Address by the President of the Republic of Poland at the ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Council to Aid Jews “Żegota”:
Esteemed Honoured with the Title Righteous Among the Nations,
Families of the Honoured,
Distinguished Members of the Sejm, Senators,
Your Excellency, Rabbi,
Distinguished Presidents, Chairpersons,
All Honourable Gathered Guests,
Thank you very much for your presence today in Warsaw, in the Presidential Palace, on such a momentous day, which commemorates several events.
The first of these, and definitely the most significant one from an institutional perspective, is the already mentioned 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Council to Aid Jews “Żegota” ‒ the first and only institutional, state form of helping Jews who fell victim to the Holocaust in World War II. It was the first and only state form because the Council was set up precisely by the Government of the Republic of Poland in exile through its Delegation for Poland – a country obviously occupied at that time.
Having said that, one must mention two crucial female figures who initiated the establishment of that pivotal institution, or actually one should say: of that crucially important work. The work of mercy, aid, brotherhood – this being the right term to describe that activity. But also the deed of heroism. I am referring to Mrs Zofia Kossak-Szczucka and Mrs Wanda Krahelska-Filipowiczowa. They were the ones who, having witnessed the Holocaust of the Jewish community living in Poland, the Holocaust of their fellow Polish citizens of Jewish descent in the ghettos, especially here in the Warsaw Ghetto, decided to establish on September 27, 1942, the Provisional Committee to Aid Jews, which on December,4 of the same year was renamed as the Council to Aid Jews “Żegota”. It was precisely them who initiated the idea and who turned it into practice. Two great names in Polish history, two great names in Polish-Jewish relations: the past relations, those which followed and spanned dozens of years, the last 75 years, and the contemporary ones.
Ladies and Gentlemen, what was great about the Council to Aid Jews “Żegota”? The great thing was that it brought together people with most diverse of views, members of vastly different groups, whose world views were often at two extremes. But there was one thing which they understood in the same way: that there could be no permission for and no indifference towards one part of our state`s community, one part of Polish citizens, their neighbours, being murdered, ruined, subjected to total annihilation.
They were the ones who said: “No!”. They pursued different forms of activity – from issuing documents, to organizing hiding places, to providing food and medical assistance – to ensuring, as a matter of fact, every form of day-to-day support. It was a wonderful activity which covered thousands of people of Jewish origin in the territory of Poland. Suffice it to say that “Żegota” issued more than 50,000 documents, fake ones of course, which enabled their holders to survive. No other organization in the whole world which was active at that time could have boasted such achievements when it comes to saving human lives as “Żegota”.
However, Ladies and Gentlemen, there is another element which coincides with today`s 75th anniversary. It is the 10th anniversary of the meeting with President Professor Lech Kaczyński, an excerpt of which we have just been able to see. During that meeting, for the first time ever, the President of the Republic of Poland honoured 53 Righteous Among the Nations and, by doing that, stressed so strongly the exceptional role played by thousands of Poles in that deed of brotherhood, in the deed of saving, yes one can use this term, saving of what I refer to as the Republic of Friends – the Poland which existed before World War II, with different nationalities living side by side, especially Poles and Jews. For, just as we could hear President Professor Lech Kaczyński saying in the film: the pre-war Poland was the place with the biggest number of Jews in the world.
Ladies and Gentlemen, what else is there to be said after the words of President Professor Lech Kaczyński, which we have been reminded of? They actually conveyed an exhaustive message. There is one thing I wish to highlight, both in this context and in the context of “Żegota”: it is very important that “Żegota” was an organization established by the Polish Government in exile, that it founded on the Government`s in exile Delegation for Poland. But we must always bear in mind that “Żegota” was made of people – hundreds, thousands of people all over the country, involved in providing assistance. And we must always remember that the Righteous Among the Nations, those who were institutionally awarded this title, those who deserve it but never received it, and a very big number of them are never going to receive it, as their identities are unknown, was a group of tens or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of Poles who, led by compassion, civic duty or Christian duty, as well as a multitude of other grounds, helped their neighbours.
I am truly delighted to be able to continue the work started by President Professor Lech Kaczyński. The work consisting in presenting those very heroes. For, as the President eloquently put it: theirs was a heroism not smaller, or even bigger perhaps, than that demonstrated through the armed struggle. Since, when a soldier or a partisan took up arms they mainly risked their own lives. And of course all those who were fighting deserve an ever-lasting glory. Eternal glory to the Fallen. May they always live in our memory.
However, the Righteous Among the Nations, the ones who kept Jews in hiding, those who helped their Jewish fellow citizens, risked not only their own lives, but under the law of German occupiers, they also put at risk lives of all of their family members. Hence, both the risk and the responsibility were much more serious. And this is the main reason why all the Righteous deserve utmost respect. I bow especially to all those honoured today as well as to their loved ones, also those deceased. But equal respect should be accorded to all those, also the unknown ones, who participated, back then, in that great work of aid, brotherhood and mercy and, as I said, tried to preserve the great ethos of the Republic of Friends.
Poles cooperated with Jews, as also Jewish organizations joined in the activities of “Żegota” ‒ for instance through cooperation with Jewish Bund. That was a real activity. But it also entailed financial contributions indispensable to ensure efficiency. It also included support from the clergy in Poland. The unforgettable Irena Sendlerowa helped children. Furthermore, children also found hiding in Polish monasteries and Polish orphanages. Polish priests issued birth certificates to children in order to give them false identities which would help them to survive, so that Polish families could keep them in their homes and increase their chances of survival. This great work involved a number of people whom we are remembering today and whom I, as President of the Republic of Poland, following President Lech Kaczyński, salute in the name of the Republic of Poland.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I wish that we would always remember them. Today, an outstanding Polish symbol of the above-mentioned brotherhood, mercy and the exceptional dedication and devotion is the Ulma Family. The Museum of Poles saving Jews in World War II, opened in Markowa 2 years ago, was named after that very family. We inaugurated the said museum on March, 17. I wish that we, as Poles, would always remember those people, that day and those events and present them to the world. For today, in the era when history tends to be shaped in many different ways, when frequently its true picture is distorted, it is important that we clearly say who was the perpetrator, and who was the hero, who showed mercy and who was a bastard deserving to be condemned.
Therefore, I wish that every year on March, 17 we celebrate the National Remembrance Day of Poles Saving Jews in World War II. This needs to be adopted by the Polish Parliament, by the Sejm and the Senate. Therefore I have prepared a draft law to that effect which will be submitted, as soon as practicable, in the next few hours, to the Sejm, and I hope that it will be adopted without further due.
Ladies and Gentlemen, once again, I wish to cordially thank you for attending today`s ceremony. My gratitude goes to the Righteous Among the Nations, to all of you Ladies and Gentlemen, and to your loved ones. I wish to express my gratitude to His Excellency, the Rabbi, to Ministers, to all Distinguished Guests. Thank you in my name, as President of Poland, and thank you also on behalf of the Republic of Poland for being here together to commemorate these significant events and to call things by their proper name.
Thank you very much.
Professor Shevah Weiss speaks on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Council to Aid Jews “Żegota”: