Speaking of the Righteous is taking the side of Life

There remains an immensely subjective disparity in Polish historical journalism, and today it’s spilling over into social media. The issue is simple yet definitive: the attitude of Poles toward the Holocaust, which Nazi Germany carried out between 1939 and 1945 in occupied Poland and regions annexed by the Third Reich. And even though eighty years have passed, these matters remain active and controversial.

Two distinct narratives are in conflict, each “hoping” to be considered closer to the truth. One mostly emphasizes the help Poles provided persecuted Jews; the other focuses entirely on the complicity of Poles in German crimes.

Furthermore, one side of the argument consists of historians, publicists, and politicians who concentrate on Polish sacrifice and heroism. And hence they’re accused of ultra-nationalism. They’re criticized for practising "the pedagogy of pride,” of persuasive propagandizing, convincing Poles, "You are wonderful!” The other side claims its explicit purpose is chronicling Polish cruelty, crime, and collaboration. And they’re accused of hating their own country and conversely practising "the pedagogy of shame.” They “educate” Poles that the Polish national character is simply deplorable.

Those are the two “approaches” on opposite ends of the political, national, and moral spectrum.

The most famous Polish figure who saved Jews is Irena Sendler. She risked her own life (and the lives of fellow collaborators) to rescue about 2,500 Jewish children from certain death. She helped them escape the Warsaw ghetto and housed them in private residences and monastic orphanages, preventing the Germans from murdering these children in the gas chambers of the Treblinka death camp.

Yet even Irena Sendler –– a heroic figure beyond reproach –– is a victim of the internal propaganda war that’s irreparably scarring Poland now more than ever. For example, Anna Bikont, the author of Irena Sendler's biography published just a few years ago, writes, "Irena Sendler with Jan Karski [an emissary of the underground Polish government who informed the West about the Holocaust] became Poland's flagship export product. Both of them are a gift of Providence … Irena Sendler, who saved two and a half thousand Jewish children, was made an icon of supposedly universal Polish aid for those threatened with the Holocaust." And in an interview preceding the book’s publication, Bikont claimed, "And it is the greatest paradox today that this atheist and socialist [made of] flesh and blood had become an idol of the Right and the Church. Time to remove her from those hands."

That divisive and disrespectful expression –– Irena Sendler being described as "Poland's flagship export product” and an “idol of the Right and Church” –– proves the malicious intentions of the biography’s author. Because first and foremost it’s absolutely not true that Irena Sendler was "made an icon of supposedly universal Polish aid for those threatened with the Holocaust.” In fact, the overwhelming reason Irena Sendler is now remembered in Poland is that her attitude proved exceptional, neither common nor conventional. In other words, it took extraordinary courage to save Jews during World War II because the explicit penalty for providing any kind of humanitarian help was death. This was basic Nazi law.

Therefore Irena Sendler, both a Catholic and a socialist, was –– and will always be –– a universal heroine, a role model for people on any side of the national, political, and moral spectrum. The humanism she exemplified through her actions eclipsed politics, defied abstract ideologies, and was never about "right" or "left.” Yet the current tragedy is she’s falling victim to a primitive conflict being waged to this very day: the propagandizing of "historical politics.”

It’s yet another battle in the war of ideas. It’s a conflict where every possible reminder of the existence of blackmailers or murderers is interpreted by one side as a disgrace to the nation of Poland and the good name of Poles, while resolute commemoration of the heroism of actual individuals –– Sendler, Karski, or countless “unknown” others who saved Jews (i.e. Yad Vashem awarded over 7,000 Poles with the title of Righteous Among the Nations, but the real number is much greater) –– is perceived as creating "Poland's export product.” But the deeper, more vociferous debate here is about what history remembers versus what history should remember. The dismissive complaints about an approach that claims "the story of the Righteous is the most striking" essentially argues that those who saved Jews are overemphasized for nationalist propaganda.

Establishing historical truth is the task of historians. It always has been. Unfortunately, it seems doubtful if this task is even feasible anymore. Both competing "Irena Sendler Truths" are now considered dominant by their supporters and negligible by their opponents, thus proving just how much politics has influenced historical discourse. And it’s becoming more political, more deterministic, more revisionist with each passing day.

Historical journalism that’s become explicitly politicized is an immensely dangerous matter. Could any good come of it? I believe the dispute causes –– and will continue to cause –– irreversible damage. The most significant current “battle” is belittling the heroism of the Righteous. The revisionists accuse those recalling their good deeds of nationalist propaganda and creating a false idolization of Poles. They’re intentionally marginalizing those who willingly saved Jews. But ultimately the ethical criterion should be the one and only decisive factor.

The most important ethical question is crucial: “What should we be telling those living today about attitudes towards terror and genocide among those who lived yesterday?” The story of the Righteous can be, should be, and must be repeated and exposed as often as possible because their heroism was simply extraordinary. And when it comes to an explicit genocide like the Holocaust, an extreme situation like that proves just how unprecedented the heroism was that saved human life. Those Poles were moral giants. They were truly exceptional. That is why we must speak of them, write about them, and never forget who they were and what they did.

Quite simply, the Righteous –– as role models for today’s humanity –– must be honoured, respected, and remembered. And yes, we must put them on pedestals. For these two reasons.

First, they simply deserve it. The Jews owe it to them. The Righteous saved their grandparents and great-grandparents –– they literally owe their lives to them. And the Poles owe them because the Righteous saved the honour of their ancestors.

And second, it’s about life itself. Beyond journalistic disputes, beyond ideological conflicts or everyday politics, the most important aspect here is… The future. When humanity is challenged again –– and it will be –– we should never doubt the existence of the Righteous. In other words, it’s ordinary people who do great deeds. And again, the moments testing human nature will most certainly come –– they always do –– if only because we all know they already have. Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, and on and on. The moments will come again no matter what we think or hope or do.

Maybe a generation from now or at the end of the century? Maybe this time next year? Sharing memories of the Righteous doesn’t propagandize or attempt to convince people, "You are great.” And claiming it’s the "pedagogy of pride” is simply nonsense. It actually illustrates that ordinary people in extraordinary situations are capable of exceptional heroism. When seen that way, commemorating the Righteous for their actions is simply practising our moral memory to ensure respect among subsequent generations. It’s necessary precisely so that anyone who may be faced with a choice in their life similar to that faced by the Righteous will remember how their grandchildren and great-grandchildren treated their memory. That they were appreciated, that they made a difference beyond their own lifetime.

History isn’t just a field of knowledge or a list of “what happened.” It’s our "magistra vitae," our "life's teacher.” What have the Righteous done? They saved innocent people from being murdered. Every day in the world, innocent people are murdered. The world needs –– will always need –– the Righteous. Individuals need role models; the world needs the Righteous.

But what about the other argument? The opposite approach? What’s the effectiveness of aggressive journalism, radical revisionism, and anti-Polish triumphalism? That (in)famous sentence by historian Jan Gross that, "Poles killed more Jews than Germans,” that their grandparents and great-grandparents were traitors, blackmailers, bandits, and murderers? Will it evoke purification of collective guilt? Is it convincing people that we’ve changed, that we’ve learned our faults, that what happened was a different time and place?

No, of course not. None of that. It’s nonsense. In fact, it’s actually counter-productive. I’m afraid it’d cause a rebellion before it ever “reformed” our understanding of past sins. The thinking would be simple and natural. "Why should I blame myself for the actions of mostly someone else's grandfather or great-grandfather?! That question alone would lead to indifference and a profound loss of empathy, but ultimately it’d justify permanent hostility.

Is it possible to “make people better” by constantly inundating them with information about the true or alleged faults of their ancestors? Especially in an aggressive tone as if it were their very own fault?

And we must never forget the most important aspect of all. It’s frequently forgotten –– or intentionally ignored –– these days. When we formulate historical accusations, we’re not talking to the criminals! They’re not here anymore. They’re not alive. They’re gone. They’re in the “dustbin of history.” Remember?

History as a chronicle is us speaking to the next generation, to the future, to impressionable human beings whose hands are clean, whose minds are open, whose futures are yet to be lived.

So our tone must be distinct and direct. The aim should never be to humiliate the living and the innocent in the name of condemning the long-gone and guilty.

We must remember the Righteous, we must speak of their Righteousness. Telling their stories means taking the side of life –– essentially, unequivocally, and infinitely.