Polish American Congress Michigan Division on Capitol Hill

Ian Brzezinski – Atlantic Council, Ann Bankowski – President PAC-MI, Dr. Mark Chodakiewicz – Chair Polish Studies, Institute of World Politics

A few weeks ago, two members of the PAC-MI Executive Board, Ann Bankowski and Barbara Lemecha, were happy to travel to Washington DC, where, on May 20 2019, in the historic Cannon Building of the U.S. House of Representatives, an informational Capitol Hill briefing took place about Poland, entitled, “Poland’s Painful Past and Bright Future”. The National PAC organized the event and invited all Congressmen to attend.

The two expert speakers featured were Dr. Marek Chodakiewicz, present holder of the Kosciuszko Chair in Polish Studies at the Institute of World Politics (IWP) in Washington, DC and Ian Brzezinski, Senior Resident at the Atlantic Council, and son of the late Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Attendees included staffers from congressional offices of both political parties, government office representatives, and numerous Polonia members.

PAC-MI was invited by the national office to take part in this briefing in order to talk about our promotion of the book, “Those Who Risked Their Lives”, giving attendees an informative view of the Polish experience during WWII from the vantage of Poles who risked their lives saving Jews in Poland during the war. Congressional staffers in attendance availed themselves of the books for their Congressmen and offices.

John Czop, the national office policy director, wrote an informative article on this meeting, a translation of which appears on June 5th Polish Weekly.

The following is the presentation I gave at the informational briefing on Capitol Hill.


Good Afternoon!

My name is Ann Bankowski and I am the president of the Michigan Division of Polish American Congress, an umbrella organization representing the organized Polish American community. I am happy and honored to join all of you for this informational briefing about Poland. Joining me today from Michigan is our division vice president, Barbara Lemecha. I thank Mr. Czop, of the PAC national office, who is its policy director, for inviting me to say a few words today about a project that our division has recently undertaken, which is to promote a book, entitled “Those Who Risked Their Lives” by Anna Poray. We inherited this project from a Michigan based organization named Heralds of Truth, which originally took the initiative andhelped to publish this book, some 12 years ago. I am here to tell you about its importance, what our division has done to enhance its usefulness, and to offer US Congressional members this book free of charge, for their informational enlightenment on this topic.

The book’s author/editor, the late Anna Poray-Wybranowska, was a Polish-Canadian scholar whose work focused primarily on researching the rescue efforts of Jews by Polish Christians in Poland during WWII. Her book compiles the stories of thousands of Poles, by name and place, who rescued Jews in wartime Poland. Per the book’s introduction by Dr. Richard Lukas, he quotes Rabbi Harold Schulweis , “we need to know the heroes and heroines, those exemplars of good”. These people were those who did good in a time and place when death, terror, and destruction reigned. This thoroughly researched book lists names and describes circumstances of rescue attempts, attempts offering secret refuge to persecuted Jews, sometimes over a long period of time, often ending in execution of everyone involved by the German Nazi occupiers.  Nonetheless they performed courageous and heroic deeds, at a horrific time for the country and nation of Poland.

Many may not know that it was decreed by the Third Reich occupiers of Poland that, during the years of German Nazi rule, from 1939-1945, anyone in Poland who offered any kind of help to a person of Jewish faith or origin, would be punished by death. Poland was the only occupied country during WWII to have this decree. The punishment could be extended to the accused rescuer’s family, neighbors, at times towns and villages. It was a true reign of terror. Nonetheless, there were hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Poles who risked their lives to aid and shelter Jews, whole families at times, in very creative ways, motivated by values engrained in them by their own faith and family upbringing. Dr. Lukas notes that even if some among these rescuers might have held anti-Semitic views, prevalent in Poland and in many other countries before the war, the response to help and rescue Jewish persons, fellow neighbors and citizens, was an “expression of resistance against the hated Germans, who terrorized and killed Polish citizens, Jewish and otherwise, longer than any other people in Europe.”

Of course, the war years were particularly grueling, uncertain, and tragic for the Polish nation as a country occupied and controlled by both Germany and Soviet Russia, both totalitarian regimes, since September 1939 until the war’s end in 1945. It was then dominated by the Soviet Union until 1989. The war period was a time when close to three million Polish Christians lost their lives through battles, executions, bombings, torture, starvation, or overwork in hundreds of prisons, forced labor, and concentration camps. Millions more were deported into exile by the occupiers to forced labor camps and prisons. Poland lost 22% of its pre-war population, Christian, Jewish, and others- more than any other country of Europe. Poland lost so many of its young and many of the educated classes- a deathly blow to any society and its future.

What I do want to impress on today’s audience is that Anna Poray’s book presents a unique and a both thought and heart provoking documentation of real persons from real places, demonstrating heroic acts, thousands of them, to save fellow human beings, risking their own lives and of their families. To read and comprehend the enormity of such a compilation is not done at one sitting in order to gain and appreciate its full effect. It can and should be reviewed from time to time, both as a historical reference source and as a witness to the extremes of hate and genuine love for one’s fellow man, experienced in this tragic period by the country of Poland and its citizens.

The PAC division in Michigan took it upon itself the task to enhance the index of the book by cross referencing all names and places, Jews or Polish Christians, whose stories are documented in this compilation to facilitate and expedite research by the reader. Meanwhile, we have encountered persons, to whom the book was offered, whose family names appear in this book, documenting these heroic acts. Some were not even aware of their family’s rescue actions, while some knew only that something of this nature may have taken place through family lore, but no one was certain. They were gratified to learn that their family acted heroically and were thus being validated.

Of course, because of the extreme conditions imposed on occupied Poland, and those in the aftermath following the war, documentation of rescue attempts, and all persons involved, was a daunting task. More often than not, all persons involved, Jews and Christian Poles alike, died by tragic execution. Very often no one lived to fully authenticate the event. Finding reliable witnesses, at times requiring 3 or 4 eyewitness testimonies, decades later, involved slow, pain staking efforts.

Such documentations were published eventually by the Main Commission for Investigation of Crimes against the Polish Nation, the Institute of National Memory and Remembrance, and The Polish Society for the Righteous Among Nations in Warsaw. To date, some 7,000 names of Poles have been recognized by the Israeli Yad Vashem Institute, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, as “Righteous Among Nations”. But more often, those who were executed have not been recognized among the “Righteous”. Many of these cases of execution await verification.

Anna Poray took on the onerous task to research and document such events and persons involved- some 6,000 documented here. Her book is testimony to thousands of examples of selfless sacrifice by a terrorized people acting alone, but standing up for their values, against all odds, to rescue another human being. Theirs is an affirmation of the Polish spirit of never ever giving up. It is inspiring and at the same time provoking, how many of us would go to such extreme measures, to help others?

I had hoped to share with you a couple of stories excerpted from this book, but unfortunately time today does not allow me to do so. I invite you to read “Those Who Risked Their Lives” as a historical source and as testimony of human heroism. As Dr. Richard Lukas states in the book’s Introduction, “The Talmud says that he who saves one life, saves the world.” This book shows how for many, their individual worlds were so saved in Poland in WWII.

Please pick up a copy here today or sign up with our PAC office administrator, to have one delivered to your office.

Thank you for your attention.

Ann Bankowski


PAC-MI President