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Righteous Gentiles honoured at Segal Centre

Byron Toben

December, 2009

In The Human Condition, Masaki Kobayashi’s nine-hour film epic about the Japanese occupation of Manchuria — called by some the greatest film ever made — Kaji, a liberal intellectual drafted into the army to supervise starving Chinese prisoners, meets their leader, an aged spokesman.

The prisoner, sensing a sympathetic soul in Kaji, urges him to help the prisoners. When Kaji queries how he can do that, the leader replies “When good men are confronted with evil, they will find a way to act.” Later, when the brutal Kempei-Tai (Japanese military police) seek to chop heads for fun, Kaji intervenes, at the risk of his own head.

This powerful episode flashed into my head as I attended an event called When Decency Met Heroism during its final Canadian stop at the Segal Centre. The event honoured a group of Righteous Poles and Holocaust survivors.

L to R: Marian Golebiowski, Marianna Krasnodebeska, Ewa Juczyk-Ziomecka, Secretary of State Joanna Sobolewska; chancellery of the president of the Republic of Poland, Tadeusz Zylinski; Consul General, Janina Rozecka Photo: Anna Ronij

In tandem with the construction in Warsaw of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews is an archive inspired by the tribute to Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem in Israel to over 6,000 individual Poles who risked their own lives to shelter Jews. It is inspiring to remember that, in addition to famous diplomats who issued escape visas to thousands – Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden and Chiuga Sugihara of Japan, for example there were a myriad of ordinary people who, like Kaji, did the right thing when confronted.

The Polish ambassador to Canada accompanied Marianna Krasnodebeska, 86; Janina Rozecka, 87; and Marian Golebiowski, 90 as they were honoured. In a handsome book issued in 2008 for the tour, which was attended by Barack Obama in Washington last spring, the stories of 65 Righteous are related in detail. An amusing anecdote told how Jews were taught the rosary and the sign of the cross to pose as Catholics. But Magdalena Grodzka, 84, relates, they signed too reverentially and slowly, closing their eyes. “Who’s ever seen such a thing?” she asked. It was a tip-off to the Nazis. She explained, one should “wave your hand around quickly, without touching: one-two-three.”

After the tributes, the joint started swinging with Yiddish songs by the dynamic Theresa Tova, last seen here in concert during the Yiddish Theatre Festival in June. Matt Herskowitz pounded the ivories with the fervor of Oscar Peterson, and Bryna Wasserman led viewers, including the amazingly spry honorees, in a concluding hora-like dance finale.

Visit the Museum of the History of Polish Jews at

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