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Jewish Journal

Not everyone forgot Jews in Shoah, Polish official says

by Tom Tugend

January 24, 2008 | 7:00 pm

"During the Holocaust, not everyone abandoned the Jews. Not everyone forgot about you." So spoke Poland's Undersecretary of State Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, and her words were backed by the photos and stories of 21 surviving non-Jews from Poland recognized as Righteous Among the Nations that lined the hallway at the UCLA Hillel Center.

According to the strict standards of Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Memorial Authority, 5,941 Polish Christians -- more than from any other Nazi-occupied country -- risked, and many lost, their lives to shelter and rescue Jews.

Cynics might say that there were a lot more Jews in Poland -- some 3.5 million before World War II -- to rescue than anywhere else in Europe. And, as everywhere else, the large majority of non-Jews looked the other way, while a substantial minority collaborated actively with the Nazis.

On the other hand, the Germans selected Poland as the only country where aiding a Jew, be it only to give him a slice of bread, was immediately punished by death. Failure to inform on a neighbor hiding Jews meant deportation to a concentration camp.

In a book accompanying the exhibit at Hillel is a photo of the Ulma family of Markowa, who were caught hiding eight Jews. The parents and their six children were shot by the Nazis alongside the Jews.

During a discussion last week on "Polish Heroes: Those Who Rescued Jews," inaugurating the exhibit as part of a conference at UCLA on Polish-American relations, Adam Daniel Rotfeld spoke from personal experience. Hidden in a monastery during the war, the Jewish boy grew up to become foreign minister of Poland.

At Yad Vashem, statistics show that between 20,000 to 40,000 Polish Jews like Rotfeld were saved by their Christian compatriots, but other figures go as high as 50,000.

At least 800 Poles were executed for their courage and compassion by the Nazis. Those who argue that there should have been more rescuers in Poland, France and Holland might ask themselves the question Rotfeld posed: "How would I have acted? Would I have taken in a stranger and risk death for myself and my family?"

Accompanying the exhibit, organized by the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, is an article written by Konstany Gebert, editor of the Polish Jewish magazine Midrasz.

"No one has the right to demand heroism," he writes. "Even today, many descendants of the Righteous refuse to accept their Yad Vashem awards. They do not want to irritate their neighbors or invite burglars to take the Jewish gold the Righteous must have amassed."

Gebert adds, "Hashem [God] would have saved Sodom for the sake of 10 righteous. Yet, there were many more than 10 Righteous in Poland, some of whom saved my grandfather. I will not be more demanding than my Maker. The memory of the Righteous is indeed a blessing."

The exhibit continues through March 26 at UCLA Hillel, 574 Hilgard Ave., Westwood. Gallery hours are Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. For information, phone (310) 208-3081, ext. 108.

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