Władysław Bartoszewski

The advocate of decency in totalitarian times



A man of indisputable righteousness, a recognised hero of three nations, an accomplished writer and public activist. He was all this and so much more.


Born in 1922, Władysław Bartoszewski studied Polish literature at Warsaw University before WWII. Despite the outbreak of the war, he continued his education for another year at a clandestine humanistic college. At the end of 1940 Bartoszewski was arrested in a Nazi round-up and sent to a the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

After six traumatic months he was unexpectedly released (most probably with help of the Polish Red Cross) and returned to the capital. He volunteered as a medic into the Polish underground forces, which was the beginning of his involvement with the resistance. For the next four years Bartoszewski took part in multiple anti-Nazi initiatives writing patriotic articles and passing on intelligence material to the Home Army. Most notably however, he was a member of "Żegota", an organization aiding the Jewish community trapped in the Warsaw ghetto. He even co-organized the Ghetto Uprising of April 1943.


In 1944 he took part in the Warsaw Uprising. After its tragic demise Bartoszewski migrated to Kraków to continue his work until the end of the war.


Over the next decades (1945-1990), during the Communist era, he published anti-totalitarian books describing the terrors of the German occupation and the harmfulness of Soviet domination. He paid a heavy price for this work: Bartoszewski spent over four year in prison and, even after his release, was constantly censured by the dictatorship. Much of his work has never been published in Poland, several police raids deprived him of his books and writings and his name was hardly ever mentioned in the public sphere. During those difficult times he also devoted himself to reconciliation between Poland and the Jews after the legacy of WWII. In 1963 he was recognised as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem memorial to the victims of Holocaust - the greatest civil award in Israel reserved for those who saved Jewish lives during the Nazi occupation.


However, it wasn't until the collapse of the USSR that the arguably most significant period of Bartoszewski's life began. In 1989, after the Polish Round Table Agreement, Poland finally gained independence from the Soviet Union. By doing so, the country opened a path to the European community. However, relations with Germany were still tense and full of mistrust.


It's worth noting how Bartoszewski's vision was so long-range in this regard. Immediately, he recognized that the only road to Europe went through Germany and international cooperation. Despite his past experiences he truly believed that recrimination was detrimental especially when the future of his country was at stake. The turning point of his effort was the "Mass of Reconciliation", the ultimate symbol of mutual forgiveness of past wrongs, to which Bartoszewski contributed in a decisive manner. That symbolic gesture indeed opened up a new era of Polish German relations , that facilitated and brought forward Polish accession into the European Union and NATO.


A few months later Bartoszewski became the Polish ambassador in Austria(1990-1995) and later the Minister of Foreign Affairs(1995, 2000-2001). With both appointments he continued to contribute to bridge-building between the two nations, often showing discernment and intuition in his judgement. For instance, he opposed the idea of building a museum of the German war refugees in Berlin which, he believed, would promoted a faulty interpretation of history. From 2007 he was an adviser on international relations to two subsequent Cabinets, and he was active in that role to his death.


Bartoszewski was met with much criticism. Right wing politicians liked to present his attitude towards Germany and Israel as that of subservience , and suggestions of his being a German agent of influence were none too subtle. He stood unmoved by those accusations, relying on his famous device: “when in doubt, act decent”. He passed away in 2015, just months before a new ultra-conservative government led by the Law and Justice Party (PiS) came to power in Poland. Till the end Bartoszewski tried to warn the public of what could be the consequences of weakening the rule of law and democracy, as well as that of destroying the treasure of reconciliation with Germany and Israel. This had proved to be his final gift for our country.




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