Poland works with Yad Vashem
to identify 'Righteous' Poles


The Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw (IPN) has had a general cooperation agreement with the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem since 2004. Now, the Israeli institute studying crimes of the Holocaust has promised to officially assist it in gathering archive documents about Poles who lost their life, or suffered repression for helping Jews during the Second World War.

A report by Slawek Szefs.

The latest visit by representatives of the Polish institution to Jerusalem has set the scene for official bilateral cooperation in scientific research and the exchange of archive documents relating to the period of World War Two. Mateusz Szpytna, one of the members of the delegation, says cooperation to date between IPN and Yad Vashem was based on archive research conducted by individual historians studying aspects of Polish-Jewish relations. The present agreement opens an entirely new chapter in relations with Yad Vashem, he says.

'We want this process to more more institutionalised and better organised. We are starting research on help extended to Jews by Poles during World War Two. There will be two parallel programs. The first one is to complete a register of Poles repressed by the Nazis for their assistance to Jews. This is where we are strongly counting on cooperation with Yad Vashem. The second will aim at an inventory of all places on Polish territory where wartime crimes had been committed on Polish Jews and those brought to suffer from other countries of occupied Europe.'

Professor Shevach Weiss from the institute in Jerusalem and former Israeli ambassador to Poland is convinced the cooperation with IPN already is and will continue to be important and valuable, bearing in mind the unique status and role of both institutions in their respetive countries.

'We have some problems which are the same problems. We have to do everything to deal with the Righteous Among Nations. They were the light during the dark period of WW2, especially in Poland. In this area we have a very positive structure of relationships.'

Besides strictly historical gains from the IPN-Yad Vashem cooperation, can one of its effects be overcoming the many negative stereotypes which have accumulated in Polish-Jewish relations? Mateusz Szpytna from IPN is confident the results will be visible.

'I'm sure that every visit of IPN historians and Poles, generally, in Israel and Israeli citizens to Poland contributes to eradicating false images which find no reflection in reality. Every personal contact with this reality makes the stereotypes slowly disappear.'

Professor Weiss adds the cooperation Yad Vashem has been pursuing with the Institute of National Remembrance extends beyond the subject of Nazi crimes during the war. A sensitive issue is documented Polish participation in some of these attrocities, like the mass murder of Jews in Jedwabne in 1941. Professor Weiss considers IPN efforts to unveil the truth about such acts of genocide very important.

'We talked about Jedwabne after a very intensive, long and systematic work of IPN, with professors Kieres and Kulesza. It was one of the cases where cooperation between Yad Vashem and IPN was very positive. Unfortuantely, we have many things to do in the future. The Righteous Among nations, the next generation and the third generation after them and many other issues.'

Indeed the Righteous Among Nations are a special category of people who helped save Jewish lives during the Holocaust. In Nazi occupied Poland this was punishable by death, yet Poles constitute by far the largest part of that group of many nations.

Polish-Jewish relations are a rich area for study, but they also contain many tragic elements with anti-Semitic roots. Communist rule in Poland after the war had its share in both tolerating and perpetrating crimes against the country's Jewish inhabiatants. These problems have been tackled by historian Jan Tomasz Gross. In his latest book titled 'Fear', published in the US and a Polish translation to be released shortly, he studies the plight of those who survived the Holocaust only to find death from irrational hatred at the hands of their Polish neighbors after the war. An example is the pogrom in Kielce in 1945. Professor Shevach Weiss says this makes the events even more tragic.

'From our point of view, it was some kind of continuity of the tragedy of the Second World War. Not done by the Germans and Nazis, but by the Poles! It's not the same, but it's a continuity of the same tragedy.'

The latest cooperation agreement between the Polish Institute of National Remembrance and the Israeli Yad Vashem will surely contribute to resolving some of the grim mysteries governing the dark mechanisms of racial hatred and oppression. It will also shed light on the heroic acts of individuals who did not hesitate to risk their lives to save others.