History & Culture

Righteous Amongst the Nations Part 4: Poles Who Risked and Lost All
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Thursday 19th June 2014

Most of the righteous gentiles I have written about in this series did not risk their lives in saving others, or if they risked their lives, it was their lives and not those of their families. They succeeded, although often they were disappointed or frustrated that they had not been able to save more people.

However, there were those whose attempt to save Jews not only failed but the result was their own and their families’ execution. Their brave efforts resulted in more loss of life than if they had done nothing.

A few months ago, I was invited to the Polish Embassy in London to view a film produced in 2009, the Story of the Kowalski Family. It is a film about one hour long, in Polish but with English subtitles. It can be viewed on YouTube.

Bronislwa and Adam Kowalski lived in Ciepielow near Radom in Poland. They and a couple of other local families from Ciepielow and neighbouring Rekowka hid a number of their Jewish neighbours during the Second World War. On 6 December 1942, German military policemen, informed by local Volksdeutsche (Poles of German ethnicity) surrounded the houses of families suspected of sheltering Jews. The Kowalski family – the parents and five children aged from 1 to 16 – were burnt alive in a wooden house together with the other families who had hidden Jews, and the Jews themselves. Over 30 people were burnt to death. The single survivor of the Kowalski family was a teenage son, Jan, who was at work. He spent the rest of the War on the run. The film concludes in the present time with Jan’s wife and their descendants introducing themselves.

Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma, religious Catholics, who lived in Markowa near Rzeszow, sheltered 8 Jews (who belonged to two families). They were discovered in March 1944. They and all of their six children, aged from 2 to 8, were murdered, together with the Jews they were hiding.

The version of history one hears from some Poles nowadays is that the Poles and Jews lived in harmony for many centuries, and that the massacres and cruelties were the work of invaders, both Nazis and Communists. Poland has more righteous non-Jews recognised by Yad Vashem than any other country. This is not surprising, given that Jews were more numerous in Poland than in any other country occupied by the Nazis. However, this picture of harmony is one that many Jews who lived or whose parents lived in pre-War Poland do not recall. Polish anti-Semitism was thriving.

At the same time, it must be noted that thousands of Poles, like the ones mentioned here, were heroic philo-Semites and did what they could to save Jews, many at the cost of their own and their children’s lives.