WHENEVER I HAVE READ ABOUT or been in the presence of non-Jewish rescuers of Jews from the Nazi extermination machine, I can't help but ask myself a question: what would I have done if I had been in their place?
And when we think through all the pressures that many of them faced in that circumstance -- not the ordinary, workaday stresses we prattle on about in our lives today -- we have to wonder if we would have been so courageous. It's not only the threat of torture and death that hung oppressively and in some cases for years over their heads, but also the possibility that what they were doing could endanger so many others in their families and immediate neighborhood, people who had not themselves signed up for such a dangerous mission.
What the rest of us lack and they apparently mustered was a recognition that the gain -- to save a life -- was worth the risk.
I had the opportunity a few nights ago to attend a small reception for five Polish rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust (accompanied by two of the Polish Jews they had rescued), also known as "Righteous Among the Nations," the official designation according to the Israeli Holocaust memorial and research center, Yad Vashem. Again, the question of what I would do in their place went through my mind. What was even more striking to me were the comments of one of the rescuers, who said he expected little attention during their week or so touring several U.S. cities. Instead he said, people were treating them like heroes.
For example, they attended a performance in New York of a new Broadway show, "Irena's Vow," the story of a Polish Catholic woman (played by Tovah Feldshuh) who risked her life to save 12 Jews in Poland during the war. After she took her curtain calls, Feldshuh introduced the five rescuers, who were met with a thunderous, prolonged standing ovation from the audience.
They also appeared in a photo on Page One of the Washington Post the day I saw them -- pretty high-profile media real estate for anyone. And then, on April 23, they sat in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda for the annual Days of Remembrance ceremony. There, President Obama recognized them personally in front of the large assembly of some of our nation's most prominent political, religious and human rights leaders. "We are awed by your acts of courage and conscience," the President said of the five. "And your presence today compels each of us to ask ourselves whether we would have done what you did. We can only hope that the answer is yes."
How could anyone with such a personal history expect to be treated as anything less than a hero, unless they saw what they did as not heroic at all but just something that we as human beings have no choice to do. Like breathing. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his examination of the Prophets, "No one expects to receive a reward for the habit of breathing. Justice is as much a necessity as breathing is, and a constant occupation."
Their presence here in the U.S. also helps educate American Jews about the complexity of the relationship between Polish Jews and their non-Jewish fellow citizens throughout history. I say complexity because I think it's fair to say that most Jews here who have not closely examined the historical record about that relationship are prone to rather black-and-white impressions: that all Poles were (and remain) anti-Semites and that all of them were responsible for the extermination of what was, before the war, a population of more than three million Polish Jews.
As Michael Steinlauf, the author of one of the best studies of that complex relationship, "Bondage to the Dead," wrote: "In relation to the Jews, although Poles collectively were powerless to affect their fate as a whole, this was not the case on an individual level. Individual Poles could and did help save, or destroy, individual Jews. Although most Poles did neither, doing nothing was itself, for each individual, the product of choice."
Later in the book, Steinlauf expands: "On a popular level, the murder of the Jews evoked a range of responses, from compassion to the opinion that their fate was 'not our business,' to the judgment that the Germans had provided an unpleasant but necessary solution to an intractable problem. For most Poles, however, none of these feelings inspired any action. No different, in this respect, from other non-Jews under Nazi occupation, most Poles were passive witnesses to the fate of the Jews." That's what made those who acted with compassion all the more remarkable, heroic.
What many of us in the Jewish community also misunderstand is the extent to which Poles were victims of the Nazis, too -- not categorically targeted for extermination but to become something of a class of slaves to the master Aryan Nazis. They were killed, starved and otherwise persecuted. Indeed, Polish Catholic clergy, political leaders, intellectuals and military officers were the first inhabitants of Auschwitz before it became the mechanized killing center and the largest burial ground of Jews.
That's why former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's pronouncement about 20 years ago that every Pole "sucked anti-Semitism with his mother's milk", so angered Poles and all those who saw the history as much more nuanced than that. And it's why Poles get so justifiably angry when newspapers, even supposedly respectable ones, still to this day use the phrase "Polish death camps" when referring to places like Auschwitz-Birkenau. In fact, these terrible places were the creation of the Nazis and located in Poland in large part because there were so many Jews there to be had and because Poland was a central point in Europe to gather them and kill them. Yes, there were some Poles who were complicit in the Nazi crimes, but, as Steinlauf says, most were "passive witnesses," either out of fear or indifference.
There are many in Poland who are committed to facing up to this reality, not least the Polish Government itself, which fairly emphatically and courageously did what it could after the fall of Communism to sort out the history and reconcile with it however possible. (Some issues, such as restitution of Jewish property in Poland, will long be unsettled because of their legal, political and psychological complexity.)
Others, like a group I've been supportive of, the Forum for Dialogue Among the Nations, actively engage Poles and Jews, young and old, to face up to the history, to understand it better than they do now and to move the two communities to deal as much with their future as they do the past.
It's a big, but important mission, and one that is full of the sort of inspiration that I experienced the other night with the five Polish rescuers.