Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Righteous Among Nations - What It Means To Be A Hero

How many fifteen years olds do you know that would risk their lives for another? You might quickly answer NONE, but I'd ask you to remember that (if you are American) the crop of teenagers you are familiar with have not been tested. I like to think they would be heroic if called upon to act and I also hope they are never tested in the same was as Maria Lopuszanksa.

At the tender age of 15 Maria, a Catholic, was all that 8 year old, Jewish Janina Pietraskiak had to cling to. Maria was the teenage daughter of Anti-Nazi parents. Her parents were part of the Polish Underground during World War II that worked to shelter and save Jewish families. Little Janina was part of one of those families in jeopardy.

Janina and her mother were hiding in the Lopuszanksa home when suddenly her mother succumbed to tuberculosis. She was alone. After that, to further protect Janine, she was baptised into the Catholic faith and adopted as a member of Maria's family. She clung to her new family out of fear and loyalty, refusing to go live with an uncle in the United States.

At one point the girls had to fiend for themselves during the Warsaw uprising of 1944. Maria's father was ill and her mother had taken up arms against the Nazis in the city streets. They saw bombs exploding, corpses and worse atrocities happening within feet of them. The girls narrowly escaped death. Janina recalls how she buried herself in Maria's skirt and how she thought of the teenager as a protective mother. But Maria was just a girl herself...a heroic one, maybe a little like a young girl in your life now. Who knows?

At 79, Maria lives in a nursing home in Warsaw and Janina visits her sister every day. Recently, she petitioned the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem to have Maria included as one of the "Righteous Among The Nations".

Under a program created by the Israeli Foreign Ministry in 1963, 15,000 non-Jews have so far been recognized to be "righteous" because of their efforts to save, aid, or transport Jews to safety during the Holocaust.

These individuals have their names inscribed on a wall at the National Holocaust Memorial. They are given the Righteous Medal and a certificate of honor. Those that are found to be in financial need receive monetary gifts from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.

Maria was awarded 1,200 dollars per year to help with her living expenses and medicine.

The title, reserved as the highest honor for non-Jews, has gone to people from 44 countries. Poles made up the largest number, 6,066, followed by the Netherlands with 4,863.

Maria and Janina are bonded for life, sisters of the heart as much as sisters of circumstance. Theirs is a beautiful story of selflessness - Maria to Janina when she was a young frightened child and now, Janina to Maria in the frailness of old age. We should all learn from their example.


FishHawk said...

A wonderful article. Thanks!!!

Fin said...

I'm sure there are still many young people who would rise to such a challenge, but like you I hope they will never be forced to do so.