Have you ever heard of Wincenty and Lucja Baranek, Adam and Bronislawa Kowalski or Josef and Wiktoria Ulma?
If not, you’re not alone.
They’re not well-known either in Poland, their homeland, where each of the couples risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Poland has taken a step to recognize the heroes, recently issuing commemorative coins to honor them: all Catholics, all killed for their actions.
The significance of the gesture transcends the world of numismatism.
For decades after World War II, the exploits of such Righteous Gentiles (Poland had more than any other nation) largely went unheralded; the men and women were, with few exceptions, modest, avoiding publicity; their neighbors, in many cases, were anti-Semitic and hostile to individuals who had taken steps to rescue Jews; the communist governments discouraged emphasizing the Jewish (i.e., non-nationalistic) identity of the Nazis’ victims.
As far as is known, few countries in Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union have similarly honored their wartime Righteous Gentiles on coins or stamps.
Besides Hungary, which has issued a stamp in memory of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who spent WWII pulling Jews off of death camp-bound trains and setting up safe houses for thousands of Jews; and Poland, which earlier produced a commemorative coin honoring Irena Sendler, the social worker who helped smuggle some 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, it’s been Western nations like the US and Sweden who have taken the lead in this type of numismatic and philatelic activity. And, of course, Israel.
In two-zloty and 20-zloty denomination coins, Poland has taken a symbolic step to tell its citizens that some of its Catholic residents seven decades ago were not only victims of the occupying German army, but also spiritual opponents, sacrificing their lives for their Jewish neighbors.