News Stories

The ink may fade, but the memories will not

By Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Jordyn Apsey Defense Information School


Sam Ponczak, a native of Warsaw, Poland, volunteers at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where he translates interviews of Poles who were asked to describe what they saw during the Holocaust.

In one video that he translated, a man in his 80s or 90s describes a column of Jews – elderly men and women, and mothers with their children – being marched down a road to be executed by the Nazis.

Some would be shot in forests and buried in mass graves. Others would be killed in Jewish cemeteries. People in the column shouted to some boys who were sitting in a field by the road.

“Pray to God,” they said. “Pray for us. Tell what’s happening. Remember, tell what’s happening.”

The story reminded him of his own childhood experience, Ponczak said. In 1946, his family was living in Reichenbach, a formerly German town that was made a part of Poland after the war.

Survivors of the death camp at Auschwitz often gathered in the Ponczaks’ apartment, where they talked about groups of Jews being sent to the gas chambers, knowing what was in store for them and yelling to the others, begging them to remember, to tell what they had seen.

The video and his own recollections came together for Ponczak, now 78, in a powerful way.

“I realized these were the last wishes of people who were about to die,” he said. “To me, it’s very significant. To remember is to tell about this.”

Ponczak, who spoke May 2 at a Holocaust observance at the Defense Information School on Fort Meade, Maryland, spent much of the past year ensuring that another group of Poles would not be forgotten.

They are the more than 5 million people, including the president of Poland and millions of school children, who signed pages of paper that were then hand-bound into volumes of signatures, pictures and artwork, and given to U.S. President Calvin Coolidge in 1926.

The Polish people were congratulating the United States on the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and thanking the United States for its support during World War I and afterward, when their country – which had not existed for the previous century – was brought into being again.

The 111-volume collection, which is kept at the Library of Congress, is officially titled the Polish Declarations of Admiration and Friendship for the United States.

Unofficially, it has another name.

“We call it ‘The Thank-you Card,’” Ponczak said.

Volumes 1 through 6 contain signatures of the president and prime minister of Poland in 1926, cardinals in the Roman Catholic church, and artwork from famous painters.

Volumes 7 through 111 are the most important to Ponczak because within their pages are the signatures of teachers and children, many of whom would have been in their early 20s by the time World War II began and their country was overrun.

“The point is that this may be the only evidence of such a person left,” he said. “These signatures are most likely, I cannot swear, but are most likely the only thing that is left after these people.”

Volumes 1 through 13 were digitized about 10 years ago, making them available for study by a genealogical association in Poland.

“They have an index of names for those 13 volumes, but that is only part of the history,” Ponczak said. “It’s a pity, but half of that doesn’t pertain to kids. It’s just grown-ups.”

Until Ponczak became involved, the other 98 volumes were available only at the Library of Congress.

In February 2015, Ponczak met Grazyna Zebrowska, the president of the Polish Library in Washington, while attending a lecture about the Holocaust at the Library of Congress.

Ponczak had already decided he wanted to digitize the remaining volumes of the collection, but he still needed to figure out how he was going to do it, he said.

“I had awareness that this is going to fade if somebody doesn’t do what I was intending to do,” Ponczak said. “This whole document eventually will fade. It’s just a matter of time.”

About 20,000 elementary schools in Poland are represented in the later volumes. On some pages, pictures of classes are attached next to signatures of students.

“It’s unusual for Polish people, people in Poland,” Zebrowska said. “This is a treasure because during the second world war a lot of artifacts was destroyed.

“For me, it’s a capsule of time,” she said. “This whole collection is this kind of capsule from our past.”

For the Library of Congress to consider such a proposal to digitize the remaining volumes, an institution needed to be involved, and the Polish Library was the ticket.

The Polish Library submitted a proposal in April 2015. After it was denied, the library submitted a second proposal in October – this time involving a new contractor who bought a state-of-the-art machine that could delicately scan the pages of the collection without damaging them.

By December, a $40,000 contract was signed.        

“We did receive a nice chunk of money from Foreign Ministry of Poland,” Ponczak said. “The rest was private money.”

Many of the donors were friends and relatives of Ponczak and Zebrowska. One was Ponczak himself.

“If I’m poorer by a few thousand bucks, it makes no difference,” he said. “I’m old enough not to worry about it.”

The contractors began working in February. Ponczak and his partners said they expect the project to be completed this month.

To celebrate the completion of the project, Ponczak and Zebrowska are planning an event at the end of June at the Polish Embassy in Washington. They hope to have all of the files uploaded to the Internet by July 4.

“For me, it was a great pleasure to meet Sam and to make this project together,” Zebrowska said.

Ponczak believes the collection survived because it was in the United States and not in Europe during the war.

“It’s a great genealogical tool which was not known to many people here and in Poland,” he said.

Ponczak met one survivor who is believed to have signed his name in one of the volumes. The man is now 105 years old.

Although Ponczak has searched for the man’s name, he still cannot find it.

He has, however, helped others find family members’ signatures.

In April, a friend and his family visited Washington from Poland, and Ponczak offered to show them what he had been working on. He took the family to the reading room at the Madison Building in the Library of Congress and asked what town his friend’s grandfather was from.

Ponczak found the volume from that town, and his friend almost screamed when he discovered the signatures of his grandfather and other family within it.

“He was so excited,” Ponczak said. “I couldn’t believe it.”