Poland on Thursday opened its first museum in tribute to Poles who lost their lives helping Jews during World War II, on the exact spot where Nazis executed a young family for providing shelter.
President Andrzej Duda honoured descendants of the Polish rescuers who he said had made “dramatic choices”, before cutting the ribbon at the museum in the southeastern village of Markowa.
Poland was the only Nazi-occupied country where saving Jews carried the death penalty.
The new museum is located inside the renovated home of the Ulma family who were killed by German soldiers on March 24, 1944 after they were found to be offering refuge to Jews.
Jozef Ulma, his seven-month pregnant wife Wiktoria and their six young children were all executed, as were the eight Jews they had been harbouring.
The building’s walls have been painted a rust colour and a door still bears traces of the bullets fired during the execution. Photos stained with the victims’ blood are among the items on display at the museum.
“Anyone spreading anti-Semitism defiles the Ulmas’ graves, and defiles the reasons why they laid down their lives: dignity, honesty, justice,” Duda said at the inauguration ceremony.
Among those present were the grandsons of Abraham Segal, one of 21 other Jews hidden in Markowa who survived.
At the age of 86, Segal was not able to make the trip from Israel, his grandson Yael told AFP.
“We came here to represent him… (Without him) none of us would have been born,” the 31-year-old said.
Historian Mateusz Szpytma, who came up with the idea of creating the museum, is its director.
Duda, Israeli ambassador Anna Azari and the descendants of Jews from Markowa who survived the Holocaust planted a tree honouring the dead on the museum’s grounds.
Roman Catholic Bishop Stanislaw Gadecki, president of the Polish Episcopal Conference, and Poland’s Chief Raffi Michael Schudrich said prayers over the nearby graves.
More than 6,600 Poles — outnumbering any other nationality — have been honoured as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel’s Yad Vashem institute, a title given to non-Jews who stood up to the Nazis.
Alluding to crimes that Poles also committed against Jews during the Holocaust, Duda called for “the whole truth, sometimes distressing and appalling, because only the truth can bring a better future”.
The country was shocked by revelations in 2000 that Poles rounded up and burned hundreds of their Jewish neighbours in 1941 in a barn in the northeastern village of Jedwabne.