A Part and Apart - Their Past

Lily Galili
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Lily Galili

WARSAW - "My name is Slawik, Henryk Slawik." Thus, in simple words that belie the dimensions of the drama, Elzbieta Isakiewicz describes the meetings between the Polish diplomat Slawik and his Hungarian colleague Jozsef Antall, in her new book "Red Pencil." A human encounter during World War II that led to the rescue of thousands of Jews and Poles from the extermination camps on Hungarian soil.

One could say that the book is a monument to a diplomat, an emissary of the Polish government in exile in London, who paid with his life for this complex operation; but it would also be correct to say that this is also a book about the personal journey of a Polish Catholic writer into the past of her homeland, which for 50 years remained almost hermetically sealed behind the Iron Curtain. In that sense, this book, even more than being another story about a missing chapter in the history of the horror, is a personal story that connects the writer to the depths of the soul of her homeland. And above all hovers the question: Why didn't Poland make political capital of the human enterprise of a Polish national, and even act as though it was trying to conceal him?

In her small, book-lined office, in the editorial headquarters of the right- conservative newspaper Gazeta Polska, Isakiewicz reconstructs this journey without pathos, without inflated language that is alien to this small and practical woman. Many copies of her book, which received enthusiastic reviews, are scattered around in creative chaos. The book probably deserves the praise it is receiving, but there is no doubt that it is also providing an answer to the Polish desire to be seen differently by the world. Poland wants to be seen not only via the concentration camps that were constructed on its soil; not only as collaborators in the destruction of its Jews. Poland also wants to be seen by the world through a man named Henryk Slawik, who provided thousands of Polish Jews with forged papers as Catholics, simply because that was the right thing to do.

"Red Pencil" is not Isakiewicz's first book dealing with the Holocaust. In her previous book, "Harmonica," she collected the testimony of Polish Holocaust survivors living in Israel. The path that led her to involvement in this subject is the story of the new Poland.

Incidental encounter

Elzbieta Isakiewicz was born in Gdansk in 1971. At the age of 16 she won a literary prize, and since then she has been writing. At the age of 17 she came to Warsaw in order to study Polish literature and language. "I was lucky," she says, sitting in her office beneath a photograph of her with the Pope. "I knew what I wanted to do in life. I had an innate ability to find a story and to notice the details." From the moment she decided, she followed a path that was typical of Poland during that period: First she wrote in the weekly newspaper of the Solidarity movement, then in a now- defunct liberal newspaper, until she joined the team that established Gazeta Polska. But that was not the end of her journey into the depths of Polish politics. The present regime, headed by socialist Prime Minister Leszek Miller, doesn't really like her conservative newspaper.

"They cut us off from all sources of advertising, which are the financial lifeblood of the newspaper," Isakiewicz says without complaining. "After all, the large companies here are still manned by political representatives. They thought that by doing so they would succeed in making the paper close down, but we will survive. Meanwhile, we are anxiously awaiting a change in the government."

Her first encounter with politics was incidental. One night, when she was a young girl, she awoke at 3 A.M. from the sound of a car that had stopped near the house where she lived with her family in Gdansk. Two men got out of the car, entered a nearby building, and returned accompanied by a pajama-clad man. Even now she doesn't know what exactly happened there, but the sight became etched in her mind. Another incident that left an impression on her was one day when Gdansk was swathed in black flags and a terrible silence enveloped the streets.

"The communists carried out a great massacre in the city," she recalls. "Even now it's not clear how many victims there were. The estimates range from dozens to hundreds. They themselves dug mass graves and even today families are afraid to talk about it." She raised her children, today aged 20 and 17, out of a profound awareness of the new history.

The new history of Poland, which is now being written, is somewhat confusing. For that reason, Isakiewicz has difficulty positioning herself and her newspaper on the familiar axes. "In Poland there are few newspapers such as ours," she says. "There are many periodicals that express the views of the nationalist right, which are anti-European, anti-American, anti-NATO and anti-Semitic. We are pro-Europe, pro-America, pro-NATO. With a normative attitude toward the Jewish issue - neither anti-Semitism nor exaggerated admiration - we are raising the flag of normative Polish culture. Without us, there would be only insanity."

The other Poles

Isakiewicz decided to write the two books that deal with Jewish subjects with full awareness and taking a critical approach. She believes that in post-1989 Poland, after the collapse of the communist regime, a distortion was created in the relations between the Jews and the Poles. For many years, under the Soviet regime, dialogue between the two sides was impossible. When the barrier was breached, says Isakiewicz, the new freedom was expressed in a flood of information that accused the Poles of anti-Semitism.

"I remember what happened after the American Rabbi Avi Weiss created the equation according to which every Pole is anti-Semitic, and the natural Polish reaction was a counterattack," she says.

She adds that "a statement by Yitzhak Shamir [a native of Poland], when he was prime minister, that `Poles imbibe anti-Semitism with their mother's milk,' fueled the anti-Semitic Radio Maryja, which is run by priests. That was the moment when I understood that we had to find a genuine path to dialogue with the Jews. Understand, we were in a unique situation. Anti-Semitism was an established part of the communist ideology of the Polish party, and we had no access to the free press. We didn't even know that the world was already taking stock, that they were talking about it. For years we were artificially imprisoned and suddenly, after 1989, everything blew up in our faces. In the meantime, we had skipped several generations during which we could have accused, cried, forgiven, understood. We are doing all these things now."

At the height of this general confusion Isakiewicz became a member of the delegation of journalists that accompanied then Polish prime minister Jerzy Buzek on his visit to Israel in 1999.

"I traveled in fear," she admits, "I was afraid they would attack us. I was prepared to absorb the attacks. And then a surprising thing happened: In an encounter with Jews who were natives of Poland, I discovered for the first time how the Polish intelligentsia looked, wrote and spoke before the war. I found myself among Israelis who spoke excellent Polish, who wanted to talk, who invited us to an unending series of meals, and took us to Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot [founded by Polish Holocaust survivors]. One of the kibbutz members asked our prime minister how they could help Poland fight the sweeping accusation of anti-Semitism against all the Poles. The prime minister replied: `You will be our witnesses.'"

Those words, says Isakiewicz, continued to haunt her even after her return to Poland. This restlessness led to her decision to return to Israel and simply to record the testimony of the survivors.

"It was a profound psychological experience," she recalls. "After all, I didn't travel as an ordinary journalist, but as a Polish journalist, with all that implies. I was terrified that they wouldn't want to talk to me, that I might have to return after two days. I stayed for over a month. I have never witnessed such terrible suffering. People wept, others remained silent for hours. Some told me that after more than 50 years, this was the first time they were talking about it. When you are a witness to such suffering, you have no choice but to open up and to develop trust. Even today, there are people with whom I maintain a closer connection than with my parents."

Her agitation didn't die down upon her return to Poland. Once she spoke with an Israeli woman who was a child when her family was expelled from Krakow. The woman asked her: "Why did you allow them to do that to us? What didn't you ask us to stay?" This woman-child from Krakow, who was forced to leave her house while the Polish neighbors peered out at her from their windows and did nothing, continues to haunt Isakiewicz. However, the journalist then met a man who told her that one of the reasons why he had survived was thanks to the help of his neighbors.

"Little by little, the simple truth, which had been unknown to me until then, began to take shape ... that there were evil and cruel Poles, but there were also heroic, and almost saintly Poles," she says. "For me that was a lesson not in your history, but in the history of my people."

Jews as Catholics

About a year and a half ago, Isakiewicz was invited to a meeting of the Society for Polish-Israeli Friendship. She was told that they would be telling the story of someone who was a kind of "Polish Raoul Wallenberg" (a Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II). Isakiewicz admits that she didn't really believe it. It seemed impossible to her that after 13 years of the existence of a free Poland, there could still be a man who had rescued thousands of Jews, had been forgotten.

She emerged from that meeting equipped with several facts about that same Polish man, who did in fact arrive in Hungary in 1943, before it was occupied by the Nazis, as a representative of the Polish government in exile in London, and was in charge there of the affairs of the Polish refugees, whose number was estimated at the time at about 100,000. About 10 percent of them were Jews, and under pressure from the Germans and their supporters, the Hungarian government forbade granting them legal status. Henryk Slawik, she discovered, simply ignored this, and issued forged papers of Catholics to thousands of Jews, with the knowledge and backing of the representative of the Hungarian government, Antall.

At a certain point they were joined in Hungary by Henryk Zimmerman, a Polish Jewish refugee, a lawyer by profession, who had fled to Hungary. Slawik entrusted his official stamp to the Jewish refugee, with the order: "Every Jew will be a Catholic from now on."

One of the fascinating episodes of the story concerns the ethical issue as it emerges from a conversation between Slawik and another Polish friend on the refugee committee, which he reported to the Free Poland newsletter in 1943: "It will be a blow to our country, as well as to London, if we discriminate between Polish citizens on a religious basis," said Slawik to his Polish colleague. "Everyone has the same needs."

His interlocutor disagreed with his position. "We cannot endanger the interests of an entire nation because of a group of people. The Jews themselves must understand that ... I beg of you, sir, to reconsider whether the issuing of Catholic documents must be done on such a widespread basis, whether it wouldn't be justified to use logical criteria here. When a Jew with a clearly Orthodox appearance walks around the streets with Catholic papers, he endangers not only himself, but those who gave him those papers as well ... There are even presumed `Catholics' who attend the synagogue on Jewish holidays."

Slawik was not convinced. "I won't divide people into those who have blue eyes and those who don't. There are already enough swastika-wearers who are experts on this division. My job is to divide people into good Poles and bad Poles."

It is hard to know exactly how many people they saved. Jozef Antall - the third, Hungarian side of this bureaucratic commando operation - estimated that their number reached 14,000. He survived the war and died in 1974. His son, Jozsef Antall, Jr., became the first non-communist prime minister of Hungary. Zimmerman immigrated to Israel. Over the years he served as a Likud Knesset member and as ambassador to New Zealand. Today he is 91 years old and lives in Haifa. Slawik was the only one to pay with his life for his humanity. Toward the end of the war, in 1944, he was arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Matthausen concentration camp. His death sentence was written in red pencil, hence the name of Isakiewicz's book.

Bourgeois hero

The book interweaves facts that were gathered and conversations with anyone who remains as a witness to that period, including Slawik's daughter. Isakiewicz filled in the gaps from her imagination, in picturesque and vibrant language, openly looking ahead to the film that may follow. Many years later, it was Zimmerman who aroused awareness of Slawik, even before he discovered that Slawik had been shot to death. When the locked gates had only just begun to open, he traveled to Poland. There he discovered, to his amazement, that nobody had heard of the man. He was sent from ministry to ministry, until someone suggested that he try his luck in the Society for Polish-Hungarian Friendship. There he had an unexpected breakthrough. A young woman came up to him and introduced herself: "I'm Klara Hess, Antall's granddaughter. I heard about Slawik from my grandfather." On November 6, 1988, Zimmerman published a notice about the subject in a Polish weekly. In response he received a letter from Slawik's wife, who then was still alive in Poland, and from here the story took off.

For Isakiewicz, a staunch anti- communist, the fact that communist Poland didn't really want to brag about its hero is no less significant that the noble act of a member of the Polish nation.

"The communists related to the pre-war regime in Poland as a `bourgeois' regime," she explains. "Slawik was a representative of `that' government, and it couldn't even be mentioned that there had been such heroes among the bourgeoisie, since all the bourgeoisie are supposed to be wicked people. Had Slawik not been executed in Matthausen, he would have been shot to death by the communists. One of the things that really drove me crazy when I was gathering the material was the thought that Slawik's daughter, who is today a sick woman of 74, had to hide her father's identity most of her life, and couldn't express her pride in him."

Since the publication of the book, the author has received only positive responses. She hasn't heard criticism from the Jews such as that leveled at "Schindler's List," to the effect that the Holocaust is now being miniaturized into a few acts by good people. On the other hand, the Poles are using Slawik to proclaim their innocence.

"That was definitely not my intention," Isakiewicz says. "There are sinners and saints in every nation. After all, it was the Polish Jew Zimmerman who felt an obligation to give testimony about Slawik's activity as soon as he was able to do so, after the fall of the Iron Curtain. He, too, was guided not by an ethnic criterion, but by a supra-national one. The same is true of me. The book gave me an opportunity to express my talent. My religious affiliation has nothing to do with it; it serves me for other purposes."

Nevertheless, there is a certain sense of almost missionary zeal in her desire to tell the story of the man whom critics and readers call "the Polish Raoul Wallenberg." It is Zimmerman who has reservations about this comparison. He believes that Slawik was a greater hero, more daring, and he also paid with his life for his actions. In spite of that, Wallenberg is commemorated in a monument to him in Budapest, whereas Slawik the Pole had nothing. Until this book came and filled in the gap.