President awards rescuers of Poles

Addressing the laureates, the president said the distinctions included them into the Polish community. Leszek Szymański/PAP

President Andrzej Duda on Wednesday in Warsaw awarded the first Virtus et Fraternitas (Virtue and Brotherhood) medals honouring 20th-century rescuers of Poles from death and oppression.

The medal, the equivalent to Israel's Righteous Among the Nations distinction, is a token of commemoration and gratitude to persons who provided aid and assistance to Polish citizens and ethnic Poles in times of the country's greatest distress. According to the regulations for the decoration, it refers to Soviet, Nazi German and nationalist crimes or other crimes against humanity, as well as war crimes, committed in the period from November 8, 1917 to July 31, 1990.

Among the laureates are Ukrainians who saved Poles from death at the hands of Ukrainian nationalists during the 1943-45 Volhynia Massacre in eastern Poland, a Kazakh citizen and a Hungarian soldier who helped Poles and, posthumously, World War Two diplomats from the so-called Bern Group in Switzerland, who saved Jews from the Holocaust by issuing them false South American passports.

Before he bestowed the honours, Duda said the medal was a token of remembrance and gratitude by the Polish state, "a special distinction awarded for righteousness, brotherhood and heart, but most of all for an uncommonly human stance and uncommon humanism displayed in very difficult times."

Addressing the laureates, the president said the distinctions included them into the Polish community. "I want one thing to resound as strongly as possibe - this is a distinction from our community. Through them, our community has accepted you into its ranks, as a part of it. You are our brothers and sisters. I would want precisely this to remain embedded in your hearts as a token of our highest gratitude," Duda said.

Speaking on behalf of the laureates, Tassibai Abdikarmov, a Kazakh who as a 16-year-old helped a Polish family deported to the Soviet Union after World War Two, appealed for the awarding of the medals to constitute "an example for other nations."

In letters read out at the ceremony, PM Mateusz Morawiecki and Sejm (lower house) Speaker Marek Kuchciński underscored the courage and committment displayed by the laureates.

Present at the ceremony was Culture Minister Piotr Glinski, who called the Virtus et Fraternitas medal a distinction awarded for courage, brotherhood and solidarity.

The silver-plated round medal carries an eagle effigy with the inscription "Virtus et fraternitas". The reverse side features an image of Polonia, a stylized figure of a woman in luminous ornaments suggesting angel wings, and a quote from Polish-born Pope John Paul II: "A man must be measured by his heart."