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April 2015 Hero of the Month: Wladyslaw Bartoszewski

Two years ago Julie and I toured eastern Europe and visited Poland, Latvia and Estonia. In Riga, Latvia, there is a museum tracing the history of their country during World War II:  first the German invasion and occupation and then the Russian invasion and occupation as the German Army retreated to Berlin. It was hard to comprehend the totality of the physical devastation and the magnitude of the human suffering. Then, instead of being free, they found themselves under the harsh control of Joe Stalin and his henchmen for the next 45 years. Poland and many other countries in the region suffered a similar fate.

This year marks the 70th Anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. To honor the countless acts of heroism by those in eastern Europe I have selected Wladyslaw Bartoszewski as a worthy representative for so many. He died in Warsaw this month at the age of 93.

Bartoszewski was respected not only for his wartime resistance, but also for his social activism and political leadership. 

He grew up in Warsaw as a Polish Catholic next to the Jewish district and had many Jewish friends. His father was a bank clerk. He was 17 years old when the Germans invaded Poland in the fall of 1939 and he fought in the defense of Warsaw. In 1940 he was one of many rounded up by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz, which at that time was used as a prison for Polish resistance fighters.

In a remarkably unusual bit of luck, he was released in 1941 at the request of the Red Cross because he had been working for them before his capture. He reported on conditions in the camp to the Polish government in exile in London and immediately joined the resistance. His focus was on helping Polish prisoners who were being tortured by the Germans in Pawiak prison. He also joined a resistance group, “Zegota,” devoted to saving Jews. Then in 1944, he again took up arms and fought in the Warsaw Uprising, one of the noblest (although unfortunately, unsuccessful) resistance efforts of the war.

The Soviet invasion of Poland brought new hardships for all Poles, among them Bartoszewski: he and his fellow resistance fighters were high on the Russian’s target list because they were perceived by the Russians as Polish patriots who would oppose their efforts to turn Poland into a subservient client state of the USSR. As a result, he was imprisoned on trumped-up espionage charges and served 7 years in prison before a court ruled that he had been unjustly accused and released him in 1955.

For the next 30 years he made a living as a teacher and lecturer in Poland, Europe and the United States.

In the 1980’s he was active in Solidarity, the movement led by Lech Walesa that eventually toppled the Soviet puppet government in Poland in 1989. However, before the government fell Bartoszewski spent more time in confinement under martial law imposed by General Jaruzelski, then serving as Polish Prime Minister in the Communist government.

After Solidarity came to power in the first free elections in Poland in over 50 years, Bartoszewski was twice appointed Poland’s foreign minister and served with distinction. He was also an ambassador, a member of the Polish Senate, and Chairman of LOT ( the Polish national airline); he held many other positions as well.

As if this list of sacrifices and achievements was not enough, there is more to tell. (In fact, this tribute barely scratches the surface of an extraordinary life. For more detail, see Bartoszewski’s biography on Wikipedia.)

Batoszewski spent a considerable portion of his adult life working to improve Polish-German relations, making reconciliation a focus of his writings and speeches in both Poland and Germany.  In 1995, he delivered the only speech by a foreign speaker before the German Parliament (The Bundestag) commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.  In 1992, he was appointed by the Swiss Parliament to the Independent Commission of Experts to investigate and expose Swiss collaboration with Nazi Germany during World War II.  He was regularly called upon to write and speak about the Polish Underground, the Warsaw Uprising, and life in Poland under Soviet occupation in order to educate new generations of Poles and Europeans and to preserve the memory of those who sacrificed so much so that they could be free. The picture that accompanies this article is of Batoszewski speaking a week before his death at the 72nd anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising.

For his efforts to help the Jews, he was made an honorary citizen of Israel and recognized at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” in 1965.

A life lived to the fullest.   R.I.P., Wladyslaw Bartoszewski.

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