctuates each year on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and 2015 marks the 70th year since their desperate stand against the Nazis. From there, at least 254,000 Jews were sent to die. Since Poland was home to the majority of Jewish Holocaust victims, the nation has a complex relationship to the killings and killers.

This painful reminder is part of the fuss over a new memorial to the many non-Jewish rescuers or “righteous Gentiles” that received little praise in the past. Objections are over the location, which is near the new “Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews.” And that edifice is square in the middle of the old Warsaw Ghetto site, a giant mausoleum of sorrow.

Some survivors’ descendants object to deflecting attention from the people who lived and died there alone. Their translated Facebook page claims that the “Ghetto Fighters Monument” was meant to symbolize the “profound abandonment” and isolation of Poland’s Jews – a “zone of memory.” Rather, author Jan Grabowski charges Poles with attempting to whitewash and sell Poland to the rest of the world. He remarks that the popularity of Gentile monuments are “the only platform today that unites the Right and the Left in Poland.”

Others, including non-Jews, claim the placement is insensitive and greatly “changes the narrative” of the Warsaw Ghetto. Barbara Engelking of the Polish Academy of Sciences objected that there should remain a “zone of silence” to commemorate Jewish suffering and not Polish heroism. She and others have no problem with a tribute anywhere else, especially as there is another one planned close by.

Designers for a memorial at All Saints Catholic Church hope to “clear Poland’s conscience” by inscribing names of 10,000 Poles who helped save Jewish lives. Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Institute awarded 6,454 Poles medals for this, but who but God could ever know the actual numbers? Nazis were as vicious to Poles that crossed them as they were to Jews.

Massive and striking, the proposed design features a concrete “ribbon” looping around three sides of the Church. It drastically alters the face of the traditional-looking church and makes a definite statement about the importance of the memorial.

Proposed memorial with names of 10,000 rescuers and of Jews at All Saint Church – Warsaw
Proposed Memorial with names of 10,000 Rescuers and of Jews at All Saint Church – Warsaw

Politics muddies up the efforts here, as Poland’s president and Warsaw’s mayor have issues with the church coordinator for the project. Jan Zaryn is considered an ultra-nationalist who hopes to improve Poland’s image from WWII as being rampant anti-Semites. Zaryn stressed courageous acts of some Poles such as his own parents, who are recognized by Yad Vashem as “righteous Gentiles.” This and Zaryn’s running feud with Princeton researcher Jan Gross, who has documented and published on Polish cooperation with Nazis, offends the president.

“Ten thousand names is only a beginning,” Zaryn is quoted in the Jewish Daily Forward. He continued to claim, “In my opinion, at least one million Poles provided [Jews] assistance” of some kind during the occupation.

Not all Jews are opposed to honoring the courageous minority directly in the old Warsaw Ghetto, and the idea was first birthed in the Jewish community. Sigmund Rolat, a child Holocaust survivor and philanthropist from New York, leads the cause. He is also a force behind the the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, and other commemorative projects.

Sigmund Rolat
Sigmund Rolat

In a Forbes magazine interview, Rolat explained that the if the Gentile monument is placed anywhere else, it “would be visited only by a small group of museum visitors, maybe by every twentieth visitor, who would take the trouble to see it and learn about the righteous.”

Propelled by the love and great admiration of his older brother, Rolat recalls his last words before he died as a teenage resistance fighter: “Remember all you have seen.”

Translated from Hebrew, “Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah” means “Day of (remembrance for) the Holocaust and the Heroism.” Most agree that anti-Holocaust heroes should be remembered (somewhere) regardless of religion or race. For Rolat, it is important to stress that Jews and Poles fought in the Resistance and were not all passive victims.

Bronisław Czarnocha wrote a lovely and gracious letter supporting Gentile presence in the Warsaw Ghetto site. “There is only one heroism and it cannot be divided. Is the heroism of a Polish peasant from Silesia, who gave half of my uncle’s family shelter, any different from the heroism of well-known Edelman from the ghetto? If not, what are our reasons behind dividing something that is integral, as heroism is?”

Beautiful thoughts. Czarnocha is also concerned that Poles “who are holding out their hands” to the Jewish community “cannot wait to see a similar gesture” from them.

Why can’t Poles wait, since it’s taken 70 years to deal with this? Villages that preemptively killed Jewish families before Nazis even arrived haven’t owned up or apologized for the most part. Some tore down commemorative plaques and markers of the facts.

Memorials to righteous Gentiles are at least a beginning. There is an unspoken but implicit comparison of the noble and courageous actions of a relatively few in them. Remembering 10,000 “righteous” is important, but it doesn’t begin to “clear Poland’s conscience” for the other millions. Seeking forgiveness doesn’t seem to be the purpose for these. They are more statements of empathy or solidarity after the fact.

This would be terribly controversial and not wildly popular, but I had a thought …

Why aren’t there “memorials” to the millions who participate in mass murder and genocide – names, places and all? Rwanda, Turkey, Stalin and Mao’s hoards. They could be held there until the persons, descendants or official representatives acknowledge their crimes and apologize. This is closer to “clearing conscience.”

But that will never happen with the leaders we now have. Ban Ki Moon, leader of the U.N. or the world’s most powerful “peacemaking” group, covered for Turkey once again. The Armenian Holocaust never happened, or if did it was something else – partisan fighting or a little spat. This should be a clue: they tore their Peace Monument down before it was even completed.

Final design for the Righteous Gentiles memorial in Warsaw is nearly selected. The debate politely runs on, but at almost everyone agrees that they would at least like it to be somewhere.

SOURCES: Forward.com, Donald Synder, Martin Gilbert, Joachim Raff, Jewish Virtual Library

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