Vol. 9, Issue No. 28/2002
POLISH CATHOLIC RESCUER ASKED JEWS TO ALSO HONOR UNCOUNTED POLES
In honoring Paul Wos at its annual testimonial banquet on November 5th, the Polish American Congress will pay tribute to him as both a veteran of the Polish underground Home Army (Armia Krajowa - AK) in world war II and as a rescuer of Jews.
Paul Wos, a Polish Catholic now living in Sea Cliff, NY, waited 50 years to be named one of the "Righteous Among the Nations," the designation Israel's Yad Vashem gives individuals who helped Jews during the Holocaust. He fought with the AK in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and is a concentration camp survivor.
It was a well-deserved recognition. It was earned at the risk of death for him and both his parents. Poland was the only country in all German-occupied Europe where the Nazis gave an official order of death for anyone aiding Jews in any way. Despite this dreadful threat, the Wos family ignored the risk. They saved 12 Jews from 5 different families by arranging a daring escape from the Warsaw ghetto when the Germans were liquidating it in 1943.
But the Wos experience prompted Paul to sit down and write a letter to Dr. Mordecai Paldiel who heads Yad Vashem's Department for the Righteous in Jerusalem. It started as a thank-you note shortly after the 1998 ceremony at Israel's Consulate in New York where he and his parents, now deceased, were awarded 3 Certificates and Medals of Honor.
More than from any other country, Poles number the largest group of rescuers at Yad Vashem. Now the Wos family made it even larger by adding their names to this distinguished list.
Along with his expression of thanks for the medals, Paul alerted Dr. Paldiel to a flaw he found in the procedures Jerusalem uses to identify individuals as "Righteous." From his own experience it was clear the special requirements seriously understate the count of Polish Christians who also merit recognition but are unable to qualify under present rules.
Citing the Germans' ominous warning of mandatory death that was unique to Poland, Mr. Wos wrote, "Countless Polish families, even entire villages, were slaughtered for their heroism. Some perished on the spot alongside the Jewish families whom they tried to save. Many heroic actions by Poles may not be honored and their story never told because there are no surviving Jews to corroborate these events."
The Wos experience made Paul realize nobody would have remembered or cared how many Jews his family saved a half-century ago had he not visited Israel a year earlier. There he met some of the surviving members from the families he helped escape the ghetto. When they found out no one ever bothered to speak up for Wos and his parents, they contacted Yad Vashem and confirmed that the rescue really took place.
Only their testimony, so many years after the fact, caused the selfless courage of the Wos family to become a part of recorded history. "Without the verification efforts of the Melamed family and Professor Israel Shahak, this recognition would not have occurred," he said.
Mr. Wos believes there are thousands of Polish Christians who aided Jews in various ways and should be added to the rescuer lists at Yad Vashem. In the United States, "there appears to be a segment of contemporary Jewish society which holds the misconception of Polish Christians as 'by-standers' and 'indifferent.'"
Such accusations, Mr. Wos feels, are unjustified and unfair. "Jews were killed because they were Jews, but at the same time, Poles were being killed because they were Poles. Had the Germans caught us helping our Jewish friends, we all would likely have been immediately executed. Then, instead of being honored at Yad Vashem, not only would the Wos family be forgotten but we would have found ourselves put into this kind of 'bystander' category," by those who are unable to understand the situation we were in, the said.
Because the impossibility of an accurate and complete count of Poles only feeds such erroneous ideas, he proposed "dedicating a monument to their memory, much like the tomb of the Unknown Soldier that stands in so many countries, to pay tribute to those unnamed individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice for someone else.."
Yad Vashem wrote back and told Wos a monument to the memory of all rescuers from all nations already existed. Wos answered by saying there should be a special one, "specifically for, and uniquely for Poles," because Poles helped Jews with full knowledge the Nazis would kill them if they were caught. "The monument already erected to honor the Righteous from all countries of Europe as a general category inadvertently masks the uniqueness of the death penalty imposed on Poles ... (and) dilutes the immensity of the courage they, and they alone, were required to possess."
The Wos family knew they could be killed for helping their Jewish friends. No matter how much risk, they felt their Christian duty compelled them to do it. "We saved Jews, they and we survived, we were given medals for it. Many other Polish Christians did, or tried to do the same. The Nazis killed them together with the Jews who might have spoken for them at Yad Vashem. They were not as fortunate as we. They lost everything, we did not. Today they are unnamed, forgotten, without any medals, and sometimes even being accused of being bystanders or indifferent. Is it too much to ask they be honored too?"
Wos admits he was disappointed with Yad Vasham's rejection of his proposal . "For everyone like me who was acknowledged, there are at least 10 other Poles who gave help to Jews but remain forgotten. Over 5,000 Polish rescuers are cited at Yad Vashem. If complete verification were possible, the real number would be more like 50,000," the Armia Krajowa veteran stated.
The testimonial banquet for Wos will begin at 4:00 p.m. at the Polonaise Terrace, 150 Greenpoint Ave., Brooklyn, NY. Tickets for the Nov. 5th Banquet are available by calling (718) 383-3700.
Contact: Frank Milewski (212) 239-6655