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Tuesday, 17 October 2006

Outstanding heroism

On 17 October 2006, the President of the Republic of Poland, Lech Kaczyński, awarded a Commander’s Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta for heroism and exceptional courage, and for outstanding merit in saving human life to Mrs. Alfreda Markowska, who saved the lives of several dozen children of Roma and Jewish origin during the Second World War.

At the decoration ceremony held at the Presidential Palace, the Polish President said, addressing the Recipient of the Order and other guests:

‘This decoration has been awarded for adhering to the supreme values, for saving human life in the conditions of living hell created in our country by the Third Reich, by Hitler’s Nazism.

You saved the lives of the citizens of our country, of Polish citizens of two nationalities: of the Roma people that have lived on our lands for centuries, but also of the Jewish people. These two nationalities were faced with particular threats at that time. They had been sentenced to extermination. They were to cease to exist, but not to cease to exist in the sense that they were not allowed to start families, to bear children, that one generation was not allowed to be replaced by another, as is the way of this world. They were to cease to exist in a very different sense: simply, the Jews and the Roma were to be murdered one by one and, most regrettably, this aim was achieved in no small degree. I will say even more: this aim was largely achieved. If not all of them fell victim to this policy, if there is still a Jewish people today, including many Jews coming from our country, and a certain number of Poles of Jewish origin living in Poland today; if there is still a Roma people, with a substantial part of it--though not as big as those in Slovakia and Hungary--living in Poland today, we owe it to people like you, Madam. And we owe to people like you respect and admiration. It is for such people that the category of orders was invented, notably one of Poland’s highest national decorations: Commander’s Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta.

Once again, I thank you from the bottom of my heart, Madam, and I am very happy indeed to welcome here to this room, where the most important state ceremonies have been held, Polish Roma as well as other members of the Roma people, not resident in Poland. Ladies and Gentlemen, a very warm welcome to you. I thank you once again for your outstanding heroism, Madam, for there is nothing better than saving human lives. In conclusion, I would like to recall one thing, even though it is common knowledge: at that time, the punishment for saving these human lives was not imprisonment or exile. The punishment for that was death, often a martyr’s death. Thank you very much.’

Alfreda Markowska was born in 1926 in a Gypsy caravan near the town of Stanisławów. In 1941, her family were murdered by the Germans; she was arrested by Ukrainian nationalists who subsequently handed her over to the Germans. After her escape from prison, she and her husband resided first in the Lublin ghetto, and later in Łódź and Bełżec. She escaped from each of these places, saving Jewish and Roma children. Upon receiving the news of yet another pogrom, she would visit execution sites in search for surviving children. She then transported the survivors to her “base” and procured false papers for them. Some of them she gave back to their natural guardians, others she placed in the care of Gypsy families or brought up herself.

Mrs. Markowska saved nearly 50 children. After the war, she met with a group of young survivors whom she had rescued.
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