“Lest You Forget”: Samuel Ponczak (1937-2022)

This guest post is by Manuscript Division historian Meg McAleer.

The words “lest you forget” from the book of Deuteronomy are inscribed in the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum’s Hall of Remembrance. Samuel Ponczak, who died on December 7, 2022,

dedicated himself to ensuring we would not forget. A Holocaust survivor, Ponczak volunteered at the museum, where he shared his compelling personal story of survival. He was also a passionate advocate for a collection, the Polish Declarations of Admiration and Friendship for the United States, housed in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division, where many of us came to know “Sam,” as he asked to be called.

On October 14, 1926, a Polish delegation presented President Calvin Coolidge with 111 bound volumes containing thirty thousand richly decorated sheets and the signatures of five and a half million Polish citizens—approximately one-sixth of the nation. The gift expressed Poland’s friendship for the United States on the sesquicentennial of its independence and gratitude for Woodrow Wilson’s call for an independent Poland in 1917 and the flow of U.S. aid after World War I. President Coolidge sent the volumes to the Library of Congress for safekeeping and display.

The volumes are stunning, with their decorative bindings, original works by prominent Polish graphic artists, calligraphy, official seals, coats of arms, and photographs. Filling the pages are the signatures of the famous and the unknown, including national and local government officials; civic, business, religious, military, cultural, and academic leaders; the Polish emigre community in Austria; and millions of schoolchildren.[1] Poland’s President Ignacy Moscicki signed a page adorned with the Polish eagle in Volume 1. Also adding her signature was Golda Prajs, who signed with her primary school classmates in Gora Kalwaria, a town with a large Jewish population in east-central Poland, about twenty-two miles from Warsaw.

The volumes provide a snapshot of a nation as it was in 1926, freezing it in time. Recognizing their historical importance, the Library of Congress digitized the first thirteen volumes and made them available online in 2005.

Sam Ponczak, a retired engineer, spearheaded a campaign to raise funds to digitize the remaining ninety-eight volumes.[2] In doing so, he insisted that we unfreeze time, allowing it to advance thirteen years and more beyond 1926 to the invasions of Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union in September 1939, the subsequent horrors of the Holocaust and war, and the turbulent postwar aftermath.

Born in Warsaw in 1937, Sam was a toddler when his mother, Sara, managed their escape from the Warsaw Ghetto in November 1940. Walking across a frozen river at night, they entered the Soviet-controlled part of Poland and reunited with Sam’s father, Jacob, who had gone ahead. The Soviets arrested and sent the family to a labor camp.[3]

Sam, his parents, and his sister, who was born in Ukraine in 1945, survived the Holocaust and war. However, close to six million Polish citizens, including three million Polish Jews, were killed during those years. Many, many signers of the 1926 Polish Declarations perished, among them Golda Prajs.[4]

“Those signatures were the only testimony” that many of these people existed, Sam observed. He could not bring them back to life, he said, but he could bring them “back to the general memory.”[5] Working through the Polish Library in Washington, D.C., in cooperation with the Library of Congress and with support from the Embassy of the Republic of Poland, Sam helped to secure funding to digitize the remaining volumes. The Library made the complete set available online in 2017.

One of Sam’s last efforts was to have the Polish Declarations included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World (MOW) Register. UNESCO only permits member states to nominate historical and cultural materials to the registry, and the United States withdrew as a member state in 2018.[6] It is not easy to tell a man who survived the Holocaust by crossing a frozen river before his third birthday that something is impossible.

Sam Ponczak was a blend of kindness, grace, charm, humanity, and persistence. His persistence always came from the right place – a determination to ensure we will never forget. We at the Library of Congress will miss his visits and his telephone calls. He left the world with many legacies, most significantly his children. Among his other legacies is the complete online edition of the Polish Declarations of Admiration and Friendship to the United States.

Software limitations prevent the proper use of diacritics in this blog post.

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[1] High-quality scans of the Polish Declarations can be accessed, viewed, and downloaded in a variety of formats from the digital collection’s online website. For additional information about the collection, see its catalog record and finding aid; the Library of Congress 1997 exhibition catalog, ‘Emblem of Good Will’: A Polish Declaration of Admiration and Friendship for the United States of America; and the Library of Congress European Division’s online guide to related resources and an index to place names in the collection.

[2] Library of Congress press release, “Ahead of July 4, a Unique Birthday Card to America Goes Online,” June 28, 2017.

[3] Holocaust survivor biography, “Samuel ‘Sam’ Ponczak,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website.

[4] Henry Prajs discussed the loss of his sister Golda in the documentary film for the 2017-2018 Warsaw, Poland, exhibition of the Polish Declarations, From Poland with Love. The film is in Polish with English subtitles.

[5] Samuel Ponczak, quoted in the From Poland with Love documentary film.

[6] “United States of America: Non-member – Europe and North America – Group 1” UNESCO website.

 

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