OBITUARY: Wladyslaw Bartoszewski

By bne IntelliNews April 27, 2015

Adam Easton in Warsaw -


Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a Polish politician, social activist and historian who was a survivor of Auschwitz and later rebuilt relations with Germany as foreign minister, died on April 24 at the age of 93.

As a young boy growing up in Warsaw in the 1920s, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski lived next to a large Jewish neighbourhood. There were very few Poles living there and young Wladek played mainly with Jewish children in the park near his flat. Throughout my childhood Jewish children were my mates, he once reflected. At the time one in three inhabitants of the Polish capital were Jews, making it the largest Jewish community in the world.

Bartoszewski’s parents were liberal Catholics who taught him to respect others. During World War II Bartoszewski joined the underground Home Army and in 1942 he helped found its unit devoted to providing assistance to Poland’s Jews. Zegota, as the unit was called, was funded through the Polish government in exile in London and international Jewish groups. Couriers carrying backpacks of US dollars were parachuted into the country.

By 1942 the Nazis had imprisoned close to half a million Jews behind a brick wall in the Warsaw Ghetto. In that summer the Germans began transporting hundreds of thousands of ghetto inhabitants to be gassed at Treblinka.

In Zegota Bartoszewski worked as a liaison, providing baptism certificates for Jews who had escaped the ghetto and were living in hiding on the Aryan side. He became a proficient forger of documents, joking decades later that at least he had something to fall back on in case he needed a change of career.

Assisting Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland was dangerous work. Anyone found doing so would be shot along with his or her families. Bartoszewski recalled later he was never so afraid in his whole life as when he helped Jewish people. In conversations with young people he would tell them that fear doesn’t matter: one has to do the right thing.

By that stage Bartoszewski had already been imprisoned in Auschwitz. Following the fall of Warsaw in 1939 he had volunteered for the Polish Red Cross. Aged just 18 he was arrested during a mass roundup and sent to Auschwitz in September 1940. He was released in April the following year after the International Red Cross in Geneva intervened on his behalf.

When the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began in April 1943 it was Zegota’s task to raise the alarm internationally. The Red Army were 2,000 kilometres away to the east and the Allies were still planning their assault on Italy. No one came to help. Bartoszewski and his colleagues in Zegota provided assistance to Jewish fighters who escaped the ghetto through the city’s sewers.

In August 1944 Bartoszewski fought in the Warsaw Uprising, the Home Army’s doomed attempt to liberate the capital before the Red Army, which had reached the eastern outskirts of the city, arrived.

People’s man

After the war ended Bartoszewski joined the People’s Party in opposition to the newly installed communist authorities. He soon fell under suspicion and was arrested as a spy. He served two separate prison terms between 1948 and 1954, when he was released due to poor health.

He established a career as an historian and writer, lecturing at Lublin’s Catholic University and in Germany, and cooperating with Radio Free Europe.

By 1980 he joined Solidarity, founded by striking shipyard workers led by Lech Walesa in Gdansk, and later to become a nationwide movement of 10mn people opposed to the communist regime. When the communists imposed martial law to destroy Solidarity in 1981, Bartoszewski was once again imprisoned and later held in an internment camp on the Baltic seacoast until April 1982.

After Solidarity re-emerged and defeated the communists in the first partially free elections in the Soviet bloc in 1989, the German-speaking Bartoszewski was appointed democratic Poland’s ambassador to Austria.

Despite witnessing the almost total destruction of Warsaw by the Nazis, Bartoszewski used his position after 1989 to advocate reconciliation between Poland and Germany. “If someone had told me in 1941, while I was standing on the parade ground in Auschwitz, that I would have German friends one day, I would have called him mad,” he said once.

He served as foreign minister in two different governments, as a senator, and in 2007 was picked by the prime minister Donald Tusk to advise his government on relations with Germany and Israel.

On the day he died he was organizing preparations for the April 27 visit to Warsaw of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her cabinet for talks with the Polish government. Following the news of his death, Chancellor Merkel wrote that he was a “far-sighted, courageous and steadfast fighter for freedom and reconciliation”.

Many Poles admired him as an authentic moral authority in an age of career politicians. “It is worth being honest, though it doesn’t always pay off. It pays off to be dishonest, but it isn’t worth it,” he said once.

Both European Council President Donald Tusk and Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski took to their Twitter accounts upon news of his death. Tusk wrote that working with Bartoszewski “was for me the greatest honour and your friendship the greatest gift”. Komorowski wrote simply: “it is a huge loss, a great Pole has left us”.


OBITUARY: Wladyslaw Bartoszewski

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