Lawmakers push for congressional honor for Warsaw Ghetto Uprising participants

'It shows, at a time of enormous brutal atrocities, how the human spirit and courage will rise up from the civilian side to resist,’ Rep. Bill Keating said

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Rep. Bill Keating (D-MA) is seen during a House Foreign Affairs Committee markup in Rayburn Building on legislation dealing with Venezuela.

Lawmakers are making a push to award a Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’ highest honor, to participants in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which took place 80 years ago this year.

Rep. Bill Keating (D-MA), the bill’s lead sponsor, told Jewish Insider that the inspiration for the initiative came from a trip he made to Poland last year, during which he discussed the subject with U.S. Ambassador to Poland Mark Brzezinski and visited Warsaw’s POLIN Museum, which chronicles the history of Polish Jews.

There the two men agreed, Keating said, that a gold medal would be an “extraordinary” way to commemorate the anniversary of the uprising. 

“The uprising was a courageous response, given the atrocities of the Nazis during that period. People just coming up, without arms, without weapons, to stand up, showing their resistance to them at terrible cost,” Keating said. “It shows, at a time of enormous brutal atrocities, how the human spirit and courage will rise up from the civilian side to resist. And I think it’s one of the most important lessons that is so relevant today.”

Keating also noted that he grew up alongside the children of many Polish immigrants, which he said made the issue personal for him.

The bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Mike Turner (R-OH), and Keating said a Senate companion is planned, likely to be introduced by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD). 

A previous effort to pass the bill died in the last Congress, after accumulating a total of 49 co-sponsors in the House after being introduced at the end of September 2022. Congressional Gold Medal bills must be co-sponsored by two-thirds of the members of a chamber before they can be brought up for a vote.

“The Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Congressional Gold Medal Act would memorialize the courage and heroism exhibited by Polish Jews in Nazi occupied Warsaw during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as testament to the tragic costs of aggression and war,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur. “The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising underscores for history that the valiant fight for Liberty over tyranny which engulfed the continent during World War II was rooted in people forming together to preserve life and liberty against fascism. Their sacrifices must never, ever be forgotten.”

Keating said the bill is also an important and timely reminder amid rising antisemitism in the U.S. and in Europe.

“It’s important to remember, unfortunately, antisemitism is not localized, and that means here too,” Keating said. “I think it’s important to remember, but I think this particular recognition is critically important today.”

The bill text notes that, “genocide involves the erasure and elimination of the memory and culture of a people, and therefore the United States must work to preserve the historical record of Jewish people around the world, many of whom now live in the United States.”

The Massachusetts congressman, who is the former chair and current ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Europe, added that Brzezinski emphasized to him “how it would be received and the importance it would have in Poland… at a time when we are trying to strengthen our relationship.”

Poland has sought to distance itself from the atrocities committed within its borders during the Holocaust, including criminalizing accusations of Polish complicity in the Holocaust.

Keating said that these moves were not “overtly” a motivation for the legislation, although he added that “we were aware of what was happening there in terms of civil rights and what was happening with the judiciary there as a whole” and it “certainly was, as you look at it, an important remembrance there in that respect.”

Keating alluded to initial “obstacles” in the draft language of the bill because the award “doesn’t usually go to physical sites… so that’s why we focused on the people.” The bill includes several findings praising the POLIN Museum’s role in “the preservation of the memory of Jewish life,” and encourages the establishment of additional museums focused on this topic, including the Warsaw Ghetto Museum which is currently under construction.

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