WARSAW, Poland — Marysia Ambrozy has participated in a lot of events honoring those who helped Jews during the Holocaust, but a recent ceremony in Wroclaw, Poland, made her cry for all the wrong reasons.
In May, two elderly sisters were recognized by Yad Vashem for helping their impoverished parents feed, house and hide nine Jews during the Holocaust.
At the awards ceremony, Ambrozy, a cultural assistant at the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw, overheard a newspaper interview with the sisters, who were in their early teens at the time of their parents’ act of valor.
“They said that they don’t need a medal and they don’t care about it,” she said, adding that the sisters said that “what they need is money. The journalist was asking them, ‘Don’t you think that you did a great thing?’ And they answered — ‘Our stupid mother was helping and never got anything for this.’ “
The sisters’ bitterness is perhaps a rare phenomenon, she noted, but it illustrates some of the problems Righteous Gentiles, as they’re called, and their heirs have in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. They tend to be from poorer areas, since it was easier to hide Jews in rural villages during the war than in cities.
Ambrozy explained that after World War II ended, the sisters’ mother was physically attacked by neighbors for helping Jews. The sisters’ father died of cancer after the family was too poor to pay for his medical treatment.
The sisters sought financial aid for their family from Jewish organizations, but were unsuccessful, according to Ambrozy, who added that they were now desperate for money to pay for their own medicine.
“Ninety percent of the righteous being awarded today in Poland have no money for basic medications or even for a ticket to come to their own ceremonies,” she lamented.
Ceremonies for the righteous are held almost every month in Poland as aging survivors sometimes wait until late in life to let their families and Yad Vashem know about their protectors and their wartime suffering.
Ambrozy’s boss, cultural attach é Ya’akov Finkelstein, points to what he says is an equally disturbing stumbling block for the Righteous Gentiles.
“I get letters each month from people who tell us they don’t want the ceremony where they live, they don’t want people to know about the award, which really shocked me when I came here,” Finkelstein said.
Some medal recipients worry their fellow villagers will be jealous, Finkelstein said.
“They’re concerned that their neighbors think they’re getting money from the Jews,” he explained. “Others were worried that they might be robbed if the media put the word out that they got some kind of award, and then there are some who say their neighbors will condemn them for being supported by Jews. It seems the further east in the country you go, the more common that attitude is,” Finkelstein estimated.
Saving Jews from the gas chambers in Poland was a remarkable feat of bravery in the country that had the largest number of Jews perish.
The Nazi punishment for Poles who helped Jews was death, often the death of one’s entire family. Some who merely gave food to Jews were murdered on the spot, while others were tortured before being killed and many were sent to concentration camps.
Yet more people in Poland helped Jews than in any other nation, according to Yad Vashem, which has recognized nearly 6,000 Righteous Among the Nations in Poland.
There is a very active association of those who saved Jews that touts its members’ achievements with pride, but whether their deeds are admired or even appreciated by most Poles remains unclear.
“It’s ridiculous that there were Poles who were not afraid of the Nazis, but are afraid of their neighbors,” Finkelstein said.
An extensive report last spring in Poland’s leading daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, chronicled the fear some recipients of the Yad Vashem medal feel.
Estee Ya’ari, spokeswoman for Yad Vashem, said via e-mail that most people who receive the recognition are proud, but added, “we have heard of a few cases in Poland where righteous prefer that their names not be made public, and this is indeed an unfortunate comment on the environment in which they live. As for other countries, we are not familiar with similar cases.”
To strengthen the official endorsement of Righteous Gentiles’ position in Polish life, more Polish politicians, including the current national president and the heads of both houses of Parliament, have been turning up at the Israeli Embassy’s award ceremonies.
The righteous also are frequently referred to in politicians’ speeches as one of the country’s deepest sources of pride. In Lodz, a city recently known for its numerous initiatives memorializing Jews, a park dedicated to the righteous has been opened.
In Krakow, one of the country’s first exhibitions devoted to the righteous opened earlier this year at the Galicia Jewish Museum.
However, the righteous face the same financial difficulties as all other aging people in Eastern Europe. Their tiny pensions — most live on $150 to $300 a month — have not kept pace with inflation and many struggle to survive.
Poland, for instance, has some of the highest prices for medicine per income in the European Union; in Ukraine, gas and electricity prices have been particularly difficult for the elderly to bear.
Yad Vashem’s medal award is meant as a symbolic endorsement of moral courage, since a financial award might suggest that one should help others for personal economic gain, those familiar with the recognition program explain.
Cash-strapped local governments say they would love to provide greater sustenance to the righteous, but insist they already face many other social problems that affect all of their elderly.
The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, founded in 1986, is the only organization that provides financial support to those who have received the Yad Vashem recognition.
The New York-based Claims Conference, which has a budget of $1.4 million, provides stipends to 1,450 men and women in 28 countries, including about 700 in Poland.
The monthly support in Poland was raised from $75 to $100 in May — and is paid out quarterly.
“It definitely helps me survive; it means I can get medicine,” said Righteous Gentile Maria Florek, whose pension is $200 a month.
Stanlee Joyce Stahl, the foundation’s executive vice president, hinted that descendants of Holocaust survivors should be interested in the well-being of the descendants of the righteous.
“If the survivors went on and had children and grandchildren, the question is, where is the family?” she asked. “Most people during the Holocaust were bystanders. There were a precious few rescuers. There is not enough the Jewish community could ever do for them.”