May 15, 2008 - The Globe and Mail – response to obituary 

In his obituary of the legendary Polish rescuer Irena Sendler, Antony Polonsky writes:

“Unusually for a Catholic child, Sendler was allowed to play with Jewish children as she grew up.” This is a surprising comment coming from a historian.

Numerous Jewish and Polish memoirs confirm that it was rather common for Polish and Jewish children to play together. This was nothing out of the ordinary. Simha Rotem, for example, recalls: “There were few Jewish children my age in the neighborhood, so I played mostly with Gentile children who came to my house. We’d play soccer, go down to the Wisla River and enjoy the fresh air, swim, and row.”

According to Jewish testimonies, the opposition usually came from the Jewish side. Many Jews did not even speak Polish and avoided contact with Poles for religious reasons. For Orthodox Jews playing was not a permitted pastime.

A Jewish testimony from Konin states: “Jewish parents discouraged their children from forming friendships with Polish children. My father would not let me bring shikses (a derogatory term for female Christians) into the house, and he would not let me go to their homes in case I ate treyf (non-kosher food).”

A Jewish woman, who lived in a tenement in Minsk Mazowiecki, has similar recollections: “Our neighbors were the Izbrechts, a Polish family … The youngest girl was named Jozka, and I played with her all the time despite the fact that my grandmother beat me good so that I would not play with her. My grandmother did not allow me to play with Jozka Izbrecht because she was Polish and she feared that if I went to her home I would eat something with pork in it. So my grandmother beat me, but I still played with Jozka.”

Halina Birenbaum states: “The Poles were ‘goys’ … who were regarded as pagans, we criticized or ridiculed their tastes, customs, beliefs … We were not taught mutual sympathy for them. They were different, foreign to us, and we to them, often our open or hidden enemies.” When Birenbaum, who lived in Warsaw, visited her grandparents in a small town she was warned not to venture near a church, because that was forbidden by the Jewish religion. “I was eight years old then,” she recalled, “and I was taught to fear ‘goys’ and their distinct character.”

Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, one of the founding members of the wartime Council for Aid to Jews (Zegota), recalls that, when he was growing up in a tenement-house in a primarily Jewish area of prewar Warsaw, the mothers of the Jewish children often scolded their children for playing with “that stupid, Polish goy.” Stefania Podgorska, who was recognized by Yad Vashem for rescuing thirteen Jews in Przemysl, recalled that in the small town she grew up in, “sometimes the mothers of the Jewish children would say to them, ‘Don’t play with the goyim.”

These examples, which could easily be multiplied, contradict the skewed stereotypes of Poles pushed by Polonsky.

Canadian Polish Congress, Toronto District