Poland has mixed feelings over memorial to rescuers of Jews
As a Catholic Pole, Elka shouldn’t even have been in the ghetto of Czestochowa, in southern Poland. But the nanny was so devoted to the 12-year-old Jewish boy she had raised since infancy that she refused to leave. She ended up being sent to the Treblinka death camp – where she was murdered with the Jews.
Today the boy, Sigmund Rolat, is an 85-year-old Polish-American businessman and philanthropist on a mission. He aims to build a memorial in the heart of Warsaw’s former ghetto to his beloved Elka and the thousands of other Polish Christians who risked their lives for Jews during World War II.
While the project has the blessing of Poland’s chief rabbi, it also has sparked strong opposition. Many scholars and some Jews fear that a monument to Polish rescuers at Warsaw’s key site of Jewish tragedy will bolster a false historical narrative that Poles largely acted as rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust. In reality, many Poles were indifferent to the plight of Jews during the war, and some participated in their persecution.
Official Polish narratives about the Holocaust already typically highlight the Poles who risked their lives to save Jews. Poland has been actively promoting the memory of Jan Karski, a resistance fighter who brought proof to the West of the destruction of Poland’s Jews.
Yet little is said about the widespread passivity that existed despite such enormous Jewish suffering, or cases where Poles used the breakdown of law and order to blackmail and murder Jews themselves, driven by greed or anti-Semitic hatred.
“Poles were victims, but at the same time, they were also victimizers of the most fragile members of society,” said historian Jan Grabowski, an opponent of the memorial and author of “Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland.”
The debate comes against the backdrop of a dramatic, more-positive change in attitudes toward Poland’s Jewish history since the country’s repressive communist era. The democratic European Union nation is increasingly celebrating the large Jewish population that flourished in Polish lands for centuries until the Holocaust – the new POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews is a key example of this efflorescence.
Under Rolat’s plan, the memorial would be next to the POLIN Museum and near a monument to the Jewish fighters of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
But there is stiff resistance by the Polish government and mainstream society to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that Poles – who were tortured, imprisoned and murdered in huge numbers by the Germans – also took part willingly at times in the murder of Jews.