Q&A: Władysław Bartoszewski
Why you should learn to spell the name of the mastermind of Poland’s relations with Germany and the Jews
At 91, Władysław Bartoszewski is, as he points out, one year older than Shimon Peres, his fellow nonagenarian Polish-born statesman, and if anything more frighteningly vigorous. His recent career—meaning the last 20years of his life—includes two stints as foreign minister of Poland, and leading his country into NATO, as well as his current jobs as secretary of state and plenipotentiary of the prime minister for international dialogue, which are significant enough to merit a passel of attentive young aides and a very large office in the Prime Minister’s Chancellery that used to belong to the prime minister himself.
Bartoszewski’s impressive collection of knighthoods and prizes (Order of the White Eagle, Heinrich Heine Prize, Saint Liborius Medal for Unity and Peace, among others), keys to cities, and other honors testifies to his very real diplomatic accomplishments and to the esteem in which he is held by his peers in the new-old states of Central and Eastern Europe. But what is interesting about him is not his recent career, but the many lives that he lived, both in sequence and simultaneously, any one of which might have satisfied, or exhausted, a less energetic or capable man: As a journalist and scholar, he wrote dozens of books and innumerable articles, while also teaching graduate courses at some of Poland’s best universities without the benefit of a graduate degree. As an activist, dedicated to preserving the memory of Nazi atrocities, he was imprisoned in Stalinist Poland for seven years, only to be released and imprisoned again, while helping to pioneer the preservation of concentration camps and other historical sites and standing up for Polish dissidents of all stripes under communist rule.
But none of Bartoszewski’s achievements seem particularly difficult or daunting when compared to the raw courage he displayed as a young man during World War II. Thrown into Auschwitz at the age of 18, he spent over a year as a Polish Catholic prisoner in the infamous Nazi concentration camp before being released thanks to the intervention of the Red Cross. After his release, he became involved in the work of the Polish underground and became the key member of the Council to Aid Jews (better known as Żegota), whose unique and daring work helped to save thousands of Jews from certain death during the Holocaust in Poland. As a member of Żegota, Bartoszewski served as the key liaison with Adolf Berman and Leon Feiner, the council’s two Jewish members who lived in hiding on the so-called Aryan side of Warsaw, and also helped to prepare Jan Karski’s famous 1942 report to the British government revealing the existence of extermination camps in Poland. In 1965, Bartoszewski was recognized as one of the “Righteous Among Nations” by Yad Vashem.
Bartoszewski’s close and deep relationship to the Jewish people goes back to his early childhood and was proven many times during the Holocaust against unimaginable obstacles and at constant, mortal risk. It is no surprise that he is the one figure around whom all relevant parties can unite when it comes to the often-fractious politics of memory and the future of historical sites like Auschwitz—which can mean very different things to Poles, American Jews, Israelis, concentration camp survivors, communal leaders, and politicians. (Bartoszewski likes to point out that Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Tzipi Livni are all of Polish descent.)
On the eve of state ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, it was an honor for me and for members of the Tablet staff to be able to meet Bartoszewski at the Prime Minister’s Chancellery in Warsaw, listen to him talk for two hours, and even ask a few questions. What follows is a lightly edited translation of portions of his remarks.
Władysław Bartoszewski: I am pleased that you found the time to meet with me, and I am also pleased to have found the time to meet with you, because the anniversary that we all know about makes me extraordinarily busy. I have matters to attend to almost every hour of the day.
Now coming to this anniversary. Why does it make sense to emphasize it so strongly today in Poland? Why now, and not 20, 30, 40 years ago? Now, when there are so few witnesses left? We have just one insurgent coming over from Israel, Simcha Rotem, my dear friend, otherwise known as Kazik Rathajzer from Warsaw. So, why is it so important now? This is a question, a very pertinent journalistic question, and I will answer it for you.
The present Polish state is among the greatest political friends of the state of Israel in the world. We have exceptional political and military co-operation and also at the level of, to put it elegantly, international security, i.e., co-operation of our special forces. I have twice been the minister of foreign affairs in the new Poland, 11 and 17 years ago, and as a member of the government I know what we are doing, although governments cannot talk about all the things they do. So, I’m not going to talk about that either.
Since 2007, under this government, I have been responsible for Jewish matters as an adviser to the prime minister. Let me just say that I am by no means a philo-Semite. In my opinion one cannot be a philo-Semite, because one can like dogs of a certain pedigree or birds of a certain species, but one cannot adopt the same attitude to people. One can be either a humanist or an anti-Semite, but not a philo-Semite. I’m interested in what people are like, I’m interested in justice, I’m interested in whether the dignity of people is being respected, and whether they respect that of others. When some events occur in the State of Israel that I dislike, it affects me more than if it were taking place in Albania or even in France, because I care about the state of Israel. If a Polish Jew is a bad politician I am highly irritated. I would prefer a bad Polish-French, or Polish-Dutch, not a Polish Jew. Just to make sure that there isn’t the shadow of a doubt, I want to stress that ethnicity or roots have nothing to do with the evaluation of the person. It seems to me that after the 20th century we owe this to the victims of World War II.
Finally, I grew up as a child, in kindergarten, in the northern part of Warsaw, and by pure coincidence, because my father had a company flat there, I lived in a neighborhood that verged on the Jewish district at the corner of Nalewki and Głowackiego. I spent my whole childhood among Jewish children, I played in the garden with Jewish children. There were hardly any gentiles there, just a few who, like my father, had a service flat in this area. This particular part of Warsaw was inhabited by religious Jews who’d never hired out their flats to anyone but Jews, and therefore the children I played with in the garden were Jewish children. There were no others. Throughout my childhood Jewish children were my mates. By the way, one out of three inhabitants of Warsaw was Jewish, which is more than in New York. Not one out of five, or 10, but one in three.
On a run in 2008, I collapsed from a brain aneurysm. Now it’s time to get back on the Charles River path.