Resistance leader looks back on principled life | NRS-Import | DW | 18.02.2012
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Resistance leader looks back on principled life

Wladyslaw Bartoszewski has led an unparalleled life, going from Auschwitz survivor to world-class politician. Author Heinrich Böll called him a passionate humanist. Today, his name stands for sincerity and decency.

Wladyslaw Bartoszewski

Professor Wladyslaw Bartoszewski

Wladyslaw Bartoszewski was born on February 19, 1922 in Warsaw. The historian, journalist and author of numerous books is a legend in Poland: Auschwitz prisoner (number 4427), a rescuer of Jews during the Second World War, a fighter in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and an honorary citizen of Israel. He spent six years in prison during the communist era and went on to become active in the democratic opposition movement. After the end of communism in Poland, he served twice as the country's foreign minister. Now he serves as a specially appointed agent by Prime Minister Donald Tusk to encourage international dialogue, and he is the head of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation. Bartoszewski has had considerable influence in shaping Polish-German relations.

DW: You're celebrating your 90th birthday, and it seems you've had several lives during those years: prisoner at Auschwitz, the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, persecuted by the communist regime, fighting for reconciliation, foreign minister, historian, journalist and author. It was a "difficult, but not boring life," you wrote in one of your books. What are the things you're still planning for the future?

Wladyslaw Bartoszewski: I think that so far I've had a very fulfilled life. It's a quirk of fate that I only began serving the public when I was 68. Only when Germany was reunited, Poland was free and Europe had changed. Until then, until 1989 and 1990, I lived oppressed without freedom of speech and freedom to choose my profession - like all people in East Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, Czechoslovakia. If you ask me about future plans, then all I can say is that I want to write another two or three books that I'm already planning. I intend to get started on that this year. In politics here in Poland I work as an trusted adviser to Prime Minister Donald Tusk and I can continue with this role although it is rather rare that people my age are still working as public servants or, as a matter of fact, work at all. I want to be satisfied and active until the day I die.

If young people would ask you what advice you'd have for them after 90 years of life experience? What would you tell them are the things that matter in private or public life and how to deal with difficult challenges in life?

I would tell them: I am very old and I am happy that I have always led a life according to the principle that it pay to be honest. And that my wish for them is that they too can live by that principle so that they can always look at others and themselves without shame. From a material perspective, it might not always pay to be honest, but from a moral perspective, it's always the right thing. That applies to a frail person as well as a criminal. This was my guiding principle - both when I was in captivity and after I was released.

Bartoszewski with former German president Richard von Weizsaecker

Bartoszewski with former German president Richard von Weizsaecker.

As a prisoner at the Auschwitz concentration camp you experienced a lot of suffering at the hands of Germans. After the war you were committed to German-Polish reconciliation. Where did you find your faith that this reconciliation would be possible?

This was a long process. I only came to this conviction when Germany's Adenauer and France's de Gaulle came together as well as when people like the French politicians Schuman and Monnet developed their ideas and vision of European unity. There is no better way, no other alternative. The only way is that of common future with each other. Of course, people's emotions, the experiences of a generation also play a role. But what counts for the basis of that future is common sense and Europe's shared common Christian and human values that date back to the early Middle Ages. There's no other or better solution.

You've had experience with two of the last century's major dictatorships. How do you see the current state of Europe from today's perspective?

A lot of progress has been made. No EU citizen today - for instance no one in the European Parliament - can imagine using war as an instrument of achieving political or economic goals on this continent. That thought persists among some in the Balkans, but other than that exception, the idea no longer haunts Europe. I consider that significant progress. Of course, we also have much room for improvement in Europe, and that often has to do with the many years during which the continent was divided. We have to deal with it patiently and with understanding for one another while working to improve things. Because Europe really faced terrible malaise, and now it has to heal. The seriousness of its illness was enormous, and that's why it isn't easy to heal. It's a very complicated process.

Prison photo of Wladyslaw Bartoszewski in Auschwitz

Prison photo of Wladyslaw Bartoszewski at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

You are among the people who received the honorary title "Righteous among the Nations" from Israel's Yad Vashem memorial. You were honored for risking your life to save Jews from being murdered by the Nazis during the Second World War. How do you recall those experiences today?

I still have strong memories of the situation back then. Of course, it was a time marked by suffering but also by effort and fear. Feelings that strong don't fade easily. But I'm proud that I am among the people who have been immortalized in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. And I'm also proud that I am the only foreign minister in Europe who received honorary citizenship in Israel.

What would you say to young German and Polish people about their tasks and responsibility in the future?

Every person is responsible for his deeds. Christians in the Catholic Church, and not just in Poland, pray for forgiveness for sins of thought and deed, including also the sin of failing to offer help, and of indifference toward evil. Not just wicked deeds or words but also passivity and not getting involved in good deeds are sins. Young people should arrange their lives so that they are content with themselves. And they can achieve satisfaction by knowing that they have acted in a just manner.

Interview: Barbara Cöllen / ai
Editor: Sean Sinico