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'Being ethical is worth it'

Wladyslaw Bartoszewski is dead. The former Auschwitz prisoner and Polish foreign minister worked toward German-Polish reconciliation for decades. Without him, the process would have been much slower.

The death of Wladyslaw Bartoszewski is like a caesura in the bilateral relations between Germany and Poland. Bartoszewski was a contemporary witness and victim of Nazi Germany, someone whom no one expected to become involved in bringing about reconciliation between the countries.And yet it was people like him that ultimately made it possible for the two neighbors to grow closer together.

When asked about his good relationship with Germany, the former Auschwitz prisoner said: "If someone had told me in 1941, while I was standing on the parade ground in Auschwitz, that I would have German friends one day, I would have called him mad." But several decades later, Bartoszewski was considered in Germany as one of the people who had worked hardest for this friendship.

As if by miracle, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski survived Auschwitz, then joined the underground Polish Home Army, fought in the Warsaw Uprising and helped to rescue thousands of Jews. After the war, he worked as a freelance journalist and was frequently arrested by the communists. He supported the Catholic opposition and the trade union movement Solidarność. After 1989, he was twice made foreign minister. Despite his advanced age, he was active right to the end, most recently as an adviser to Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz and government coordinator for German-Polish relations.

Wladyslaw Bartoszewski as a prisoner in Auschwitz

Wladyslaw Bartoszewski as a prisoner in Auschwitz

Uncomfortable empathy

Bartoszewski was interested in Germany even before the war. In his final school examination, he wrote about German literature, and later learnt the language of the neigboring country. In the 1980s, he had guest sojourns at German universities, such as in Munich, where he also watched the Berlin Wall coming down on television. In 1995, he was one of the few foreign guests to give a speech in the Bundestag. At events marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, he showed astounding empathy with the victims of forced resettlement and expulsion, which brought him much recognition in Germany, but vehement criticism in Poland.

Unconventional thinker

"Wladyslaw Bartoszewski witnessed first-hand what people are capable of - both good and bad," German President Joachim Gauck said on the occasion of Bartoszewski's 90th birthday in Bellevue Palace. But this doyen of Polish politics was far from classing moral status according to national categories. "It is worth being ethical," he said, and: "For me, the most important thing is that my own grandchildren are able later to speak of me with respect."

Bartoszewski speaking with former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher Photo: Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/dapd

He became a friend of the Germans: Bartoszewski and former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher

Although Bartoszewski had bad experiences with Germans, he was able speak about the difficult German-Polish and European past with equanimity and without making any reproaches. But even when his speeches were mainly about history, he always connected them up with the future at the end. He was no fan of pathos and sentimentality, favoring skilful, ready-witted irony and sober rationality. Thinking in categories of black and white was alien to him; he always sought solutions and compromises.

Unforgettable moments

As far as German-Polish relations were concerned, it was their everyday normality that brought him most pleasure. In view of the difficult bilateral history, this normality was of great value, he used to say. His staccato speeches in German will remain just as unforgettable as his occasional outbursts of emotion, which sometimes went well beyond the bounds of diplomatic protocol.

Bartoszewski could be experienced in the latter mood during altercations with the president of the Bund der Vertriebenen (Federation of Expellees), Erika Steinbach, for example. Neither of them ever tried to conceal their mutual antipathy. Bartoszewski reportedly once called her a "blonde beast" and accused her of rewriting history. She took revenge by speaking of the politician's "bad character," something for which she later apologized. Bartoszewski fought for years against the idea of a Center Against Expulsions in Berlin, which was originally put forward as Steinbach's project. When the plan was no longer to be stopped, he intervened personally with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to reduce Steinbach's influence, with success.

Passionate interests

For many years, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski watched how Germany deals with its history. He was interested in how the country came to terms with its past, and in the question of guilt. His attitude to the subject was also known in his native country. There, too, he caused quite a stir over some taboo topics, such as the approach of contemporary Poland to anti-Semitism during the Second World War.

In Germany, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski recently campaigned for Polish victims of Nazi Germany to be adequately commemorated. He wanted to have a prominent memorial stone in the center of Berlin to recall the three million Polish Nazi victims: a project for which he found little support in the German capital.

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