Władysław Bartoszewski was never officially a professor, but he had plenty to teach us
Władysław Bartoszewski, one of Poland’s most respected statesmen and academics, died in April at 93 years of age. By just about anybody’s standards, that’s a long life, though the always quipping Bartoszewski pointed out that longevity, in itself, doesn’t mean much. “A man can live a while, which doesn’t always mean wisely – but also not entirely stupidly,” he once said.
But Bartoszewski, a prisoner of two dictatorships, cabinet minister for two prime ministers and honorary citizen of Israel, filled his many years with wisdom and then some, becoming one of his country’s most powerful moral voices for over seven decades.
As he wrote in one of his books, Bartoszewski led a “difficult, but not boring” life. Just 17 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland, he was sent to Auschwitz in 1940 for joining the Polish resistance in his home town of Warsaw. After he was released in 1941 with the help of the Polish Red Cross, Bartoszewski was active in the Home Army and the Catholic underground, and eventually fought in the Warsaw Uprising.
As a member of the Polish government- in-exile, Bartoszewski was also a leader of Żegota, the Council for the Aid to Jews, which saved the lives of some 4,000 Polish Jews and helped tens of thousands more by securing hiding places, food, and financial support.
While imprisoned at Auschwitz, Bartoszewski began what would become a long career of influential writing, producing some of the first written eyewitness accounts from the Nazi death camp. Following the war, he was jailed again by the new regime for having served in the Home Army and joining the anti-communist Polish People’s Party. Bartoszewski served nearly seven years on fabricated espionage charges, after which he returned to journalism, writing for a prominent Catholic weekly, Radio Free Europe, and others. His support for the Solidarity movement in the early 1980s earned him another stint in prison, underscoring his consistent activism on behalf of the democratic opposition.
‘I love my compatriots, even though they drive me up the wall’
An expert on European history who authored several dozen books and countless more essays and articles, Bartoszewski was known for his witty turns of phrase. At an exhibit last year in Wrocław honouring his 92nd birthday, prominent artists celebrated some of his best-known quotations, including one about his fellow Poles: “I love my compatriots, even though they drive me up the wall.”
His work led him to the highest echelons of political office. Bartoszewski served twice as foreign minister (for prime ministers Józef Oleksy and Jerzy Buzek), and was a member of the Senate, Ambassador to Austria, and a special envoy to Prime Minister Donald Tusk on international dialogue. But not even high office could restrain his sharp tongue. In a 2007 interview with Der Spiegel, Bartoszewski cautioned against worrying too much about the conservative Law and Justice party. “I am almost 85, but the government will not be in office for more than another two years and seven months,” he said. “I’m certain that – God willing – I will die under a different government.”
Indeed, Bartoszewski lived to see the Civic Platform win the following two parliamentary elections, and help bring about a new era of Polish-German relations for which he had worked so hard. Following the path of European leaders like Karl Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle and Robert Schuman, Bartoszewski committed himself to mending the wounds of war. “There is no better way, no better alternative,” he told Deutsche Welle in 2012. “The only way is that of a common future with each other.”
Writing his condolences on Twitter the day of Bartoszewski’s passing, his former boss, Donald Tusk, now president of the European Council, addressed him as many did: “Panie Profesorze,” or, “Professor”. Bartoszewski lectured throughout his life in Polish and German universities, though he lacked the formal qualifications for the title, causing him some minor controversy over the years.
Nevertheless, through his witticisms, writings, and most of all through his actions, Bartoszewski was a wonderful teacher indeed. A first-hand witness to the worst of humanity, he taught his country to respond with courage, honesty and an open heart.
AWARDS AND HONOURS FOR WŁADYSŁAW BARTOSZEWSKI
Władysław Bartoszewski’s unrelenting work for peace and reconciliation earned him a number of distinctions, including knighthoods in several countries ’ national orders and various honorary doctorates. In 1965 the government of Israel named him Righteous Among the Nations, as a non-Jew who risked his life to save Jews from the Nazis during World War II.
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Yoni Wilkenfeld is a regular contributor to Poland Today. He also writes on finance, technology and foreign affairs for Iambic, a communications firm. Based in New York City, he holds a degree in political science from Kenyon College in Ohio.