Catholics for Jews
with Artur Rytel-Andrianik
Why did you decide to take care of documenting cases of help for Jews by priests during the Holocaust?
This is related to the history of our family and how we approached her with my brother. Our grandpa, our mother's father, Stanisław Rytel, was sent to the labor camp in Treblinka during the war. There a familiar carpenter from the neighboring village, with whom he knew his grandpa well, told the Germans that our grandpa is his brother. He also told them he was a good employee, and he just needs someone to help with the construction of the camp barracks. The Germans, however, quickly realized that men have different names. The carpenter explained to them that it was because they had one mother but two fathers. And that's how the grandpa worked there until he managed to escape from the camp. Although he was ill with typhus, he use of the possibility when the Ukrainians watching them were drunk, and after the murder of a person in the camp there was total chaos. The circumstances were favorable. If he had not escaped, they would have sent him with the typhus to the camp lazaret, and there was no way out from there. There, people were dying. Patients were killed. Although the grandpa had a straight line of twelve kilometers, he returned two weeks.
When we were little and we went to winter holidays on the Bug, where he lived grandly in a small village, in the evenings when he made fishing nets, he told us everything. That is why maybe we have an interest in this topic. As the grandpa died, Paweł was fourteen years old, and I was twelve. Unfortunately, these reports have not been written or recorded. However, we have lived on this subject all the time. From this childhood interest, this has happened to my brother, Paweł, who is a priest interested in history. In the seminar he wrote a master's thesis, which had 900 pages. It was a book about our family parish. In it was a chapter devoted to the German Holocaust Camp in Treblinka, which was located in the parish. Later on, my brother wrote a book with the head of the Treblinka Museum titled “I shall give them an everlasting name. Poles from the vicinity of Treblinka, saving Jews”. He wrote it while he studied two majors: in Jerusalem and in Oxford. He made his doctorate in one and the second place. He spent ten years in Israel. He even became a member of Christian Friends of Yad Vashem.
The sixteen languages spoken by your brother are also Hebrew and Yiddish. Did the knowledge of these languages prove useful to you during the project "Priests for Jews"?
So. My brother has very good contact with Jews. He was invited to Israeli schools many times. At that time Jewish children were very surprised when they learned from him that the priests were helping Jews. It appeared that their prejudices against the Poles often resulted from ignorance and how the elderly Jews presented Poles to them.
When did you start working on the project "Priests for Jews"?
Work on this project began in 2012. Earlier, only the nuns and their orphanages were spoken, where they hid Jewish children during the war. Nothing was said about priests who helped Jews. My brother is a priest, so he became interested and asked me for help in this project. At that time I started to go to the National Library and browse publications about helping Jews. I also pored church archives. During the implementation of this project, it turned out that the help of lay Catholics, nuns and priests can’t be separated from each other, because everyone acted together and in agreement. The priests, for example, issued baptismal records to Jewish children, after which these children were transported to nursery run by nuns. For example, priest Marceli Godlewski transplanted a lot of Jewish children to the Franciscan Sisters of Mary in Płudy, Anin, Turkowice and to the Sisters of Charity in Tamka. We established contact with nuns who deal with religious archives, and some of them created biographies of nuns who participated in helping Jewish children and knew about such help. Usually, for ten nuns who worked in the orphans' home, about five of them knew they were helping Jewish children. Not everyone was aware of what they were involved in, but all of them could pay for it with their lives. I don’t think they were informed about it, because the less people knew about it, the safer it was. Everything depended also on the character of the sister. Some people may have been immune to such extreme stress and others couldn’t stand it. In any case, according to our data, during the war, Jews were hiding in Poland in about 400 men's and women's monasteries.
The ‘Priests for Jews’ project was thus complemented with the 'Sisters for Jews' project. What happened next?
Because we thought it best to cover all of Catholics' help for Jews, we started to collect information about lay people as part of the "Catholics for Jews" project. All of this was impossible to separate from each other other.
In June 2013, the idea was born to build a chapel dedicated to the memory of Polish martyrs who gave their lives by saving Jews. With such initiative came Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, who asked Paweł if he wouldn’t realize this idea in the newly formed church. Paweł got permission to act from his bishop and at the beginning of July and August 2013, articles in Nasz Dziennik appeared, in which we invited people to send information about cases of Poles rescuing Jews. We wanted people to share with us the relations and documents from family collections on this topic. There was a response, but a small one. Later I gave my phone number. When it was given in our journal, we still had few calls, but when it was given on Radio Maryja, it just started. I remember to this today. It was August 26, 2013. Avalanche of phones. I wrote dozens of numbers and everyone had to be called back because it was busy all the time and many people couldn’t get through to me. It took me a month to call back. I called every day. So I had to get totally involved. After this appeal, people from all over the world spoke to me. Even from Australia. We are constantly encountering new facts and information, many people are calling us, which are completely unrelated to Radio Maryja and Nasz Dziennik. When they learn from other people that there is something like our project, they call and transmit information about hiding Jews.
Father Tadeusz Rydzyk and Radio Maryja, however, are often accused of spreading anti-Semitism. How do you comment on these accusations?
Anti-Semitism was invented for political purposes. We have a recording with Mr. Sandauer. This is a Jew who was saved by a Ukrainian in Częstochowa. His mother was saved by a Polish woman. He says that the world isn’t as black and white as it is presented. The term "anti-Semite" was invented for the purposes of political struggle, to weaken the position of the Polish state and Poles in the international arena. One writes about the "Polish extermination camps" in the world. Who apologized for that? Recently, it was written in Canada about the Polish SS. Fortunately, the authors of this text quickly apologized, explaining that it wasn’t intentional. Nobody, no one defend and apologize Poles for their slander. Barack Obama and the head of the FBI used these wordings against us in relation to Poland. The same happens in France and Germany. In 2015, even on the Yad Vashem website, the term "Polish death camps" was used once. It has been removed, but nevertheless it somehow found itself on the side of the institution whose main task is to fight for the truth about the Holocaust.
Yad Vashem's activity isn’t the first time controversial. The former head of the Institute, Jicchak Arad, who managed it for twenty-one years, according to the Lithuanian authorities fought during the Nazi occupation in the ranks of the Soviet partisans and served in the NKVD. The Yad Vashem Institute also showed how often it is far from apolitical and aideological, rewarding the film Pokłosie, in which contemporary Poles were portrayed as a bloodthirsty, anti-Semitic mass. It isn’t difficult to imagine the reaction of Yad Vashem if the Polish Institute of National Remembrance would award a film in which contemporary Polish Jews trying to erase traces of the crimes committed by their fathers on Polish patriots in clandestine torture chambers. In the final scene of the film, like the Spanish Inquisition would burn at the stake Jew, who, contrary to the rabbi and almost the whole Jewish community, who loathed wild hatred towards Polish Catholics, wanted to discover this terrible and dark mystery. Accounting in such a primitive, drastic and caricatural manner with the very difficult and complicated past of Jews embroiled in communism, certainly wouldn’t find on the Jewish side as many enthusiasts and admirators as he found on the Polish side the film Pokłosie. The Institute of National Remembrance would then meet with loud protests from Jews around the world and would be accused of spreading anti-Semitism by strengthening negative and hurting stereotypes.
I was in the European Parliament some time ago at a conference on the Holocaust. There was also a gentleman from Yad Vashem. In almost every sentence, he tried to nail a pin to Poles. He kept emphasizing that Jews in hiding had to pay for food. He didn’t understand that when one was alive during the war, where everything is missing, there are always costs. Finally, prof. Berent, using precise calculations, explained how wages and salaries increased during the war, and how the fees for electricity, water, food, etc. increased. If something went up and the Poles themselves had problems to feed themselves, how could they keep other people from their money ?! It would even be something curious, if the Jews who often had money, didn’t give them at least part of their livelihood. Not only would the Poles risk their lives and their families' lives for them, but they would also starve themselves, while the Jews would save their money by taking food from the Poles. Such a situation would be something totally absurd. If you and your wife and two children would now take four people under their roof for two years, then you would have to earn for both your family and those who you are keeping.
What do your relations with the Yad Vashem Institute look like now?
At present, it is very difficult to consider the applications for honoring Poles with the title Righteous Among the Nations. Yad Vashem refuses the medal of the Righteous to many Poles. Even a Jewish statement made by a notary public is sometimes not enough. Please, take a look at the number of medals awarded to the Polish Righteous. It is completely disproportionate to the number of Poles who saved Jews. On the one hand, this is the policy of Yad Vashem, and on the other hand it results from our difficult history.
There was a time when Poles were afraid to touch upon certain topics because they didn’t know who represented what. They didn’t know if it was good to say that Poles were helping or not helping the Jews. They didn’t know who the agent was and who thought the way they did. After the war, there was also a lot of bandits and people who would hear that a given person was harboring Jews, that they could have attacked, because people thought that such a person earned money or hid Jewish gold from hiding Jews. Occasionally, there were robbery attacks and searches of such houses. Those who hid Jews were afraid to talk about it because they didn’t know who they would find. They had no one to trust. If there was no fear after the war, we would have not only 6,500 Righteous people in Yad Vashem, but at least 15 thousand. It happens that we have problems persuading many older people to open up and tell about those times, because they don’t know whether something will happen to them or their family. Thanks to the announcements in Nasz Dziennik and Radio Maryja, however, something finally moved. People started to call us and open themselves. The scale of the help phenomenon has exceeded our expectations. When we started to investigate for special cases of helping Jews, each person had to set up a separate file. Now we have about 3,500 of them.
How many people from these files are doubled with persons awarded with the medal of the Righteous Among the Nations?
Hard to say. Certainly in our briefcases there are many stories of people who helped, but never got the medal of the Righteous Among the Nations. For example, the father of the family got such a medal, even though other members of that family also participated in helping the Jews. We try to preserve the memory of all members of such families, because all of them were exposed to death.
Do you often hear about blackmailers and blackmail from Poles in stories about hiding Jews?
People talk about it. Mr. Sandauer was telling me directly that Poles helped Jews, but also gave them to the Germans. This Polish blackmailer caused that his mother's parents were killed at the train station. He added, however, that by the behavior of one man, the whole nation can’t be judged. That during the war, one Pole who informed the Germans was enough to kill Jew or even a hundred Jews. But in order for one Jew to survive, dozens of Poles had to help him, between whom there was a whole chain of connections. When one cell runs out, everything will break.
For example, Father Grzegorz Pawłowski was assisted by a total of thirty people. Stella Zylbersztajn was helped by sixty-five people and each of them risked her life for her. Although Stella Zylbersztajn gave twenty-four people to the decoration, not all sixty-five, Yad Vashem was in serious shock and did a lot of trouble because of that. She, however, stood firmly. I have a relationship in which people say that when Germans murdered her mother, she ran away and fell into a house where she wanted to jump into the wardrobe. The grandfather who lived there told her that he absolutely can’t go in there and put her in the stove. Dogs lose their sense of smell in the ashes. Ash works on dogs, just like water. They reach the stove and feel nothing. This man knew how to hide and save her.
Sometimes it was also the case that people hid Jews and didn’t tell anyone about it, and after the war it turned out that the whole village knew about it and nobody betrayed it. For example, they saw how a child from a farm drag food for pigs in a bucket that he wouldn’t normally lift. So it was suspected that instead of food for pigs, there was food for hiding Jews that weighed much less.
Even if one in a thousand Poles during the war was a blackmailer, the Jews hiding from the Germans treated every Pole as a potential blackmailer, because he didn’t know if he would just hit this one in a thousand. This generalization, which could save his life during the war, after the war, instead of disappearing, turned into a harmful stereotype. The threat passed, but fears and prejudices remained. However, it is often used consciously to discredit Poles. As I talk with the Jews, they don’t tell me what they sometimes say in the media, and so that the Poles were anti-Semites or blackmailer.
I spoke with a Jew who was saved along with her parents and two siblings in Brańsk and in the surrounding area. I asked her what she thought about Polish anti-Semitism and she said that there would be an anti-Semite in every nation. Similarly, as Mr. Sandauer stated, it is impossible to generalize and accuse the whole nation of anti-Semitism. She added that similar attitudes towards other people occur everywhere, and therefore also among the Jews themselves, which doesn’t mean that the opinion about specific Jews can be extended to all Jews. However, there are also generalizations. This is often due to the tragic experiences of many Poles. Sometimes I hear tales resulting from memories from 1939-1940, when Jews helped the Soviets to take Poles away "to white bears". Sometimes it happened that when Jews began to be persecuted, Poles had in mind their behavior, they didn’t want to help, and even they were hostile to them. They remembered that this or another person sent their father to Siberia. There are various tragic memories and prejudices on the other side. You can’t generalize all of this.
Does the attitude of Poles saving Jews try to expand to all Poles? How to keep proper proportions in all this?
Helping Jews by Poles is a glorious card in the history of Poland and Poles. In the end, only in occupied Poland was the death penalty for helping Jews. Sometimes, Jewish communities say that in Yad Vashem only the most Poles were honored, that there were just the most Jews in Poland. But look at what France was doing at the time. The French authorities, without any orders, picked up and sent the French of Jewish origin to the German death camps in Poland. The Polish state fought against blackmailers during the war and even established an organization whose main purpose was to help the Jews. No other country in the world has done such a thing for Jews during the war.
It must be said that war liberates extreme attitudes in people. Who was good before the war, he was even better during the war. And whoever was indifferent or angry, he was even worse during the war. Against the background of Poles' attitudes and behaviors during the war and because of their number, blackmailers constituted a margin in society, which was additionally combated by the Polish Underground State, and what is most important - the blackmail weren’t allowed in Polish society. Therefore, it can’t be said that Poles are an anti-Semitic people who murdered Jews. This is exactly what is said in the context of Jedwabne. I was in Jedwabne and talked to one of the oldest inhabitants, Mr. Franciszek, who lived there before and during the war. He told me about spending the Jews in the barn. His father traveled with his son, brother of Franciszek, to Jedwabne to a Jew, to take away from him the weight of grain he had borrowed from him. On the spot, it turned out that Germans had arrived in Jedwabne. They forced Poles to guard the Jews. They wanted to make two rings around them so that no one could escape. They ran out of people and forced Polish men who wouldn’t let Jews out. Father of Mr. Franciszek told him that anyone who wanted to escape from the Jews escaped. The inhabitants of Jedwabne didn’t stop them. Father Franciszek's father didn’t want to participate in it at all, so he sent his son home by car and told the Germans that he had to go along with his need. He entered the forest and escaped. He claims that Gross wrote a book based on the account of a lady who was born in 1941 and another, a little older woman. And that older woman testified that she heard her Jewish friend crying inside the burning barn. Only that to hear it, she would have to stand a few meters from barn. Let someone stand at such a distance from the burning barn, surrounded by the Germans.
"Like the Jews in Jedwabne, the Arabs can pick up Jewish houses, shops, factories, furniture and land," wrote in 2015 on the portal “Israelnationalnews.com" an American of Jewish descent, prof. Phyllis Chesler. This leftist activist also wrote that: "Like the Polish Catholic priests before the WW2, today the mullahs and imams propagate a vicious craze to Jews". According to her, the source of information on Polish anti-Semitism and the activities of the Polish clergy were Anna Bikont's texts. Jan Tomasz Gross once said in an interview with Marcin Dzierżanowski for the weekly Wprost that "the Polish Church gave moral sanctions to the traces of Jews. We can talk about the collaboration of the Church with Nazism through omission"26. He also claimed that "For millions of people parish priests were the only carriers of the moral norm. Without saying that Jews can’t be killed, they sanctioned persecution". What do you think about these accusations?
I am sending these countries to the archives of Yad Vashem. We spent two months there in 2014. The purpose of this query was to find out about the behavior of Catholic priests towards Jews during the WW2. It was about Jewish testimonies. We found 115 such accounts from the Jewish side. Of all this, one of the priests was accused of receiving the Germans at dinner. The rest, and so the 114, was about how the priests helped Jews. On the basis of our work and searches, it was also possible to establish that around 1000 priests were involved in helping the Jews in the then Poland. Ks. Tadeusz Tararuja once said: "almost every older priest I talked to remembers that he and other priests and laity were on their way to help Jews who were on the brink of destruction". Also Polish bishops helped Jews, including Bishop Czesław Kaczmarek and Bishop Stanisław Łukomski. At 14 Polish bishops who were then in Poland, 12 were involved in this help, personal assistance, but also manifested in expressing their consent to issue false baptism records to Jews. It was personal help, but also manifested in expressing their consent to giving Jews false birth certificates. This was a common phenomenon.
The knife opens in your pocket, you hear such accusations. The worst part is that you don’t have any consequences for writing and saying such nonsense. Let the state give you at least one Catholic priest who caused through his behavior that even one person of Jewish origin died. If they can’t give such an example, then they are slandering the Church and priests. Priests and nuns didn’t issue Jews. They saved them!
26 https://www.wprost.pl/tylko-u-nas/121326/Prof-Gross-Stefan-Wyszynski -wierzyl-ze-Zydzi-dokonuja-mordow-rytualnych.html.
Some Jews, however, seek in help for Jews - from the side of priests and nuns - calculation. For example, they claim that the church saved Jewish children only because they wanted to baptize them and make them Catholics. How do you relate to this allegation?
To say that priests baptized Jewish children by force and made their help dependent on it is completely nonsense. Father Grzegorz Pawłowski received a birth certificate from a Jewish boy. He came to a few families, but nobody baptized him there. After the war he told the priest that he wasn’t baptized and that he asked for baptism. Nobody forced him to baptism until then. It was similar with Stella Zylbersztajn. No one subject help for Jewish children for whether they would become Christians or not. They were taught prayers and behaviors, like Catholic children, so that they wouldn’t be exposed by the Germans. Now, however, attempts are being made to belittle the help of the Church, and various theories are sought to keep its negative image among Jews. Some people adds own ideology to the Church's activities.
Catholics for Jews