Addressing the guests of the international event, held in the northern Poland city of Torun under the title "Memory and Hope", the president wrote:
"It is with utmost respect and gratitude that I welcome this conference about the Polish people who rescued Jews from the hands of the German occupiers".
"The moral and spiritual nature of their heroism", he added, "through which they fulfilled the Christian ideals of mercy, solidarity and love of the fellow-man, even at the cost of sacrificing their own lives, is underlined by the choice of the venue for this event".
The conference was held in the Sanctuary of the Holy Mary, the Star of New Evangelisation, and St John Paul II, in Torun.
"This sanctuary is becoming one of the key memorials to those who deserve - just as much as the Home Army (see: NOTE 1) soldiers and the civil units of the Polish Underground State (see: NOTE 2) - to be included in the pantheon of the greatest national heroes", the head of state emphasised.
Further in the letter - read out by his aide Adam Kwiatkowski - Duda noted the Polish citizens of Jewish descent received assistance on the individual as well as state level.
"The Polish Underground State saved Jews", he wrote, "even though its officials faced being hunted down, tortured and killed by the occupiers".
The president added that knowledge about "this dramatic chapter in our history" was far from complete, with fresh facts being uncovered all the time.
Duda also pointed to this year's 75th anniversary of the setting up of Zegota (see: NOTE 1), an agency of the underground state tasked with helping Jews.
"We also remember about the thousands of anonymous Polish people", he observed, "including numerous priests and nuns, who rescued the lives of thousands of Jewish kids".
Moreover, "new facts are constantly being discovered about many Polish families, who single-handedly hid Jewish acquaintances, neighbours and completely unknown fugitives from ghettos and deathcamp-bound transports".
The head of state noted that, unfortunately, both these heroic people as well as those who could testify to their extraordinary deeds, were fading from the world and, therefore, in most cases the honours could only be bestowed post-humously.
It is clear, he said, that the number of Polish people who rescued Jews during WW2 runs into the thousands, yet we will never know all the names.
"But for all that, our state and nation must patiently search for their remains and commemorate them, having been quiet, far too quiet about them for many post-war decades", Duda urged.
Such neglect, the president assessed, had encouraged the spread of "falsehoods about modern Polish history and the role of Polish people in those tragic events".
Thus "we must do justice to our heroes and, in the process, safeguard the welfare of Poland and its people - today and in the future".
The president concluded by underlining that "it is we, contemporary Polish citizens, who are responsible for the state of knowledge in our nation, among other Europeans and around the globe".
Earlier in the letter, Duda also noted he had sought to continue the commemorative efforts of the late President Lech Kaczynski, as reflected in his recent initiative (submitted to Poland's lawmakers) to make March 17 the National Day of Remembrance about Polish people who saved Jews during WW2.
The Torun conference was organised by the St John Paul II Institute "Memory and Identity", From the Depths Foundation and Torun's Higher School for Social and Media Culture.
It was preceded by a special holy mass and featured Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, Senate (upper house) Speaker Stanislaw Karczewski, deputy Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak, Holocaust survivors who witnessed the heroism of the Polish people, representatives of the Israeli government and parliament, as well as other Polish government officials, lawmakers and local government representatives.
NOTE 1: The Home Army (AK), an armed wing of the Polish Underground State (see: NOTE 2), was the main resistance movement in Poland when it was occupied by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II. It was formed from the Union of Armed Struggle (ZWZ), which in turn evolved from a clandestine organisation called the Polish Victory Service (SZP).
The SZP was launched on the night of Sept. 26, 1939, by a group of senior officers led by Gen. Michal Karaszewicz-Tokarzewski, with the participation of Warsaw Mayor Stefan Starzynski. It became the nucleus of the nationwide resistance movement known as the Polish Underground State.
The Home Army, whose allegiance was to the Polish government-in-exile, was one of the largest and best organised resistance movements in Europe, its soldier ranks numbering anywhere from 200,000 to 600,000.
In his book God's Playground. A History of Poland, prominent historian Norman Davies said that "the Home Army could fairly claim to be the largest of European resistance [organisations]". In "DPs: Europe's displaced persons, 1945–1951", Mark Wyman wrote "Armia Krajowa was considered the largest underground resistance unit in wartime Europe".
Along with various combat activities, the AK was also widely involved in rescuing Jews, among others, by means of the famous 1942-founded Council to Aid Jews (Rada Pomocy Zydom) codenamed 'Zegota' - the only organisation in Europe and a unique one on a global scale established to defend and provide help to Jews in ghettos and elsewhere.
The successive commanders of the AK were generals Stefan Rowecki (until June 30, 1943) Tadeusz Komorowski (until Oct. 2, 1944) and Leopold Okulicki (until Jan. 19, 1945).
The culmination of the AK's armed struggle came with the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.
The Warsaw Uprising broke out on August 1, 1944, as the biggest resistance operation in German-occupied Europe. Initially intended to last several days, it continued for over two months before being suppressed by the Germans. The uprising claimed the lives of 18,000 insurgents and around 200,000 civilians.
After the insurgents surrendered and the remaining 500,000 residents were expelled, the Germans methodically burned down and blew up Warsaw house by house. By January 1945, app. 90 percent of the buildings and city infrastructure was destroyed.
In early 1942, the Home Army had about 100,000 soldiers; by the summer of 1944 the number had risen to 380,000. These included 10,800 officers. Poland’s famous Silent Unseen elite special-operations paratroops (see: NOTE 3) were also part of the Home Army.
The AK's wartime losses totalled about 100,000 soldiers killed in fighting or murdered, and about 50,000 taken to the Soviet Union and imprisoned.
The Home Army's activities did not end with the end of WW II. After 1945, the AK's so-called Enduring Soldiers fought the Soviet regime.
Under communism, AK soldiers were persecuted by Poland's authorities, especially during the Stalinist period. Many of them were handed death penalties; others spent many years in prison.
NOTE 2: The so-called Polish Underground State, which operated from 1939 to 1945 and, and by many is to date looked up to as a model of conspiracy administration, was subordinated to the Polish government-in-exile, which was first based in France and subsequently in Great Britain. In Poland, the government-in-exile had an impressively developed administration with secret courts and prosecutors, its own army (AK), underground schools and universities, even publishing houses.
According to Barbara Wachowicz 2002's release "Kamyk na szancu: Gaweda o druhu Aleksandrze Kamińskim w stulecie urodzin", the term "Polish Underground State" was first "more widely" used on 13 January 1944 in the official underground publication of the Polish underground authorities the Biuletyn Informacyjny. On the other hand, an alternative name for the Polish Underground State, namely, the Polish Secret State, is said to have been introduced by Jan Karski (see: NOTE 4) in his book Story of a Secret State, which was written and first published in the United States (1944).
Historian Janusz Gmitruk called the Polish Underground State, "a light at the end of the tunnel showing that the Polish people will not surrender to the Germans, that the banner of independence will remain up".
In Polish-American former US Air Force Brigadier-General Walter Jajko's opinion, as the defeat of the Warsaw Rising "essentially finished the Polish Underground State", Stalin knew that "the Underground State was an existing alternative government, organised throughout all of Polish society, that would prevent his Sovietisation of Poland". He added: "Stalin knew too that the Home Army was the force that would insist on Polish independence even unto war against the Soviet Union. Stalin's facilitation of the German suppression of the Warsaw Rising prevented the armed opposition to the Sovietisation of Poland (...) The Warsaw Rising showed that Nazis and Communists still had overriding interests in common. The moral equivalence of Hitler and Stalin, of Nazism and Communism, of Germany and Russia is striking".
NOTE 3: The Silent and Dark Ones (also called the 'Silent Unseen') were a Polish elite paratrooper unit during World War Two, known for many daring operations in German-occupied Poland. Formed and trained in Great Britain, the Silent and Dark ones first landed in Poland in the night of February 15, 1941, near Skoczow in southern Poland after a long flight from Great Britain over Germany.
Serving first in occupied Poland's Union for Armed Resistance (ZWZ) and later in the Home Army, The Silent and Dark Ones were the elite of the Polish wartime underground.
The Silent and Dark Ones specialised in special operations (sabotage, subversion, intelligence, communication). All were volunteers.
Their parachute missions to Poland were organised by the Polish section of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) together with the 6th Chapter of the General Staff of the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces responsible for contacts with the Chief Command of the Home Army.
The first drop, code-named Adolphus, took place on the night of February 15 and 16, 1941, near Skoczow in the Cieszyn Silesia region, in the Germany-annexed zone. A two-engine British Whitley bomber brought over Poland three paratroopers: captain Stanislaw Krzymowski (aka Kostka "Cube"), Jozef Zalbieski (aka Zbik "Wildcat") and courier Czeslaw Raczkowski (aka Wlodek).
The first flight to German-occupied Poland was organised as an experimental one but since the route over Germany was considered too dangerous, the entire operation was suspended for nine months. The mission was finally resumed with flights to Poland over Denmark or Sweden.
A flight to Poland and back took from 11 to 14 hours. Flights were organised only at night. First, paratroopers were taken to their occupied Homeland aboard Halifax planes, and later on board of American Liberators.
At the end of 1943, the Silent and Dark Ones' base was moved to Brindisi in Italy.
In all, 2,413 officers and soldiers of the Polish Armed Forces volunteered to join the elite unit. Only 606 successfully completed the rigorous training, 579 of whom qualified for the operation.
Three hundred and sixteen Silent and Dark Ones were dropped in Poland during 82 flights organised between February 15, 1941 and December 26, 1944. Out of 316 paratroopers flown to Poland nine were killed before their planes reached their destination (three were killed in an air crash near the Norwegian coast, three were shot down over Denmark, and three were killed in parachuting accidents).
Ninety-one took part in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, 13 of them were killed. In all, 103 Silent and Dark Ones were killed during World War Two. Nine were murdered by Poland's communist authorities after the war.
NOTE 4: Jan Karski, birth name Jan Kozielewski, along with Witold Pilecki (see: NOTE 5), was the most renowned Holocaust whistleblower. As a young Polish Roman Catholic diplomat, during the early days of World War II, he witnessed first-hand the German Nazis' treatment of fellow citizens of Jewish descent in ghettos and concentration camps.
To learn the fate of Polish Jews, Karski was smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto by the Jewish underground and to the Belzec death camp in the disguise of a Ukrainian guard. He travelled across occupied Europe to England, and eventually to America. Karski personally reported to the Polish Prime Minister in London, General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Britain's Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, US President Franklin Roosevelt and many other prominent figures. His description of the systematic annihilation of European Jews was met with disbelief and passivity.
After having been given by Karski a recount of German death camp atrocities, then American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was quoted as asking the Polish messenger about "the situation in the Polish countryside", and how it was in Poland with... "the horses and cattle".
Karski remained in Washington, D.C. after the war, became an American citizen and taught at Georgetown University for nearly 40 years. He died in 2000.
He was decorated with Israel's Righteous Among the Nations medal (see: NOTE 5) and the Order of the White Eagle, the highest Polish distinction. Karski, widely regarded as the "man who tried to stop the Holocaust," was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian state distinction in the United States, by President Barack Obama.
During the fateful ceremony (30 May, 2012 - PAP) Obama in his address, while referring to German death camps, applied the term "Polish", for which misnomer he later apologised profusely.
NOTE 5: Witold Pilecki was a Polish soldier and rotamaster in the pre-war Polish cavalry. In German-occupied Poland he founded the Secret Polish Army resistance group in November 1939, subsequently joining the 1942-formed underground Home Army.
Pilecki, called "the bravest of the brave" was the author of the so-called Witold's Report - the first comprehensive account of proceedings in the German Auschwitz concentration camp and the Holocaust overall.
During World War Two, Pilecki volunteered for a resistance operation to get imprisoned in the Auschwitz death camp, where he planned to gather intelligence, help inmates and escape. At Auschwitz, Pilecki organized a resistance movement and, as early as 1941, informed the Western Allies about atrocities taking place in the camp.
In the night from April 26 to 27 1943, after 2,5 years of imprisonment, Pilecki and two companions made a daring escape from the Auschwitz camp, whereupon Pilecki got in touch with the Home Army in Krakow (south Poland) and presented a detailed report on horror of mass extermination taking place in Auschwitz. Unfortunately, his plan of freeing the Auschwitz prisoners was not accepted in the face of German forces' dominating strength as well as passivity of the Allied side.
In 1944 Pilecki fought in the Warsaw Uprising against the Germans.
He remained loyal to the London-based Polish exile government after the communist takeover of Poland, and on May 8, 1947, was arrested on charges of working for "foreign imperialism" and after a show trial sentenced to death.
He was executed by a gunshot to the back of the head on 25 May 1948 in the basement of infamous Warsaw Mokotow prison. His body was most probably dumped into a nameless grave and has yet to be found. Information about his activities and fate was suppressed by the Polish communist regime until 1989.
As Pilecki's burial site remains unknown, he is among the communist regime victims whose remains are currently sought in countrywide exhumations by Poland's National Remembrance Institute (IPN).
Witold's Report, considered the world's first comprehensive intel on the Holocaust, was presented at the last International Book Fair in London, promoting Poland's "bravest of the brave" among both compatriots (with the support of the Polish Institute and the Polish Social and Cultural Centre), as well as foreigners at the fair in Olympia.
Pilecki was posthumously awarded Poland's highest decoration, the Order of the White Eagle, by late President Lech Kaczynski, and later promoted to the rank of Colonel.
NOTE 6: The Righteous Among the Nations distinction is awarded by the Jerusalem-based Yad Vashem Institute, Israel's official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Most trees planted at Yad Vashem to commemorate those who saved Jews during the war are dedicated to Polish people. In all, out of 26,000 Righteous Among the Nations worldwide, more than 6,700 come from Poland. (PAP)