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  • Władysław Bartoszewski19 February 1922 – 24 April 2015
  • Antony Polonsky (bio)

Władysław Bartoszewski, who died of a heart attack in Warsaw in April 2015 at the age of 93, was one of the great figures in Polish public life in recent times. Born into a Catholic family, he grew up next to Warsaw's Jewish district and had many Jewish friends. He became active in the Polish resistance to Nazi occupation and was imprisoned for a period in the Auschwitz concentration camp from which he was released in the spring of 1941 as a result of the intervention of the Red Cross, for which he had been working. He returned to underground activity and was one of the founders and principal organizers of the Council for Aid to Jews, code named Żegota, which provided material and moral support for Jews persecuted by the Nazis. For this activity, he was designated by Yad Vashem as one of the 'Righteous among the Nations'. When asked by the journalist Michał Komar why he had risked his life on behalf of Jews, he replied: 'Because I could not have done otherwise.'

Bartoszewski strongly opposed the communist takeover of Poland and was an active member of Mikołajczyk's Polish Peasant Party. He was also a founding member in 1946 of the All-Polish Anti-Racist League. His activity aroused the ire of the communist authorities, and he was accused of spying and imprisoned for nearly seven years before being released in 1954 on grounds of ill-health. He continued his oppositional activity and also wrote extensively on Polish Jewish topics and on the Second World War. In all he wrote more than forty books. His writing was not to the taste of the rulers of the Polish People's Republic, and in 1970 he was not permitted to publish his work in Poland for four years. An active supporter of Solidarity he was again briefly imprisoned after the imposition of martial law in December 1981. He took an active part in the conferences in the 1980s which led to a major breakthrough in Polish–Jewish relations and the understanding of the Jewish past in Poland. He was one of the founders of Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry and contributed to it on a number of occasions.

After the negotiated end of communism in Poland in 1989 Bartoszewski became the country's ambassador to Austria between 1990 and 1995 and subsequently foreign minister from March to December 1995 and again from June 2000 to October 2001. A fluent German speaker, he made a major contribution to the Polish–German reconciliation that has been a central pillar of the new Europe which has [End Page 471] emerged since the collapse of communism. This was a role which came to him as somewhat of a surprise. In an interview in 2009 he observed: 'If someone had told me, 60 years ago, when I was standing on the assembly square in Auschwitz, that I was going to be friends with Germans, citizens of a democratic and friendly nation, I would have said they were cuckoo crazy.'

He also played a major role in Polish–Israeli and Polish–Jewish reconciliations and often remarked how proud he was to have been made an honorary Israeli citizen. He was a member of the council of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews and always played a positive role in its discussions. An eloquent speaker, his rapid-fire delivery led him to be dubbed 'Uzi'. He was a great moral authority, whose lifelong motto was 'Be decent.' At the commemoration of his ninetieth birthday, he was awarded a medal by President Bronisław Komorowski inscribed: 'To the one who dared to be disobedient.' In a speech a few days before his death, he remarked:

We need to keep our dignity and values, such as tolerance, friendship and the ability to make sacrifices across ethnic or religious boundaries. We can dream that one day this will become the norm for our children. Because future generations of Jews, future generations of Christians, and future generations of Muslims—hopefully not extremists—will have to live together on this...


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pp. 471-472
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