“Heroes of the Holocaust in Poland WWII”
The Jan Karski Humanitarian Awards Reception May 20, 2019
Kosciuszko Foundation 15 East 65 Street New York City, NY
Key Note speaker Stan Norwalk, Assistant Chairman of the Polish Jewish Dialogue Committee
Honoring Irena Sendler with The Jan Karski Humanitarian Award Posthumously.
Good evening distinguished guests, ladies and gentleman, my name is Stan Norwalk Assistant Chairman of the Polish Jewish Dialogue Committee.
Tonight we celebrate the Christian men and woman in Poland during World War II who did something most of us would probably not do. Save Jews. Their selflessness was noble, remarkable, and under many scenarios incredulous, perhaps bordering on insanity. Their actions were bold and incomprehensible.
Who amongst us in their right mind would risk their own lives and those of their friends and family to save a Jew in WWII Poland?
Let’s find out!
The Germans made it clear in print, words and deeds. Everyone knew the consequences. November 10, 1941, the death penalty was introduced by Hans Frank, governor of the government, in Poland to apply the death penalty to Poles who helped Jews “in any way: by taking them in for the night, giving them a lift in a vehicle of any kind” , “feeding runaway Jews or selling them foodstuffs.”
The law was made public by posters distributed in all cities and towns, to instill fear If you try and save a Jew you would not be read your Miranda rights, no arraignments in a court of law, there would be no plea of “Not Guilty your honor” No defense lawyer, no hearings, no trial by a jury of your peers, no due process, there was only one thing to expect and that was torture and/or if you were lucky immediate execution. This happened frequently. A kangaroo court verdict of death delivered instantly carried out on the spot in your house, in the yard, in the village. And the same for your loved ones, perhaps your neighbors as well. Everywhere!
Not just death to you, but your family including your children and infant children as well, murdered. Terror of the worst kind. The crime helping a Jew.
Yes you might say these Heroes were crazy Christian Polish people who actually went out of their way to save Jews. What were they thinking? Were they mad?
Poles were, by nationality, the most numerous persons who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Most Poles did nothing for various reasons. One is the obvious, the other was anti-semitism.
Yad Vashem is Israel‘s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. It is dedicated to preserving the memory of the Jews who were murdered; honoring Jews who fought against their Nazi oppressors and Gentiles (non-Jews) who selflessly aided Jews in need.
To date, 6,863 ethnic Poles have been recognized by the State of Israel as Righteous among the Nations – more by far, than the citizens of any other country.
We must continue to tell their stories and praise their efforts in our schools, in our houses of worship, at the United Nations, and everywhere, over and over again so that others may learn of the tragedy so that this repulsive and obnoxious chapter in history is not buried as part of some obscure moment in time. It should be part of the curriculum of every elementary school, middle school, high school and university in America and elsewhere in the world.
Let`s talk numbers as inaccurate as they may be.
The number of Poles who rescued Jews from the Nazi German persecution would be hard to determine in black-and-white terms, and is still the subject of scholarly debate.
According to Gunnar S. Paulsson, the number of rescuers that meet Yad Vashem‘s criteria is perhaps 100,000 and there may have been two or three times as many who offered minor help; the majorities “were passively protective. 66 percent of the Jewish populations of Europe in 6 years were wiped out. 90 Percent of the Jewish population of Poland was wiped out. Based on the Polish population of 35 million, 1/3 of one percent of Polish people met the criteria of Yad Vashem’s.
In an article published in the Journal of Genocide Research, Hans G. Furth estimated that there may have been as many as 1,200,000 Polish rescuers that number represents 3.5 percent of the Polish population.
Richard C. Lukas estimated that upwards of 1,000,000 Poles were involved in such rescue efforts, but some estimates go as high as three million. Or 8.6 percent of the Polish Population of 35 million.
Lukas also cites Władysław Bartoszewski, a wartime member of Żegota, as having estimated that “at least several hundred thousand Poles .participated in various ways and forms in the rescue action.” Elsewhere, Bartoszewski has estimated that between 1 and 3 percent of the Polish Population were involved in rescue efforts. But to be fair, the population of Polish people includes children and the elderly so the percentages are even higher.
While Christian Poles did their part, America stood by aimlessly under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Polish citizens were in the heat of battle risking their lives and that of their families to save Jewish lives.
Rafael Medoff is the founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington. His book “FDR and the Holocaust:
In a Los Angeles Times newspaper article dated April 7, 2013 Medoff wrote and I quote: “a pattern of private remarks by Roosevelt about Jews, some of which he discovered at the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem and from other sources, may be significant.”
Roosevelt in 1923, as a member of the Harvard University Board of Directors, decided there were too many Jewish students at the college and helped institute a quota to limit the number admitted.
In 1938, Roosevelt privately suggested that Jews in Poland were dominating the economy and were therefore to blame for provoking anti-Semitism.
In 1941, Roosevelt remarked at a Cabinet meeting that there were too many Jews among federal employees in Oregon.
In 1943, he told government officials in Allied-liberated North Africa that the number of local Jews in various professions “should be definitely limited” so as to “eliminate the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany.”
There is evidence of other troubling private remarks by President Roosevelt too, including dismissing pleas for Jewish refugees as “Jewish wailing” and “sob stuff”. Let us never forget the ship MS St. Louis with over 937 passengers mostly Jewish refugees fleeing from Hamburg Germany from the Third Reich to Cuba May 13, 1939 but were denied entry there and when they arrived in Miami in the United States, were denied there and Canada and sent back to Germany most to meet their tragic fate .
Roosevelt expressing to a senator his pride that “there is no Jewish blood in our veins”; and characterizing a tax maneuver by a Jewish newspaper publisher as “a dirty Jewish trick.”
But the most common theme in Roosevelt’s private statements about Jews has to do with his perception that Jews were “overcrowding” many professions and exercising undue influence.
President Roosevelt said the best thing we can do for the Jews is win the war.
Other U.S. presidents have made their share of unfriendly remarks about Jews. A diary kept by Harry Truman included statements such as “The Jews, I find, are very, very selfish.”
“Richard Nixon’s denunciations of Jews as “very aggressive and obnoxious” were belatedly revealed in tapes of Oval Office conversations.
But the revelation of Franklin Roosevelt’s sentiments will probably shock many people. After all, he led America in the war against Hitler and led us through the “Great Depression”. He was extremely popular and rightfully so. But he was no friend of the Jews when they needed him the most.
Moreover, Roosevelt’s public persona and image was as a liberal humanitarian, his claim to care about “the forgotten man,” the downtrodden, the mistreated. But none of that can change the record of his responses to the Holocaust and all the people in all the concentration camps.
In the case of the United States, it is sobering to consider that partly because of Roosevelt’s private prejudices; innocent people who could have been saved were instead abandoned.
Some estimates put the number of Polish rescuers and credit them with saving up to some 450,000 Jews, temporarily, from certain death.
The rescue efforts were aided by one of the largest resistance movements in Europe, the Polish Underground State and its military arm, the Home Army.
Supported by the Government Delegation for Poland, these organizations operated special units dedicated to helping Jews; of those units, the most notable was the Żegota Council, based in Warsaw, with branches in Kraków, Wilno, and Lwów.
Occupied Poland was the only country where the Germans decreed that any kind of help to Jews was punishable by death for the rescuer and the rescuer’s entire family. Of the estimated 3 million non-Jewish Poles killed in World War II, thousands – perhaps as many as 50,000 Polish Christians – were executed by the Germans solely for saving Jews.
However, concealment of Jews by Polish citizens, the Polish underground, the Home Army, and the Zegota Council did not automatically assure complete safety from the Nazis, and the number of Jews in hiding who were caught has been estimated variously from 40,000 to 200,000.
Now we turn to some of the “Heroes of the Holocaust” who attempted to save Jewish lives and the outcomes.
Irena Sendler a young woman and life saver of Jewish children in Warsaw, Poland.
Irena was a Polish social worker, humanitarian and nurse who served in the Polish Underground during World War II in German-occupied Warsaw, Poland and from October 1943 was head of the children’s section of Żegota, the Polish Council to aid Jews .
Born 1910, Irena Sendler 29 years old participated with dozens of others in smuggling Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and then provided them with false identity documents and shelter with willing Polish families or in orphanages and other care facilities including Catholic convents, saving those children from the Holocaust.
Irena Sendler saved 2,500 Jewish children, sneaking them out of the Warsaw Ghetto in tool boxes, covered wagons, tunnels, through the sewer systems, hidden underground passages, or walking them out of the ghetto saying they were her children. Few knew the ways about these areas that only the locals knew.
The guards of the Warsaw Ghetto knew that Irena had paper work that allowed her to move freely in and out of the ghetto part of her task was to report to the officials the health conditions and the possibility of diseases that might spread outside the ghetto to the locals and military personnel occupying the city. No military or civilian official would want to enter the ghetto in fear of getting sick.
As Irena grew up in Warsaw her parents taught her to respect Jews and she did and carried this throughout her life. In school the Jews and Gentiles were separated but Irena always insisted on sitting alongside her Jewish school mates. She was a girl with plenty of guts.
When she entered the Warsaw Ghetto she tried to convince the families to give her their children and promised the Jewish parents who were isolated there that she would protect them and keep all their children’s I.D.’s so they could be repatriated after the war. Irena put all the papers with the children’s information in jars and buried them under ground, hence after the war a book was written called “Life in a Jar”.
The German occupiers suspected Sendler’s involvement in the Polish Underground and in October 1943 she was arrested by the Gestapo, but she managed to hide the list of the names and locations of the rescued Jewish children, preventing this information from falling into the hands of the Gestapo.
Withstanding torture and imprisonment, Irena Sendler never revealed anything about her work or the locations of the saved children. She was sentenced to death but narrowly escaped on the day of her scheduled execution, after Żegota the organization she worked with bribed German officials to obtain her release. She miraculously survived and lived till she was 98.
They made a movie about her called “the Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler” and a book called “Life in a Jar”.
Tonight posthumously the Polish-Jewish Dialogue Committee honors her memory, her courage, her humanity and her service to the war effort with the Jan Karski Humanitarian Award. God bless her soul.
Others with great courage:
Beatified Sister Marta Wołowska of Słonim was murdered for rescuing Jewish families from the Słonim Ghetto and hiding them in her monastery and everywhere around the monastery.
Rudolf Stefan Jan Weigl a Polish biologist and inventor of the first effective vaccine against epidemic typhus. He founded the Weigl Institute in Lviv, where he conducted vaccine research. He harbored Jews, thereby risking execution by the Germans. His vaccines were also smuggled into the Lwów Ghetto and the Warsaw Ghetto, saving countless additional Jewish lives.
The Ulma family ( includes the father, his 9 month pregnant wife and their six young children) of the village of Markowa, Poland – where many Christian families concealed their Jewish neighbors – The Ulma family were executed by the Nazis along with the eight Jews including their children they were hiding. Mrs. Ulma was just about to give birth.
The villagers were forced to watch the execution to scare them that this is what happens to anyone who protects Jews.
After the adults were murdered the Polish police said to the Nazis overseeing the execution what do we do with the children and the Nazis said kill them too. And they did .The villagers were forced to watch the murders and then bury all of them.
After the assassins left the scene, some of the villagers returned. They dug up the bodies to give them a proper burial, at which time it was discovered that Mrs. Ulma gave birth after she was shot and buried. A museum was created in their honor.
The entire Wołyniec family in Romaszkańce was massacred for sheltering three Jewish refugees from a ghetto in Maciuńce, for hiding Jews,
The Germans shot eight members of Józef Borowski’s family along with him and four guests who happened to be there at the wrong time in the wrong place. Nazi death squads carried out mass executions of the entire villages that were discovered to be aiding Jews on a communal level. In the villages of Białka near Parczew and Sterdyń near Sokołów Podlaski, 150 villagers were massacred for sheltering Jews.
Several hundred Poles were massacred with their priest, Adam Sztark, in Słonim on 18 December 1942, for sheltering Jewish refugees of the Ghetto in a Catholic church. In Huta Stara near Buczacz, Polish Christians and the Jewish countrymen they protected were herded into a church by the Nazis and burned alive on 4 March 1944.
In the years 1942–1944 about 200 peasants were shot dead and burned alive as punishment in the Kielce region alone.
Entire communities that helped to shelter Jews were annihilated, such as the now-extinct village of Huta Werchobuska near Złoczów, Zahorze near Łachwa, Huta Pieniacka near Brody or Stara Huta near Szumsk.
There was the Bernese Group-A band of Jewish activists and Polish diplomats, in Switzerland, who engineered a system of illegal production of Latin American passports aimed at saving European Jews from the Holocaust. About 10,000 people were saved from being sent to German extermination camps.
Polish Dominican nun Sister Cecylia Maria Roszak and her fellow nuns in Vilnius helped in saving numerous Jewish lives. For two years, Vilnius was under Soviet occupation, and then under German occupation after the invasion of the Nazis. During this time, Sr. Roszak and her sisters, led by their superior, Mother Bertranda, hid 17 members of the Jewish resistance in their convent, risking their lives to do so.
According to The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, the Jewish people who found refuge in the convent were members of the illegal Jewish Zionist underground movements.
“Despite the enormous difference between the two groups, very close relations were formed between the religious Christian nuns and the left-wing secular Jews.”
They found a safe haven behind the convent’s walls; they worked with the nuns in the fields and continued their political activity. They called the mother superior of the convent Ima (Mother in Hebrew),” the Center states in a biographical page on Mother Bertranda, who eventually left the convent .She lived longer than anyone and died at the age of 110 on November 16, 2018 .
Mother Bertranda, later known as Anna Borkowska, was a Polish cloistered Dominican nun who served as the prioress of her monastery in Kolonia Wileńska near Wilno. She was a graduate of the University of Kraków. She entered the monastery after her studies. During World War II, under her leadership, the nuns of the monastery sheltered 17 young Jewish activists from Vilnius Ghetto and helped the Jewish Partisan Organization (FPO) by smuggling weapons. In recognition of this, in 1984 she was awarded the title of Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
The forms of protection varied from village to village. In Gołąbki, the farm of Jerzy and Irena Krępeć provided a hiding place for as many as 30 Jews; years after the war, the couple’s son recalled in an interview with the Montreal Gazette that their actions were “an open secret in the village [that] everyone knew they had to keep quiet” and that the other villagers helped, “if only to provide a meal.”
Another farm couple, Alfreda and Bolesław Pietraszek, provided shelter for Jewish families consisting of 18 people in Ceranów near Sokołów Podlaski, and their neighbors brought food to those being rescued.
Mother Matylda Getter rescued between 250 and 550 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. Mother Matylda Getter declared that she would take in every Jewish child she could.
During the occupation, the Order’s Sisters rescued between 250 and 550 Jewish children from the ghetto. Mother Matylda risked her life and the lives of her Sisters by taking the children into her orphanages and hiring adults to work with them, caring for the children in facilities scattered around Poland. As the superior of the Warsaw Province of the Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary, she took on the responsibility of obtaining birth certificates for the children and hiding them in the order’s educational institutions.
Several organizations dedicated to saving Jews were created and run by Catholic Poles with the help of the Polish Jewish underground. Among those, Żegota, the Council to Aid Jews, was the most prominent. It was unique not only in Poland, but in all of Nazi-occupied Europe, as there was no other organization dedicated solely to that goal. Żegota concentrated its efforts on saving Jewish children toward whom the Germans were especially cruel.
A final word: We must pay tribute to Jan Karski. Jan Karski (June 24th -1914 – July 13, 2000) was a Polish World War II resistance-movement soldier, and later a professor at Georgetown University in America. In 1942–43 Karski reported to the Polish Government-in-Exile in England and to Poland’s Western Allies (America knew) about the situation in German-occupied Poland, especially about Germany’s destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and about Germany’s extermination on Polish soil that were murdering Jews, ethnic Poles, and other nationalities. It was his mission to save Jewish lives.
Jan met with the Polish Government in exile in London during the beginning of the war and told them he was able with the help of Zegota to go and see with his own eyes the brutal, horrific torture and murders of Jews.
Winston Churchill would not meet with Karski as he said he did not have the time. The Polish Government in exile in London sent Jan to the United States where he met with FDR and begged him to do something. He met with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and others. Neither seemed interested in his message. He asked FDR if he had any messages for the Jews. FDR told Jan Karski to tell the Jews we will win the war.
FDR knew early on in the war what was happening to Jews, was not fond of Jews and did NOTHING! There are words for this type of person.
That concludes my presentation.