Q&A: Władysław Bartoszewski
Why you should learn to spell the name of the mastermind of Poland’s relations with Germany and the Jews
So, it goes without saying that when one lived next to that district—a district, what’s more, that resembled Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, a district of very ordinary people—one absorbed the atmosphere. In Jerusalem not everyone would want to live in Mea Shearim, but I go there, I stand in front of a shop window, I look and listen to the people speaking Yiddish, and I understand, for I know it from my childhood. I can no longer speak it, because subsequently German spoiled my Yiddish, but I still understand what people say.
At home, my parents were honest, liberal people who never set me against anyone, except perhaps Nazi Germany once they attacked Poland, obviously.
Because I talked for so long, I will prolong the meeting by another 30-35 minutes, so you can ask questions.
First, I want to express our joy at seeing your energy and vigor. As the West ages, you and Shimon Peres should probably get together and teach a class on the secret to maintaining such vitality. I would like to think this is the natural result of the exemplary life that you have led, but history teaches us that goodness is not always rewarded.
The last time I was in Warsaw, I went to visit with your colleague the historian Krzysztof Dunin-Wasowicz, and he told us of being a teenager working in a bookshop where you came in one day and engaged him in conspiratorial talk. The first object of your conspiracy was to hide a young Jewish man who worked in the store, and he was successfully hidden over a period of years in apartments on the so-called Aryan side of the city. Now, I’ve read your books, and I know of your important achievements as a statesman and a guardian of memory. But thinking of you as a young man in wartime, hiding a young Jewish man whose life was in danger—risking your own life and that of your family to do so—I want to say again that it is a real pleasure and an honor to meet you.
Given the commemorative activities of the week, could you tell us anything about your own personal contacts with the leaders in the ghetto as a member of Żegota, the Polish Council to Aid Jews? Did you ever physically enter the ghetto yourself?
I’ve never been to the ghetto itself. But I was involved in helping the ghetto, and I was in great danger. In the period between September 1940 and April 1941, I was a prisoner in Auschwitz, as a Pole and a Catholic, until the International Red Cross in Geneva got me out, because I was an employee of the Polish Red Cross. The Polish Red Cross notified Geneva, Geneva got in touch with the German Red Cross, explaining that Red Cross employees were being detained and that it must be a misunderstanding. It went on for quite a while, but in the end I was released, already equipped with the necessary experience and understanding of what was going on.
Like Poles, the Jews at that time naively believed that the war would only last for a few months. It was 1940, and people hoped that the UK and France would enter the war and the war would end quickly. When this proved false, people started thinking, “What should we do next?” Of course to survive a few months was not a problem. To survive in conditions when one was sentenced to death only because one was alive and not for any other reasons was something that people could not embrace as an idea because it exceeded any norms that were then known.
In 1939, the first Jews fought in uniforms in the Polish army. There were around 200,000 of them. The first Jews who fought in uniform against Hitler were Polish citizens. Among them was Menachem Begin, who had the rank of junior warrant officer. He soon escaped to the East. Some of them were captured by the Germans, some by Stalin’s army.
In 1942, after the Wannsee Conference, is when the Germans began to implement a larger plan. We didn’t know about it; not even the English or Americans knew any details. But we knew the facts. It was also in 1942 that I prepared some materials for Jan Karski, before he left for the West. But once the awareness came, it was already too late. The ghetto was closed, isolated, there were thousands of SS soldiers.
My personal contacts in the ghetto developed in 1942 after being released from the camp, but not immediately, since there was a period of quarantine, so to speak, we needed to know whether I was under surveillance. I then became involved in organized aid activity. In such an organized activity roles are divided: Someone helps children, someone else is forging documents, others smuggle medicines, organize transport, a trusted physician will perform clandestine treatments; even then, of course, people suffered from heart attacks, appendicitis, children were being born.
The institution that was involved in this activity was called the Council for Aid to Jews, which was not an organization of Poles alone. I place a great deal of emphasis on this; it was a body composed of Polish Christians, and Polish Jews, working together. In the council, we had the representative of six Zionist organizations, Adolf Berman, and also the representative of the Bund, Leon Feiner. The Bund played quite an important role in Poland at the time. They worked with us on the Aryan side, we worked together, and neither we nor they made the distinction between who is who (except when it was necessary for security reasons and for the division of some tasks). We were just people fighting against Hitler; they knew the ghetto better than us, they saw certain things more precisely, while we had a better knowledge of how to move about the rest of Warsaw. Berman himself was from Warsaw. He received a Ph.D. at the Warsaw University before the war and had a lot of friends among the Polish social democrats, liberals. He left the ghetto in September 1942 with his wife Basia and received help from his friends, they sent them to others, and then we relied on those people to find contacts in the ghetto.
We obtained funding from the Polish government in exile in London, later from an American Jewish organization and the World Zionist Congress and various trade union organizations. The money was channeled through the government in London and brought by here by couriers, people who parachuted down in Poland. The money was in American dollars, and I can tell you 10 American dollars in Hitler’s totalitarian state was worth a great deal, though today it is barely enough for a tip.
We divided the money, we gave them to people who could move about freely, mainly women and children; it was a risk for circumcised men, because of potential checks. I know of surgeons who operated on people to remove the circumcision. Some of those people survived the war. Life faced us with unimaginable challenges.
On a run in 2008, I collapsed from a brain aneurysm. Now it’s time to get back on the Charles River path.