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October 25, 2017 2:35 pm

An Open Letter to a Righteous Among the Nations Recipient

avatar by David Harris

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The Eternal Flame at Yad Vashem. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Dear Aleksandra Cybulska,

I just read about your designation as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem-based Holocaust museum and research center.

Heartfelt congratulations on this remarkable distinction.

This honor was given because — together with your late husband, Kazimierz, who was similarly recognized — you saved the life of a Polish Jewish girl, Sonia Berkowicz, during the darkest period in human history — the Holocaust. Sonia was the daughter of your friends.

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I have never had the privilege of meeting you, but I read and re-read the article about you in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, and stared transfixed at your photo, showing you in your home in Gdynia, Poland, on the eve of your 100th birthday, receiving the certificate from an Israeli diplomat.

In looking at you, I tried to understand what made you act — what led you to risk your own life in an attempt to protect someone else’s.

Frankly, I am in awe. The Nazi occupation of Poland was beyond brutal and ruthless. All Poles were targeted for slavery and suppression by the Third Reich, yet, even as you and your family were in peril, you chose to add exponentially to the danger by sheltering a young Jewish child.

That act, had it been discovered, would have led to your immediate imprisonment in a German concentration camp, if not death on the spot. And it goes without saying what Sonia’s fate would have been.

Sonia’s parents and siblings were killed by the Germans, but she was saved because of your courage, because you saw in Sonia someone who deserved the opportunity to live — because you understood that the affirmation of our common humanity dare not be sacrificed no matter what else might have been going on around you.

Some people say that too much attention has been paid to those who tried to protect Jews because it distorts the history of this period. After all, these righteous individuals were so few in number, so why create a seemingly skewed impression of how large a role they actually played?

I believe quite the opposite — that more attention is needed.

According to the Haaretz article, Yad Vashem has honored a total of 26,513 people for their bravery in helping Jews, one-quarter of them Poles.

Poland, as we know, had the largest Jewish presence in Europe on the eve of the war. Fully 10 percent of the Polish population was Jewish, and in Warsaw, the country’s capital, approximately one-third of the residents were Jewish.

True, compared to the larger European population at the time, the number of rescuers is microscopic, even if we assume that there were others who escaped the attention of the museum, and even if we add those people in countries like Albania, Bulgaria, Denmark and Finland, who were part of larger national efforts to save Jews.

But it’s precisely because there were so few such heroes — and you were true heroes, even as the word today is so shamefully overused and devalued — that we need to understand what prompted them to act, and what we can possibly hope to learn from their examples.

In similar circumstances, let’s be honest, how many of us would have behaved as you and your husband did, knowing that the consequence could be our own deaths and, yes, even those of our children? Hopefully, we will never have to know the answer.

Still, your legacy ought to live on, not only via Sonia and the family that she was miraculously able to create after the war — and not just through the laudable addition of your name to the Yad Vashem list — but also because your example should serve, at a minimum, to inspire us all to aim higher and show more genuine concern for the most vulnerable among us.

Words become inadequate in seeking to express admiration and gratitude to you for affirming life in the midst of such death and destruction.

May we learn from your powerful story — and may we be worthy of the gift of humanity we’ve been given in our one and only chance to live life as it was intended.

— David Harris

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