LONDON — In February 1943, Stanisława and Henryk Budziszewski decided to help a family of Jewish escapees at their farm in the Polish village of Żebry-Laskowiec where they lived with their three sons, Wacław, Stanisław, and Konstanty. The Jewish family consisted of a husband and wife — shopkeepers from the nearby village of Nur — along with their three children. Their surname remains unknown.
Everyone in the local villages knew that hiding Jews was illegal and, if discovered, the crime brought a sure death penalty.
The Jews were successfully hidden for just two weeks before they were discovered by German gendarmes and the Gestapo in the Budziszewskis’ farm, covered in hay in one of the barns. The adults in the Polish family were separated and interrogated; Waclaw, aged just 18, lied to the Germans and claimed that he had been helping the Jews without his parents’ knowledge.
The Jews were deported and murdered at an unknown location. Wacław was sent to the Stutthof concentration camp, where he died on April 1, 1943. The rest of the Budziszewski family was sent to perform forced labor for the Third Reich.
Recently, the Budziszewskis are among 17 cases identified and honored by Poland’s Pilecki Institute as part of a project launched in March 2019 entitled Called by Name.
According to the Pilecki Institute website, the project is “devoted to persons of Polish nationality who were murdered for providing help to Jews during the German occupation.” Once identified, the rescuers are honored with a ceremony in which a memorial stone is unveiled in their name.
While the honor sounds admirable enough, numerous scholars claim that the initiative launched by the Pilecki Institute — an entity founded in 2017 with government funds — is part of an organized campaign to whitewash Poland’s wartime narrative and portray ordinary Poles as rescuers of Jews while ignoring their many acts of betrayal and anti-Semitism.
One scholar who spoke with The Times of Israel accused the project of “manipulating history.” The Institute vigorously rejects the claims.
In nearly every one of the cases identified by Called by Name, the Polish individuals and families who helped local Jews, as well as the Jews themselves, were discovered, and usually killed, by German military forces and the Gestapo. Only four of the 17 cases have withstood rigorous scrutiny to be recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum.
But even Yad Vashem is aware that its demanding requirements have caused cases such as the Budziszewskis’ to be overlooked for the award.
“The title Righteous Among the Nations is reserved for the relatively few individuals who meet specific, particularly stringent, criteria,” a Yad Vashem spokesperson told The Times of Israel. “The reputation and high regard of the designation Righteous Among the Nations bestowed by Yad Vashem stems, in part, from the rigorous set of criteria and the in-depth research that is being carried out in each case.”
“In the majority of the cases presented for Yad Vashem’s consideration by the Pilecki Institute, there is a lack of evidence that would indicate whether the people in question hid or otherwise helped Jewish people out of altruism or for profit,” the spokesperson said.
The Pilecki Institute, however, maintains that it “has never submitted candidates to Yad Vashem for consideration.”
Pilecki: a true Polish hero
Almost all the corroborating testimony for Called by Name, acknowledge the Pilecki researchers, comes from Poles rather than Jews — not least because the Jews involved were summarily murdered or deported.
The two main staffers at the institute, Called by Name coordinator Agnieszka Dąbek, and researcher Karol Madaj, told The Times of Israel that their intent is to “honor gentile Poles who were murdered during the occupation by representatives of the German administration, in connection with helping Jews.”
“We choose only those stories that are well documented and confirmed by more than one source. So far, we have also made the condition that surviving descendants or members of the immediate family had to be found,” they told The Times of Israel in a statement.
But scholars contacted by The Times of Israel have attacked the independence of that research, saying that the Pilecki Institute is a government-sponsored body with the sole agenda of rewriting Poland’s wartime narrative.
The institute is named for Holocaust hero Captain Witold Pilecki, who smuggled himself into Auschwitz in 1940 in order to obtain as much information as he could, and, at great personal risk, to get that information to the outside world. After the war, Pilecki, who spent three years in Auschwitz, was arrested by the Communist regime in Poland and shot dead in 1948, his story suppressed for decades by successive Polish governments.
His legacy was rehabilitated in the 1990s, and the institute named for him now specializes in researching Nazi atrocities in Poland and local resistance efforts.
The Pilecki Institute’s future work may hinge on who wins the next round of the Polish presidential elections in a July 12 runoff vote. The current mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Kazimierz Trzaskowski of the liberal Civic Platform party, is a strong challenger to incumbent right-wing President Andrzej Duda, under whose auspices the institute receives its government support.
‘Ethno-nationalist Polish government propaganda’
Critics such as London University’s Dr. François Guesnet and Prof. Jan Grabowski of the University of Ottawa have strongly questioned both the status of the Pilecki Institute itself, as well as the research it presents.
Guesnet, a professor of modern Jewish history at University College London, specializes in the study of Polish Jews.
“The Pilecki Institute was established by the current ethno-nationalist Polish government for propaganda purposes,” Guesnet told The Times of Israel. “While it has all the bearings of an institution dedicated to research, it has one task only — to work towards ‘the good name of Poland’ within a historical narrative which has been defined by this government and its representatives.”
Though he acknowledged that there were many cases of “often heroic dedication to saving lives of neighbors,” such cases, Guesnet argued, “stand side by side with many cases of denunciation and even active involvement in the persecution of Jews.”
The current government has the explicit objective to privilege one type of fact over other facts
Guesnet put it bluntly: “[The Institute] is manipulating history. Therefore, when dealing with material proposed by the Pilecki Institute, one has to be extremely careful, as the current government has the explicit objective to privilege one type of fact over other facts.”
Grabowski said in an email that the Pilecki Institute is “one more agency of the Polish state (funded entirely from the state budget) involved in gross distortion of the history and of the memory of the Holocaust.”
Called by Name is “one more attempt to ‘domesticate’ the history of the Shoah, and to replace the Jewish victims with the noble Polish rescuers,” Grabowski said.
“What is particularly galling is the fact that Pilecki people install various commemorative plaques and monuments devoted to Poles rescuing Jews during the ceremonies commemorating the liquidation of the local ghettos,” he said. “I call it ‘memory patches’ — in other words a celebration of Polish virtue, not of Jewish dying.”
I call it ‘memory patches’ — in other words a celebration of Polish virtue, not of Jewish dying
He said this constitutes “an assault on the memory of the Holocaust.”
Quoting Kristen Monroe in her examination of the righteous gentile phenomenon, Antony Polonsky, chief historian at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, said the danger was in highlighting the actions of the rescuers “so that the rescuers become the excuse for the non-rescuers.”
Every scholar contacted by The Times of Israel — many of whom did not wish to be quoted on the record — gave similar opinions and voiced concern that the major problem was one of context.
“The Pilecki Institute is part of [Polish] government efforts which were established and enlisted to show that the Polish nation was a nation of heroes who risked their lives to save Jews. Unfortunately, historical evidence doesn’t support it,” said one scholar who requested anonymity.
‘A scientific institution, committed to serious scholarship’
The Pilecki Institute’s director, Dr. Wojciech Kozlowski, firmly rejected the criticisms and insisted the institute’s research was valid. Asked if the institute had been set up to provide an alternative narrative of Polish actions during World War II, he said it had been established “by an act of the Polish Parliament.”
Kozlowski described the Pilecki Institute as one of Poland’s many public research institutions. He said that the institute’s mission and obligations are clearly outlined in the legislation that established it, and that in the field of scholarship the institute largely draws on the 2011 statute of the Institute of History at the Polish Academy of Sciences.
“We are not in any way interested in promulgating any sort of ‘alternative narrative’ or in pursuing any kind of political agenda,” Kozlowski said, adding that “as professional historians, archivists, and researchers, we are dedicated solely to providing a scholarly contribution to the field of history based on sound methodology and well-researched source material.”
He robustly rejected the charge that the Pilecki Institute was “manipulating history,” or that there was no independent oversight of its research.
Pilecki is “a scientific institution, committed to serious scholarship,” Kozlowski said, that engages with “a worldwide community of scholars — the essence of independent oversight. Theirs are the standards we are held to, and frankly I cannot imagine what other proper form of oversight there could be.”
Kozlowski said that in 2017 the Pilecki Institute was given a one-time lump sum of PLN 74 million (roughly $18.7 million) by the Polish parliament, which was used to launch the institute and cover operational expenses through 2019. This year, the institute received a specified-user subsidy of PLN 20 million (roughly $5 million) from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.
Responding to criticism about historical context, including the issue of who betrayed the whereabouts of Polish Jews to the Nazis in the first place, Kozlowski said that “the German occupation of Poland brought disaster on the whole of Polish society, on Jewish and Catholic Poles alike.”
“German terror was overwhelming and fiendishly cunning, inducing fear and false hopes of survival only to confront people with impossible choices,” he said. “Honestly, to say that ‘in Poland there was the death penalty for aiding Jews’ is merely to scratch the surface.”
“In this world of fear, terror, and arbitrariness, there were numerous instances of ‘unheroic’ behaviors, and we have never said otherwise. People would indeed betray the whereabouts of Jews to the Germans, and likewise they would report their fellow Catholic Poles to the Gestapo, on various grounds and for a plethora of reasons,” Kozlowski said.
“We carry out research on these issues and we refuse to shun the difficult aspects of these stories,” he said.
Kozlowski also cited Menachem Rosensaft, associate executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress, who issued a joint press release with the Pilecki Institute.
“We cannot and must not overlook those Poles who killed Jews or handed them over to the Germans to be killed, or who profiteered shamelessly from the ghettoization and deportation of their Jewish compatriots,” the statement said.
“At the same time, however, it is equally critical to emphasize that there were thousands of Poles who risked their lives to hide and save Jews, and that the London-based Polish government in exile was one of European Jewry’s few allies during the Holocaust years,” it said.