Washington Jewish Week
Online Edition, December 2002
by Paula Amann
A 60th anniversary observance
this week at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum turned
into a reunion of sorts. On Tuesday, the Washington,
D.C., museum marked six decades since the founding of
Zegota, a Polish underground group that rescued some
4,000 Polish Jews, including 2,500 children.
Museum council chair Fred Zeidman
paid special tribute to Zegota co-founder Wladyslaw
Bartoszewski, now a spry and impassioned 80, who twice
served as Poland's foreign minister.
With him on the program was another Warsaw native. Retired
Hebrew University professor Israel Gutman, like the
Catholic Bartoszewski, joined Zegota, although the pair
wouldn't meet until after the German defeat.
"We've been friends for years," the former
minister said of his Jewish comrade. "We're the
same age and from the same city."
Museum chair emeritus Miles Lerman, meanwhile, who also
took part in Tuesday's program, spent the war years
as an anti-Nazi partisan in his native southern Poland.
In an interview Monday at the Polish embassy, Bartoszewski
recounted, through an interpreter, the events that led
to the high-risk rescue work that made him one of the
first Poles to receive the Righteous Among Nations award
from Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum.
As a young man of 18, he was nabbed by the Gestapo and
sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, then a prison
for Polish intellectuals. Spared a likely death when
he was released after seven months through efforts of
the International Red Cross, he came home to witness
the persecution of his country's Jews.
"I was a believing Catholic and I happened to have
a priest who was my spiritual adviser, and he told me
something that many rabbis would say: God wanted you
to come out of that concentration camp so you could
help others," said Bartoszewski, who had grown
up with many Jewish family friends.
Polish resistance leader Jan Karski, who taught at Georgetown
University until his death at 86 two years ago, tapped
the young man for a new rescue group then forming, the
Council to Aid Jews.
Code-named Zegota, said Bartoszewski, the network brought
together Catholics and Jews, liberals and socialists
in the common task of housing, feeding and providing
false papers for Jews in hiding.
"We were united in complete trust, regardless of
our ancestry," he recalled. "It didn't matter
that I was a goy and my friends were Jewish, because
if we were apprehended by Germans, we would just go
to death together."
While capital punishment loomed for any rescuer caught,
he stressed, the most wrenching thing was keeping people
safely hidden for months, only to see them caught and
killed by the Nazis.
"Our only reward was that we always managed to
save somebody," Bartoszewski said. "The bottom
line was that it was a great development that Poles
and Jews were able to work together so effectively."
In addition to his own rescue work, Bartoszewski took
part in the Warsaw Uprising as a lieutenant in the Polish
After the war, Bartoszewski studied at Warsaw University
and wrote for the Polish Peasant Party newspaper. But
his troubles with the authorities were far from over.
As the communist regime supplanted the Nazis, the young
activist was jailed twice during the late '40s and early
'50s for a total of seven years, first for his articles,
then for trumped-up charges of spying, of which he was
"Dictators didn't like me, and the feeling was
completely mutual," Bartoszewski said.
From 1960 to 1981, he served as a secret source for
Radio Free Europe, while teaching history at Lublin's
"It carried a penalty of life imprisonment, yet
I did it because I felt that this way I was helping
Poles get information that would help them achieve democracy,"
During the last three years of that period, he also
belonged to the clandestine Polish Alliance for Independence.
In late 1980, Bartoszewski co-founded the Committee
in Defense of the Politically Persecuted, in league
with the Solidarity Trade Union.
"My entire activity was devoted to giving hardship
to the communist system because I believed it was false
and it had to fall," he declared. "It had
to collapse, although I didn't know if I would live
to see it."
His activities led to another imprisonment the next
At the Jaworze Internment Camp, he was in high-class
company. Two fellow inmates, Taddeus Mazoweicki and
Geremak Bronislaw, later became, respectively, the first
premier and first foreign minister of a democratic Poland.
Following his release, Bartoszewski spent 1983 through
1990 teaching political science at German universities
in Munich and elsewhere. With the implosion of communism
in Poland, he returned home and served five years as
his country's ambassador to Austria. In 1995 and again
in 2000, he was named foreign minister. A prolific scholar
of history, he has penned some 40 books and 1,000 articles.
His solidarity with the Jewish people remains. As chair
of the Council for the Protection of the Memory of Combat
and Martyrdom, he oversees such sites as Auschwitz and
the shtetl of Belz. He also serves on the board of an
institution in the making: the Museum of the History
of Polish Jews.
Last April, Bartoszewski was among the signers of a
letter to Gazeta Wyborcza, a major Polish newspaper,
opposing an academic boycott of Israel sweeping Europe.
The letter also voiced support for the Jewish state's
right of self-defense in the face of attacks on civilians
by the Palestinians.
Some in Poland deride him as a Shabbos goy, but many
more share his pro-Jewish views, says Bartoszewski.
"Nobody can intimidate or threaten me anymore because
I'm an old man," says the veteran dissenter, who
says he's close in age to both former Presidents Jimmy
Carter and George H.W. Bush. "Because of my age,
I am independent."