Q&A: Władysław Bartoszewski
Why you should learn to spell the name of the mastermind of Poland’s relations with Germany and the Jews
I became very efficient in providing, through Catholic circles, genuine certificates of baptism, that someone was baptized 20 years before the war. In the case of women, this could work. It didn’t occur to the Germans that a priest, an official, could confirm a lie about a baptism. Which he would do, because he hated the Germans. Then I became proficient in forging documents myself, and as a result I have something to fall back on in case I need a change of career.
Now I can say the following: For me the fact that out of the 24,000 names of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, 7,000 are Polish names (not just individuals, the names can be whole families, whose actions involved the cooperation of their neighbors), that really means something. I always say: Sodom was destroyed, for the lack of 10 righteous men.
Today, we live in a democracy, where people can make films or books like everywhere else. They can present the truth or say rubbish about these things, as they wish, just like in America. On the other hand the time is ripe for old people—because the generation of Gutman, Peres, not to speak of Kalman Sultanik, who is even older than us, he is almost 100 years old, is disappearing, and we would like to celebrate certain things, pay tribute, pass our knowledge to the young, and give examples. This is the last moment.
We are very grateful for how generous you’ve been with your time this morning. So, two last questions. First: What was your first memory of the ghetto uprising? When did you become aware of it? How did that make you feel?
And lastly, there is no shortage of voices, especially in the Middle East, that deny that large parts of the history you lived through ever happened, and who often couple that denial with threats to conduct a second genocide to wipe the state of Israel off the map. How does that make you feel?
Pertaining to the question on the current international affairs, I am not the minister of foreign affairs. Nobody my age can be the minister of foreign affairs. However, I am advising the government and am therefore well aware of the situation. I have access to confidential documents, and I read many reports from Polish embassies in the world; we are part of NATO where I have many friends and acquaintances. We understand the complexity and the threats in the world, we know that people are looking toward North Korea and Iran with fear—and in the end, bombs explode in Boston. We are also closely following the situation in Israel. We are completely on the side of Israel. We are actively involved together with our soldiers in actions against fundamentalist Islam in neighboring counties. That is our position, and it is supported by the public here.
With regards to the battle in the Warsaw ghetto, the uprising was absolutely unexpected. It was the Germans who set the date by entering the ghetto in tanks and trying to remove people from there. We didn’t know what was going on at the barracks, we didn’t know about the orders coming from Berlin. I was standing in the crowd in front of the ghetto. However we were in constant touch with people like Berman and Feiner, the people on the council with us. We were aware of what was going on in the ghetto, especially the first days, because the telephone lines were still working. Somehow it didn’t occur to the Germans that was possible, so we were in touch that way.
Our task was to raise an alarm internationally. The eastern front was still 2,000 km away on the Volga River. The Americans and Germans were just considering at the time some sort of campaign from the side of Italy, so things were not advanced at all. To consider any assistance on the part of the air forces was not of great use, because all they could do was come and drop bombs and go back. We were in touch with the Polish authorities in London, and we appealed to the allies and raised the alarm, although we were quite convinced that no one would do anything, as was proven a few months later when the Warsaw uprising started and in its turn was left with no help.
I knew I was in a special position at the time. I knew more than anyone else. We focused on bringing assistance to the people who escaped. We had no artillery. We had no bombs. All we had was one or two rifles, all we could do was shoot one or two Germans, which we did, but really they were replaced immediately. As you will read in the reports of Jurgen Stroop, they at least knew exactly what had happened to their soldiers. We didn’t have a clear picture. That was the difference between a precisely organized army and a group of civilians who tried to defend themselves or organize a heroic gesture in defense of human values that they wanted to defend in a desperate attempt. The world learned about this belatedly, and perhaps the world is still a little bit ashamed of that.
I must say that my feelings at the time were pessimistic. After the Warsaw Ghetto uprising there were others, in other towns like Bialystock. All we could do is just help those few who survived.
Who helped? Dunin, I don’t know how he calculated this, but he claims that 10 to 15 percent of the Polish population assisted the Jews. Which wouldn’t have been such a bad thing because we were a nation of 22 million and if there were 1.5 million people helping that would have been definitely very good. I didn’t see those thousands and thousands. I only knew a few. Perhaps that’s how it had to be.
If we look at New Orleans when the Mississippi flooded its banks, I remember there was a direct order to shoot looters without warning: There will always be people who try to benefit from the misfortunes of others, and there will always be people who do everything to come to the rescue. One has also to consider there was hunger. Fear was rampant. Christian Poles were sent to Dachau, to Mathausen. Three thousand priests were sent to concentration camps. People felt persecuted. Not only the Jewish population was affected. One cannot say only the Jewish population was persecuted, and all the others lived without concerns.
It’s difficult for me to admit it, but I was never so afraid as when I helped Jews. And I explain to young people that it doesn’t matter. That fear doesn’t matter. Despite the fear, one has to do what has to be done. The right thing.
My apologies, but as a journalist, I must break my promise and ask you one more last question. You lived through the tragic history of the Holocaust. You were a prisoner in Auschwitz, and you saw what happened in the Warsaw Ghetto. As a Pole, you also know very well how strong nations leave small nations to suffer alone. You served as foreign minister of your country and know the kinds of choices that leaders must make on behalf of their people.
So, if you were the prime minister of Israel, and you had to listen, year after year, to threats of annihilation from a country that embraces a radical fascistic ideology, and promises to wipe your nation off the face of the Earth, while racing to develop a nuclear bomb, what would you do? Would you wait for Iran to develop a bomb, or would you do something now, on your own, to make sure the Iranians could not carry out such threats?
I will answer briefly: Thank God I’m not the prime minister of Israel.
On a run in 2008, I collapsed from a brain aneurysm. Now it’s time to get back on the Charles River path.