A bubbly and witty presence, the tall, older gentleman with the cane does not instantly come across as an Auschwitz survivor, or fighter in the Warsaw Uprising, or imprisoned dissident under communism.
In fact, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski is all those and more. Yet he is also the type of man who, on a busy day, stops to chat with the hotel maids and is sure to make them laugh before he goes on his way.
The world is unlikely to produce many more Wladyslaw Bartoszewskis and that is probably a good thing, given the events he lived through and witnessed from an early age. But while his life may have been forged through immense suffering, it never managed to define his outlook.
“The optimists and the pessimists live identically long, but the optimists are considerably happier,” he said with an amused shrug, when asked about his famous good humor.
The 86-year-old Bartoszewski bears an all-too-heavy history with a light touch. It is a gift that has allowed him, at an age when most of his generation has long since retired or died, to be a successful diplomat for Poland, as well as a source of moral authority.
“I don’t know how much longer I’ll live,” he said, quite matter-of-factly in an interview last week. “No one knows, either. I can say that my plan is to help the government for as long as I can tell that it’s needed. My idea is to die in service, and not through sclerosis.”
He has twice served as his country’s foreign minister and is working again as an adviser to Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. His special responsibility is for two of his country’s most complicated relationships, with Germany and Israel. He has been honored by both repeatedly for his lifelong work to improve ties.
“This is one of the unique people who have worked in both ways, as a symbol and with a very practical contribution,” said Andrzej Jonas, editor of the English-language newspaper Warsaw Voice, and an acquaintance of Bartoszewski’s for several decades. “He is recognized as a person who was always able to continue dialogue, even the most complicated dialogues, in the name of Poland.”
Yet he remains personable and approachable to a remarkable degree — if not the father of his nation, its wise but funny grandpa. He uses his personal history not as a cudgel but as an opening for his charm and understanding.
“I’m on the side of the people in the middle rather than the extremists,” he said. “Mankind has suffered enormously due to the ideologically motivated extremists, in Europe and all over the world.”
He was given an unfortunately good perch to make that observation. He was born in Warsaw in 1922, and was just 17 when he participated in the unsuccessful defense of his hometown as the Nazi army conquered Poland in 1939. A year later, Bartoszewski was among many young Catholic Poles rounded up and sent to Auschwitz, and among the few lucky enough to survive.
He was released in 1941, and went to work with the resistance. He helped found the clandestine Council for Aid to Jews, which provided money, hiding places and false identity papers to Polish Jews trying to flee the Holocaust. Such assistance was punishable by death under Nazi occupation. In 1965, Bartoszewski was named one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial and museum.
“They were making mass raids, arresting people on the street, shooting them down, taking them to camps,” he recalled. “I had to, at a minimum, pay for my resistance in defense of the values that mobilized millions of people around the world.”
After the war, Poland fell into the Soviet sphere. Bartoszewski was rewarded for his work to liberate his country and save his Jewish fellow citizens by being thrown behind bars again.
“By the time I was 32, I had sat for eight years in prisons and camps,” Bartoszewski said.
After he was freed in 1954, he became a journalist for a Catholic newspaper in Krakow, and later a professor at the Catholic University of Lublin. He once again found himself part of an underground movement, this time a teaching network called the Flying University operating outside of the officially sanctioned education system.
When Poland’s last Communist leader, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, declared martial law in December 1981 as part of an effort to suppress the Solidarity movement, Bartoszewski was imprisoned once more, until his release the following April.
By the time of the elections in 1989, which were only partly free but nevertheless seen as a victory for Solidarity, Bartoszewski was 67, well past retirement age. But he was just getting started, embarking on his new career as a diplomat, first as the ambassador to Austria and later as the foreign minister under two different Polish governments, in 1995 and again from 2000 to 2001.
He had settled into a busy retirement, writing books and sitting on boards like the International Auschwitz Council, of which he is chairman. But the often divisive nationalistic government of prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and his twin brother, President Lech Kaczynski, brought him back into the fray.
He grew into a fierce critic and spoke out against them before the election last October. Afterward, the new prime minister offered to make Bartoszewski foreign minister again. He demurred in favor of his former deputy Radek Sikorski, but agreed to take on a special advisory role.
“I decided to come back in spite of my age because I was convinced that something could be done,” he said.
Speak to experts and observers on the Polish-German relations, and his name is invariably the first to come up in discussing the thaw in the relationship that has taken place since the new government came into office last year.
“It is a completely new personal politics,” said Gesine Schwan, his counterpart as the German government’s coordinator for German-Polish relations and now candidate for president for the Social Democrats.
“What more could you really ask for?” Bartoszewski said, before grabbing his cane and heading out to meet with the Polish ambassador to Germany, and later that afternoon, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
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