JERUSALEM – Poland’s Ambassador to Israel is proud of her compatriots who acted to save Jews during the Holocaust – but feels strongly that she can express this only if she also remembers those who chose the opposite path.
“I have the right to speak [at Holocaust memorials] only if I remember not only those who acted selflessly [to save Jews at great risk to their lives], but also those who chose the other path – to sell, and sometimes even to kill, their Jewish neighbors.”
So said Polish Ambassador Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska at a stirring ceremony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem last week.
The ceremony marked the official recognition of the late Voitek Woloshtuk as a Righteous Gentile for his heroic efforts in saving five Jews from Nazi clutches – including 7-year-old Feige Bader, today Mrs. Frances Schaff of Stamford, Connecticut. It was initiated by her son, who spent close to three years searching for his mother’s rescuer, as first reported by The Jewish Press in October.
Woloshtuk, who died in 1963, was represented at the Yad Vashem rite by his last surviving daughter, Janina, and her son, a Polish Coast Guard frigate commander.
Receiving the Yad Vashem medal and certificate of honor on her father’s behalf, Janina said, “I am proud to have been brought up by such parents, who saved five Jews at great risk to themselves simply because they believed this was the human thing to do. This medal will be preserved in my family for generations to come.”
But possibly the real story of the day was how Woloshtuk’s heroism was discovered. It was due to the efforts of Ethan Schaff, a Massachusetts lawyer who one day realized he was alive because of someone he never knew and who had never been properly thanked. He embarked on an epic search for his mother’s rescuer that took him, and her, to the dark corners of Europe – and of his mother’s memories.
Evoking tears from many at the ceremony, Schaff addressed his mother and her rescuer’s daughter and said, “The last time the two of you were in the same building was 67 years ago. My mother was on the floor above you, Janina; you could have touched her – but you didn’t know she was there.”
Voitek did not tell his children that five Jews were living in the narrow hayloft in their home – for nearly three years – for he knew that if word of his deed were to get out, it would mean certain death.
“What made Voitek take this step?” Schaff asked the assembled. “And he did it twice! Once when my mother’s brother, wife and their two children arrived at his home, and again a few weeks later when my mother, a little waif of about 7, showed up at his doorstep.”
Voitek’s name is now engraved on one of several walls bearing the names of nearly 24,000 others similarly recognized by Yad Vashem.