I didn't tell the jurors that for me, Poland is a place from a nightmare in a faraway time. A place where a smiling, round-faced Basia, my mother, will forever peek out of a black-and-white photo taken just before the German invasion.
There were other things I didn't tell the jurors about my family: the big secret; the dirty laundry. It's the dirty laundry of my Roman Catholic faith as well. Perhaps it's the Catholic inside that pushes for a full confession of sins, an accounting, even six decades later.
In 1903 my grandfather, Alexander Peter Gwiazdowski, escaped a lengthy prison sentence for his revolutionary activities against Czarist Russia and made his way to the United States, where he became a naturalized citizen. He married Agnes Gradalska, earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering from Columbia University, and taught at a number of technical schools and universities, including the University of Michigan.
My grandfather was given the Polish Medal of Independence in 1933 by Polish war hero and dictator Marshal Josef Pilsudski, for his youthful struggle against the czar. Polish Jews affectionately called Pilsudski Dziadek--grandfather--because of his progressive views on issues of concern to Jewish people. Unlike Pilsudski, my grandfather was an anti-Semite. He blamed his business failures on the "international conspiracy," Jewish bankers. My grandfather's pre-war views about Jews are documented in a book published in 1933. He hated Hitler, but like Hitler he blamed the Jews, writing that Nazis
represent the hatred, and so ... must perish. It took the Jews a few generations to ruin imperial Russia. Hitler's Germany will be ruined in our days. ... Mutual extermination may start soon. ... Evolution sometimes uses war, revolution, and even massacres as the tools to accomplish the desired results.
The Jews are an ideal instrument of social evolution.
So why did my grandfather risk his life and the lives of his family to save Jewish people from the Nazis? I've gone back and forth in my thinking on this question, at times doubting the family history I was taught as a child; assuming there were even darker truths than the ones I had uncovered.
My connection to Poland, my grandfather and World War II begins with my mother. She was born in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1929. When she was 5, her family moved back to her father's hometown, Suwalki, Poland, near the border with Lithuania. My mother told me of being afraid of Jews in Suwalki before the war. She would run past their homes. She says she can't remember why she was afraid, and claims her parents never made anti-Jewish comments in her presence.
On Sept. 1, 1939, when my mother was 8 years old, there were 25,000 people living in Suwalki. Fifteen thousand were Jewish, 10,000 Catholic. Today my mother is 70 years old and living in the United States. There are still thousands of Catholics living in Suwalki, but there are no Jews.
Sometime after the German invasion of Poland in 1939, my grandfather and others started an anti-Nazi resistance group called Revival of the Nation. Some members forged documents, collected arms and were couriers to the Warsaw underground. My grandfather was the editor of the group's underground newspaper and had possession of an illegal radio, which was used to supply Allied war news. He and his group, along with local farmers, helped Jewish people escape out of Poland. By 1941, in occupied Poland, it was a capital crime for Poles to offer help of any kind to the Jews. My grandmother and uncle had themselves driven a Jewish man--in a horse-drawn cart--across the border into Lithuania.
During early May 1941, the Gestapo's men arrested members of my grandfather's resistance unit, including the leader, Stanislaw Wydornik. My 16-year-old uncle was also taken into custody. Later that month, my mother, 11-year-old Basia, was posted as a sentry on the walkway outside the family's cottage, keeping watch while her father listened to the illegal radio. The door to the cottage was locked. My grandfather didn't hear Basia crying and pounding on the door. A Gestapo agent and a member of the SS kicked in the door and arrested my grandfather. He was imprisoned, beaten, interrogated and charged with treason by the Nazis. A Gestapo snitch had infiltrated his group.
After my grandfather's arrest, the Nazis seized our family's home. My grandmother and mother fled hundreds of miles to a relative's home near Cracow. My mother was home sick the day her grammar-school classmates were rounded up and taken to Germany as slave laborers, where many perished. She also tells of another time when an old man walking down the street near her didn't produce his identification card fast enough, and was executed on the spot. She remembers blood and bits of brain raining down on her.
My grandfather was convicted of the preparation of a highly treasonable undertaking against the Third Reich. Originally he was sentenced to death, but his sentence was later changed to seven years' hard labor. He spent four years in various Nazi jails and prisons, and escaped during a forced march west as the Soviets approached from the east. All but a few of his comrades were executed by guillotine.
When my grandfather arrived back in the United States, in October 1945, he wrote a long letter to American war crimes prosecutors about Nazi prison officials and the Volksdeutscher (persons of German descent living outside Germany): "[T]his traitorous group of scum had already tortured and murdered hundreds of thousands of European Jews even before the Nazis set up their systematic mass executions by use of machine guns and gas chambers." In all his writings about the war, this was his only mention of Jews being singled out. In the same letter, he also wrote about Catholics: "I have witnessed in [the] town of Suwalki the torturing of Polish priests, teachers, lawyers, judges, workmen and farmers. Later, these victims were shipped to concentration camps, where, as far as is known, they all died in abject misery." I wonder why he didn't write about the Jews he saw tortured or rounded up by the Nazis in his own town.
Before the war started, Hitler exhorted his followers to kill "without pity or mercy all men, women and children of Polish descent or language." Even though Himmler proclaimed that "all Poles will disappear from the world," they didn't--only the Polish Jews. Those surviving Polish Catholics point out that millions of non-Jewish Poles died during the war. They contend that their suffering is overlooked, but there is no comparison. As terrible as conditions were for my family, Polish children were not hunted by the Nazis because they were Catholic. A Polish Jew couldn't receive a ration of sugar for informing the occupying authorities where a Catholic was hiding.
Years ago in Chapel Hill, my friend, a Holocaust survivor I'll call Miriam Fine, asked to read my grandfather's book, I Survived Hitler's Hell. Mrs. Fine, a Polish Jew whose many brothers and sisters, mother and father were murdered by the Nazis, escaped from Warsaw by posing as a Catholic girl, after being helped and then betrayed by fellow Poles. Mrs. Fine had written her own book about the war. When she handed my grandfather's book back to me, she shrugged her tiny shoulders and said, "He didn't have it so bad."
Mrs. Fine was right. Compared to what happened to her family, my family had it easy. Still, I was offended, then hurt, by her words. I was also embarrassed that she had read the anti-Semitic references that began in my grandfather's dedication:
To the millions of men, women, and children who perished in concentration camps, in gas chambers, and under guillotines . . .
To the Jewish martyrs abandoned by their rich coreligionists and rabbis.
To the fearless Polish farmers, to my wife and son, who helped me to save the lives of poor Jews ...
There is another passage in his book in which he blames rich Jews for the fate of Jewish victims. I wonder if he was showing empathy or simply making a point to assign blame:
While the Germans were crushing the Polish divisions in the West, the Russian Red Army came treacherously out of the East. One day Russian tanks appeared in the streets, stayed for three weeks, and then disappeared, taking all the goods, the rich Jewish merchants and rabbis with them. Soon the Germans occupied the city, and the days of terror started. ... One day all streets were closed by the police and the Volksdeutscher. All poor Jews left by the rabbis and their rich coreligionists were herded to the streets. Sick men and women were thrown out through windows. One young Jewess, an expectant mother, fell or was hurled from a window into a buggy. The natal moment began. The Volksdeutscher hastened the delivery with kicks in her belly.
The Jews were taken to the prison yard, a few hundred at a time, thoroughly searched, and sent to a camp in Lublin, thence to Kaunas, their place of death.
Consumed with fighting fever, [I] chose the motto "In days of danger, my duty is to stay with my people."
[We] stayed in Poland.
By choosing to stay and fight the Nazis, my grandfather risked his own life and the lives of his wife and children. Courageous as he was (my mother says reckless), life was very different for a Fine and for a Gwiazdowski in Poland during the war. My uncle, himself tortured by Gestapo interrogators, his wife a slave laborer, once said, "We didn't suffer. The Jews suffered."
Polish anti-Semitism made it easier for the Nazis to carry out their plans, but didn't guarantee cooperation. In 1938, a year before the war, Stanislaw Wydornik, the leader of my grandfather's resistance group, had joined a far-right, anti-Semitic political group, OZN, which proposed anti-Jewish policies much like those in pre-war Germany. When I discovered this in a Polish history of the Suwalki underground, Aleksander Omiljanowicz's It Happened on the Czarna Hancza (1960), I began to wonder if Wydornik and my grandfather had helped Jewish people at all. Was it all a lie? There were Polish underground factions that battled the Nazis and killed or betrayed Jews. It was a relief to find in the same book a description of my grandfather's group helping many Suwalki Jews escape to Lithuania.
So, Wydornik, the anti-Semite, went on to lead a conspiracy that helped Jews avoid capture by the Nazis. Wydornik and 16 others in Revival of the Nation paid with their lives. They were executed on May 3, 1943, in the same East Prussian penitentiary where my grandfather was imprisoned.
As a younger man, it was incomprehensible to me that my Nazi-fighting grandfather, who died the year I was born, could have been an anti-Semite. In countering arguments with Jewish friends about the extent of Polish anti-Semitism, I pointed to my grandfather's war-time heroics as evidence to the contrary. Now I know. He wasn't a superstitious peasant who believed the libel that Jews kidnapped Polish children and drained their blood to make matzo, he was a cultural anti-Semite who believed Jews were socially corrosive because they didn't assimilate. My grandfather is no longer a hero without blemish. He is a real human being.
As to why my grandfather became a rescuer, I've come to believe it was because, despite his prejudices, he saw the humanity of everyone, and helped people throughout his life. Maybe during that horrific time my nationalistic grandfather saw only Poles, not Poles and Jews.
I was in elementary school when I found my grandfather's book in the basement among his dusty engineering textbooks. The photo of the emaciated bodies strewn in an open pit frightened me and I ran from the basement, not understanding. The effects of World War II were still going on in my safe suburban Detroit home, where some of my neighbors did not speak English as a first language. Folks who made sausage in their garage. People whose surnames ended in a vowel.
The war never ended for my mother, who, 20 years later, still counted in Polish and converted the result into English, and refused to watch anything about war on TV. She spoke in English to everyone except her older sister, her closest friend and confidante. My aunt, a refined woman who speaks several languages, instructed me to never say Jew--Zyd--in Polish. I was to say, "person of the Hebrew faith." The term Zyd might be interpreted as derogatory. For me, Polish was a mysterious language carried to this country under the babushkas of old women who saw things that were too painful to speak about to the rest of us. A language used to maintain the secrets.
When my mother talked about the war, it seems she always mentioned that our family saved Jews. And she often added that the Jews in general were not grateful for this sacrifice. The proof of this, she said, was that Jews claim that Poles are anti-Semitic.
Growing up in a home where my mother regularly sang the Polish national anthem, I was taught that Poland was the "Christ of nations" for all of its sufferings. We were special for having been persecuted. But even using the phrase "Christ of nations" implicitly denies the existence of Polish Jews in much the same way as the giant papal cross looming outside the gates of Auschwitz. Our Lady, Virgin Mary Queen of Poland, interceded to save "us" time and again. We were the other chosen people, even though that never quite made it into the Bible. Believing one is so special leads to separatism, self-righteousness and denial.
As a product of more enlightened times, I wasn't taught that all Jewish people are Christ killers who, without conversion to Catholicism, will suffer eternal damnation. My grandfather and everyone else of his generation grew up on these teachings, and worse. The Catholic Church officially disavowed the charge of deicide against the Jewish people in 1965, nine years after my grandfather died.
Is it too late for me to admit that distinctly Polish, and Roman Catholic, anti-Jewish stereotypes and prejudices were a reason that more did not risk their lives to save their brothers and sisters? A reason the majority watched as their neighbors were slaughtered by the Nazis, or rounded up for annihilation elsewhere? A reason neighbors denounced Jews in hiding or--in the most hideous of pogroms--murdered them years later, when the few survivors of the concentration camps tried to return home?
I know well that Poland had more Righteous Gentiles honored by Yad Vashem for saving Jews than any other country. I know about the millions of non-Jewish Poles slaughtered by the Nazis. But none of that can make up for the anti-Semitism that pre-dated and survived the Nazis, or the failure--including my own--to admit the extent of the sentiment among Polish Catholics.
Through certain actions and teachings--teachings of men, not of God--my beloved Roman Catholic Church laid a foundation for the Holocaust. And, Pope Pius XII stood silent in the Vatican as the genocide continued. I confess these sins, and find hope in the words written in a Jerusalem memorial: "Remembrance is the way to redemption."
Maybe my penance is to be served in courtrooms and in my own home, reminding everyone, myself included, that we are lucky to be living in a nation where the constitution was amended to proclaim that everyone--black or white, Jew or Gentile, rich or poor--is equally human and equally precious under the law.