One of the great experiences of traveling on Museum tours is the friendships you make. Last year I traveled to Germany and, for the first time, Poland, on tour with our featured historian Dr. Alexandra Richie. Alex is the author of great works of history on the city of Berlin and the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. She serves as the convener for the Presidential Counselors, a group of expert historians and museum professionals here at The National WWII Museum, lives in Poland and teaches at the University of Warsaw. Alex and I were already friends, and seeing these places which she knew so personally and passionately deepened our friendship. But I will never forget the day we were crossing before a cascading fountain, in a beautiful town square in Wroclaw, when Alex asked me if we could break off from the group to quickly step into a museum we had just passed. The museum was featuring an exhibit honoring her father-in-law, the late Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, which she had heard about but never seen.
Bartoszewski led a remarkable life. Born a Roman Catholic, he was detained in September 1940 and sent to Auschwitz as a political prisoner (inmate No. 4427). He gained his release in April 1941 thanks to Red Cross intervention. He joined the Polish Resistance against the Nazis, working to gather information and document German crimes in Poland, including the mass murders of Jews and Poles in the Holocaust camps. He participated in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. After the war, he was imprisoned multiple times by the Communist government, worked as a journalist and historian, became a father, was recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations and was granted honorary citizenship by Israel, tirelessly promoted better relations between Poland, Israel, and Germany, was a close friend and ally of Lech Walesa, was an ambassador to Austria, and twice served as foreign minister of Poland.
After the museum staff learned who she was and Alex explained that she was herself leading a historical tour group, the staff generously and excitedly invited our entire group into the museum to see the exhibit for free. We ran back across the square and entered into the little museum for an unscheduled pleasure. We walked past a display that included Bartoszewski’s books with his wizened face on the cover looking at us. We also saw video of him speaking in clips that conveyed not only his seriousness of purpose, but also his warmth, humanity, and wisdom from years of witnessing history’s horrors and his personal efforts to live a life filled with meaning in the exhibit itself:
Inside the exhibit, Alex stood in front of a wall with the image of her father-in-law behind her. She spoke to us about his life and experiences and his spirit. She told us stories about how he persevered for decades to remember the victims of the Nazis, and to overcome the legacy of the Communist victors in postwar Poland. She talked about what a wonderful person the man she knew for over 30 years was like, and shared her memories with us. It was evident to us all how much she loved and missed him, without her having to say it directly.
That evening at the hotel restaurant, Alex and I and a colleague had dinner together, drank wine, and talked. She told us much more about how she met her husband (also named Wladysaw) at Oxford, about her father-in-law, and about their daughters, family life, and good times together in Poland. It was a warm and happy dinner for us. I think the reason it resonates in my memory is because of something Alex and I discussed at the very beginning of the tour. As she so eloquently put it: “Nothing good happened in Poland in World War II—absolutely nothing!” There was no heroic narrative for our guests to engage. Instead, they were going to see sites where the Nazis started the war and razed cities like Warsaw, places where Jews and others were imprisoned, tortured, and systemically mass murdered, and places where the Soviets imposed a new brutal tyranny after the war. But in fact, Alex’s own spirit, personal warmth, and passion for this history made the tour one of the most memorable for our guests. I think at our dinner that night, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski’s spirit not only warmed his daughter-in-law, but through her spread to warm us and everyone who was with us on that tour.
Here is a photograph I took of Alex speaking before her father-in-law’s image on the wall at that unscheduled museum visit:
Although I did not know it at the time, I would have one other unexpected encounter with Wladyslaw Bartoszewski on that tour, which will be the subject of my next post on History Through the Viewfinder.
See Part Two.