WARSAW (Jul. 7)
Nearly a half century after the end of World War II, Israel’s ambassador here presented over two dozen Poles with medals recognizing their heroic acts in saving Jewish lives during the Nazi occupation.
The ceremony Wednesday marked the first time that any Polish citizen had been honored on home soil for saving Jewish lives in Poland. It was also the first time many of the recipients had received public recognition of any sort.
The Holocaust and Polish-Jewish relations were long considered taboo topics under the Communist regime in Poland.
The rescuers, who were also given honorary Israeli citizenship, were recognized during proceedings of the first International Conference on Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust.
The conference also brought together Jewish Holocaust survivors and the Poles who had saved them.
“Without the help of the righteous, we were dead,” said one such survivor, Jack Pariser, who now lives in the United States.
“I look at it not as saving us, but as giving us life,” he said.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which sponsored the conference, said about the meetings: “I feel it was successful because it identified this subject of Poles rescuing Jews as one which is in need of original research.
“This conference has also made the beginning of an impact in Poland,” said Foxman, who was himself saved by his Polish Catholic nanny.
HEROES BOTH OF POLES AND JEWS
Looking toward the future, Foxman expressed the hope that “the Polish government will find a way to honor these people (the rescuers) as national heroes.
“They are not just Jewish heroes but also Polish heroes,” he said.
The conference — titled “Can Indifference Kill?” — also featured two days of scholarly presentations and debate on Polish-Jewish relations and the action, or inaction, taken to save the Jews from the Nazis.
The presentations on the Polish record during the war inspired the most heated debate, reflecting a growing controversy in Poland that has emerged since the collapse of communism and the beginning of free academic inquiry.
Yehuda Bauer, a professor of Holocaust studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a participant in the presentations, explained his view on the new controversy.
“I think the Poles are still in the first stages of self-investigation,” Bauer said.
Tomasz Szarota, a professor at the Historical Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences, saw the situation as a continuing legacy of communism.
“Many of my colleagues have continued the official line of anti-Semitism from before. The only difference is that now we can freely discuss these issues,” he said.
Another highlight of the conference was a commemoration service in honor of those Christian Poles who saved Jewish lives, which included the participation of officials of the Polish Catholic Church.