Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a former Auschwitz prisoner and member of Poland’s World War II underground resistance who helped save Jews and later served twice as the country’s foreign minister, died Friday in Warsaw. He was 93.
“A great Pole has left us,” President Bronislaw Komorowski wrote on Twitter.
Bartoszewski was widely respected not only for his wartime resistance but as a diplomat, social activist and historian of World War II. He spent a large part of his life working for Polish-German reconciliation, making it a focus of his writings and speeches in Poland and in Germany.
A Polish Catholic, Bartoszewski, was born Feb. 19, 1922, in Warsaw. The son of a bank clerk, he grew up next to Warsaw’s Jewish district and had many Jewish friends.
When he was a teenager, he helped defend Warsaw against the Germans, who invaded the country in September 1939. Caught in a street roundup in Warsaw in 1940, Bartoszewski, then 18, was sent to Auschwitz, which was first used by the Nazi Germans for Polish resistance fighters. There he was given the prison number 4427.
He was subjected to daily beatings “with clubs, fists, shoes, anything to break our spirit, our backbone,” he recalled in the Washington Post in 2002. “When I was released, I dedicated myself to working against such a threat to humanity,” he said. “Their treatment of me backfired into the exact opposite of what they intended.”
In a very rare occurrence, he was released in April 1941 through the efforts of the Polish Red Cross, for which he had worked before his arrest. He helped start the underground Zegota, or Council for Aid to Jews, which provided money, hideaways and false identity papers to Polish Jews fleeing the Holocaust — actions punishable by death under Nazi rule.
In 1965, he was named one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial and museum. He was also an honorary citizen of Israel.
After the war, he returned to Warsaw and wrote a detailed report about his time at Auschwitz, the first known written witness account from the camp. He had previously reported on Auschwitz to Poland’s clandestine resistance Home Army, commanded from London by Poland’s government in exile, and organized secret help for the prisoners of the Pawiak prison, where the Germans held and tortured Polish resistance members and ordinary people.
The war’s end meant new hardship for Bartoszewski, whose independent thinking and pro-democracy writings made him a target of the new communist regime. He spent nearly seven years in prison before a court ruled in 1955 that he had been unfairly arrested.
He later became a reporter for a Catholic newspaper in Krakow, was a lecturer at a Catholic university and worked for Radio Free Europe.
In the 1980s, he was active in Solidarity, the movement that eventually helped topple communism, but that earned him four months’ confinement under martial law.
By 1989, he was beginning his diplomatic career, serving first as ambassador to Austria and later as foreign minister under two different Polish governments, in 1995 and again in 2000.
He took a leading role at recent observances marking the 72nd anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, speaking at length to a group gathered to honor the fallen ghetto fighters.
“When people need to turn to someone to know what is right and wrong, the ultimate moral compass, after the pope, is Bartoszewski,” Radek Sikorski, his former deputy foreign minister in the late 1990s, told the Washington Post some years ago. “He represents the best in Poland.”
Bartoszewski is survived by his second wife, Zofia, and son Wladyslaw, a historian.