Stolperstein for the Righteous

This story starts with my Grandma.
I always called Her that way – even after I found that she’s not my biological Grandmother but a Righteous Gentile who saved my Mother from Shoah.

My Mother and my Grandmother

I will not go through the entire story (waiting list in eighties at Jewish Historical Institute, screaming on Yad Vashem staff by Jurek / Itamar – another Jew saved by Grandma), but at the end, at one of schools in Warsaw took place a ceremony and Grandma was finally awarded.
Later on, as a President of Jewish Community of Warsaw I had a privilege to speak during many other ceremonies.
I have to admit, that these speeches were always very simple – I have always said that whatever we Jews will do for Righteous – it will not be enough.
We did what we could – Community support for Association of Righteous, Social Care System help the as well – I guess, it is not enough – but we did what we could.
Then the concept of the Righteous Memorial came into being – various initiatives (Righteous parks in Lodz and Warsaw) – but seemingly that was not enough.

My Grandfather and my Mother

Being a practical person, I always thought that a medical facility, system of (even small) pensions, or a project of co-financing stays of needy Righteous at old age homes will be a better concept – but in Poland – a proper memorial is a right thing to erect.
As to my knowledge, two memorials are planned – one on beautifully restored Grzybowski Square (joined project of municipality and government) and another – near the Museum of History of Polish Jews by the Rememberance and Future Foundation.
I will not jump into the discussion about creating a ghetto of Jewish monuments within the Warsaw Ghetto itself – I will only say, that erecting the monument for Righteous at the place where their efforts failed is actually not a right thing to do.
But – no memorial for Righteous?

Names of my Grandparents – Maria and Janusz Cholewicki at Yad Vashem

When I become interested in various forms of memorialization the Shoah I came across the Stumbling block (Stolperstein) project that actually fascinated me. Small plaques with a few words describing events or people, embedded into the sidewalks or walls. There is no doubt, that a modest plaque with the inscription “In this house Jan Kowalski hide a family of three – Itzik Blum, his wife Sarah and three years old Haveleh” would not be so impressive as a monumental sculpture near monumental building, but if these plaques could be counted by dozens? Thousands perhaps? And if the educational project based on this modest plaque would be created for the local communities – inhabitants of the street, a neighborhood? What about a challenging task like that – for the Museum and other Polish educational institutions?
Is this not better than yearly wreath placed at the monument on the Righteous Day? I know that there is no such day yet, but when memorial will be erected – it will be just a matter of time.
But a stumbling block have also disadvantages.
The person that will stumble upon it may see the world from a different perspective and perhaps get some bruises from the fall. When I wanted to convince to this project one of the officials, I heard : “We would have to place a guard near each plaque” .
I am not sure about that, but without a carefully planned educational program, the stumbling block concept would be totally useless. We are all aware of the fact, that the history of Saviors and Saved was not a black-and-white. We know that in some cases even today the relatives are unaware of the Righteous heroism. Blackmailers (Schmaltzovniks), neighbors, Polish police or “forest boys” were common threat for the Righteous and while we will research their past, we will also stumble upon them. No monument, regardless how tall, will not deal with this aspect of Righteous history.
I have no doubts – watching news releases and discussion forums, a recent debate at the Museum of History of Polish Jews or involvement of Presidential Palace – I am certain, there will be another monument (or monuments ) in town soon. Will it help us in paying a respect to heroic people acting in hostile environment, or it will be a proper slab to place sizable white-and-red or blue-and-white wreaths.


The Righteous

Two ceremonies honoring the Righteous Among the Nations were held today in Warsaw. The first one at the headquarters of the Polish Episcopate, the second – in the Nożyk synagogue. The honored were outstanding individuals, who in difficult and dangerous times helped those sentenced to death. What the Righteous gave the Jews they harbored was not just the shelter, food, or new documents. First and foremost, they gave them life.
In moments like these, I remember my grandparents – Righteous Among the Nations – Irena and Janusz Cholewicki.

Joanna. Photograph taken just after she left the ghetto
Joanna. Photograph taken just after she left the ghetto

Friendship between the Cholewickis and the Konińskis from Warsaw had dated three generations back and even the war did not change it. When the Konińskis were imprisoned in the ghetto, the Cholewickis tried to help them. In the summer of 1941, they took in the Konińskis’ granddaughter – Joanna Helena. They managed to get a birth certificate for her with their last name. Joanna’s father was in the Soviet Union at the time.

The Cholewickis also helped the families of Epsteins and Brings.

Wacław and Felicja (Kita) Koniński – Joanna’s parents, my grandparents. He survived the war in the Soviet Union. She was in the Warsaw Ghetto and probably died in Treblinka.

In 1946, Joanna’s father returned to Warsaw. However, the girl decided to stay with the Cholewickis, who adopted her later.

Joanna is my mother. Thanks to the two Righteous, she survived the war, finished medical school, got married. Thanks to them, I am in this world, as well as my children. Saving her, they saved us all.