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Bartoszewski at the U.S. Holocaust Museum

Honoring a hero and celebrating the museum’s 20th anniversary

Adam Chandler
April 26, 2013

Over the weekend, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will celebrate its 20th birthday. In a massive event hosted by former President Bill Clinton and Elie Wiesel, the museum’s founding chairman, the institution will pay tribute to Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans as well as specifically honor two guests: Susan Eisenhower and Władysław Bartoszewski.

The first honoree should be familiar: Susan Eisenhower as the granddaughter of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower represents the American effort in World War II that repelled the Nazi advance and ultimately saved the world from Hitler’s effort. It is this aspect of the commemoration and the museum itself that led some to question its mission. Notably among them was Nextbook’s Jonathan Rosen, who wrote at the time:

As someone whose paternal grandparents died in the Holocaust, I should perhaps feel a kind of grim satisfaction that the story of what happened to them and millions more would now be a permanent part of American culture.

But the dual mission the museum planners have juggled – documenting a specific tragedy rooted in Jewish and European particularity and, at the same time, creating a universal symbol of suffering available for American adaptation – continues to trouble me.

There are so many deep religious currents lurking beneath the surface of commemorating the Holocaust that the tension between those two ends seems unresolvable.

The memory of the Holocaust must be preserved and taught and commemorated, but grafting that mission onto the role of the government, inserting that obligation into American culture, seems inappropriate. I fear it will distort as much as it preserves.

The second honoree is less well-known, but shouldn’t be. Władysław Bartoszewski, an academic, activist, dignitary, two-time foreign minister of Poland, and the recipient of countless prestigious awards across the world, embodies something else entirely: the responsibility of humankind to save itself from its own shadow. Our own David Samuels interviewed Bartoszewski last week in Warsaw and described his heroism in his fight to save thousands of lives.

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.

Perhaps nothing typifies the need to honor a man like Bartoszewski than the history of the museum itself. It sits at 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, the only street in the nation’s capital named for a non-American. Likely paying for its life by doing so, Wallenberg saved the lives of countless Hungarian Jews including Tom Lantos, who would become the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress.

The virtue of a stranger risking his or her life to save the lives of others is also embodied by Stephen Tyrone Johns, the Holocaust Memorial Museum guard who was fatally shot when a white supremacist entered the museum wielding a rifle and began shooting. This happened in 2009.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.