Jewish gift for monument to slain Polish Catholics

July 07, 1994|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

Jewish donors gave $36,500 yesterday -- the largest single gift so far -- to the planners of an Inner Harbor monument to Polish Catholics murdered by the Soviet secret police 54 years ago.

Invoking 1,000 years of history shared by Poland's Jews and Catholics and painful memories of World War II, leaders of the Jewish and Polish communities of Baltimore came together to announce the gift to the Katyn Memorial Fund. They vowed never to forget each other's victims of cruelty and oppression.

"We are reminded today of the highest of all Jewish ideals, reverence for life," said Darrell D. Friedman, president of the Associated Jewish Community Federation, which made the contribution on behalf of a group of its members.

So far, about $85,000 has been raised toward the estimated $350,000 cost of erecting the proposed 46-foot-high sculpture, said Alfred B. Wisniewski, chairman of the Katyn committee.

The soaring abstract bronze by New York sculptor Andrzej Pitynski would be Baltimore's loftiest work of art.

Its primary purpose would be to honor the 15,400 Polish army officers and intellectuals murdered by the Soviets and buried in mass graves, one of which was discovered in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., and Richard Lansburgh, board chairman of the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, presided together at yesterday's breakfast meeting in the offices of the Jewish philanthropic agency on Mount Royal Avenue.

Representatives of the Polish community presented a plaque and bouquets to their Jewish counterparts. There were some light moments. Senator Mikulski told the donors gathered around a big table, "My mother says thank you. All the nuns of Holy Rosary say thank you."

She referred to the large Holy Rosary congregation of Polish-speaking Roman Catholics in her East Baltimore neighborhood.

As planned, the abstract bronze sculpture would rise 30 feet from a 16-foot granite pedestal in a landscaped traffic circle near the foot of President Street, on the east side of the Inner Harbor. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, one of the honorary chairmen of the Katyn committee, has tentatively approved this site.

The jagged, outstretched arms of the sculptor's design would symbolize the irresistible force of freedom. "This sculpture will serve as a constant reminder of the preciousness of human life and the endurance of the human spirit," Mr. Friedman said.

Mr. Lansburgh praised "the great vision of Baltimore's Polish community" in launching the campaign to erect the monument. In a reference to the "shared pain" of such atrocities as the Holocaust, he said the "immediate reaction" of Baltimore's Jewish leadership to the Polish group's proposal was "a deep desire to commemorate the sacrifices that both of our communities have experienced."

The monument's message will be that "crimes against humanity will not be tolerated," Mr. Lansburgh said.

Mr. Wisniewski expressed his and his committee's "deepest appreciation" to the Jewish donors.

More than 4,000 of the Polish officers were found massacred -- many of them after torture -- in the Katyn Forest burial site in what was then the Soviet Union. The mass graves of some 10,000 more were discovered in other locations. In 1990, then-Soviet General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev acknowledged Soviet responsibility. And last year, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin issued a public apology.

Yesterday's gift "reminds us of the historic friendship between the Polish and Jewish peoples," Mr. Friedman said. "Our histories and our destinies have been closely entwined for more than 1,000 years."

He said the princes of Poland opened their borders to Jewish immigration in the ninth century, "and it was in Poland in the 16th and 17th centuries that East European Jewish culture developed its highest and most distinctive characteristics."

On the mutual concern of Jews and Christians for the protection of human lives, Mr. Friedman said, "To save one human life, our rabbis teach us, is equivalent to saving the entire world. We are not only permitted, but we are positively commanded, to break any other Jewish law, including observance of the Sabbath, if our object is to save a human life."

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