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Rabbi Joseph Potasnik Gets Jan Karski Humanitarian Award

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By Masha Leon published in The Forward –  September 20, 2014

Welcoming the overflow crowd at the Jan Karski Humanitarian Award 2014 ceremony at the Polish Consulate honoring Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis, and Polish rescuer Irena Sendler, was consul general Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka who thanked members of the Polish-Jewish Dialogue Committee — Polish American Congress, the N.Y. Downstate Division and the Polish-Jewish Dialogue Committee —  for their dedication to their noble mission.”

Addressing an assemblage that included a sizeable number of Polish-Jewish survivors, cantor Joseph Malovany and the Forward’s publisher Samuel Norich, the consul thanked The Committee — whose members are predominantly Catholic priests and rabbis — “for their dedication to their noble mission” and amplified that “the Jan Karski Humanitarian Award ceremony is a perfect example of fruitful cooperation between Polish diaspora organizations on the one hand and American-Jewish organizations on the other.” She noted that “Pope John Paul II, who visited a synagogue in Rome and prayed at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, considered anti-Semitism a sin and called the Jews…’Christians’ brothers-in faith,’ During his papacy he encouraged a very difficult Polish-Jewish dialogue” believing that “this dialogue was necessary to overcome stereotypes and prejudices.”

Polish Children’s Choir, Consul General Ziomecka and Rabbi Potasnik // Photo by Masha Leon
Polish Children’s Choir, Consul General Ziomecka and Rabbi Potasnik // Photo by Masha Leon

Accepting the award from Rabbi Moshe Birnbaum of the Jewish Center of Kew Gardens Hills, Potasnik reflected upon the nobility of some Poles who “at a time when Poles risked their own families’ lives by helping Jews” like “the Polish Catholic family who hid Jews even when their children got scarlet fever sharing all with their Jewish charges.”

There was a video presentation of Janina Zghrzembska “ remembering her mother Irena Sendler who saved over 2500 Jewish children she smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto. And a delightful treat was the Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church of Maspeth Queens’ Children Choir whose beautifully articulated Polish repertoire included a song about God and David, one about Noah’s Ark and [in English] “We Are The World.” The assemblage was informed that the choir included Polish children of the Moslem faith.

The Jan Karski award is named in honor of a Polish patriot, a Catholic, and hero of the Polish Resistance, who brought news to the West of the destruction of Eastern European Jewry who had been secretly smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto by a Zionist and a Bundist to be an eyewitness to the destruction. He is recognized at Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among Nations.”

Contributors to this event included representatives of the Flushing Jewish Community Council, Queens Jewish Historical Society, Father Witold Mroziewski, of Holy Cross Church, Maspeth, Queens and Monsignor Peter Zendzian of St. Matthias Church Ridgewood, Queens who read the invocation.

I would not be writing this were it not for a Polish peasant woman who risked her life and that of her family to hide my mother and me in her hut — next to a Nazi guard cabin! — during our flight from Warsaw. When my mother offered to pay her something she refused and said, ”It is my Christian duty.” She also told my mother that during WW I, as a young girl, someone hid her and saved her life and she felt the obligation to “return the favor.”