Living in Warsaw, Alex and Mela Roslan were the parents of two young children when the ghetto was created. We interviewed them on the patio outside their comfortable garden apartment in Clearwater, Florida. The sunshine and emerald lawn do not soften Alex's emotional, dramatic story of how he and Mela took the three wealthy Gutgelt brothers, ranging in age from three to eight, into their small Warsaw apartment and kept them hidden for four years. The story is not entirely a happy one; the Roslans' son died in the Warsaw uprising and the middle Gutgelt boy died of scarlet fever. Although Mela was full partner with Alex in the rescue, she says little, listening to his every detail, speaking only when he cannot remember something. After two hours he makes us sandwiches, shows us photographs, and continues to share with us what seems to be the most important time of his life.
Today sometimes I don't sleep. I think about how it was and why it happened like that. My story was not possible. My friends said it wasn't possible. "There's not enough food for your own children and certainly not enough for three boys, too." But I thought the war would be finished in two or three months. I wasn't a religious fanatic but I believed all the time that somebody watched over me.
Mela and I were both born in a small village twelve kilometers from Bialystok, in Poland. Mela was born in 1907, and I was born two years later, in a house just two blocks from hers. There were maybe 100 people in the village, but Bialystok had about 200,000 people. Mela's father was a shoemaker in Bialystok, and he made a study of Jewish people. He spoke Yiddish like he was a Jew.
My grandmother was very religious, but not my grandfather. My father went to the army when I was six years old and never came back, but he had taught me to fight for what I thought was right, and that those who follow like sheep are led to slaughter. My mother was thirty-six years old then, and she married a man twenty-four years old. He married her because she had a good farm, but he was not a farmer. I was twelve years old and they thought I was a troublemaker because I was always angry that he was letting our farm run down. So they sent me away to Bialystok to become a shoemaker, but I left there and didn't come home. I went to another village and got a job, and three years later I went back home. But I still argued with my mother that her husband isn't a good farmer, so I sold my part of the farm and left for good. I cried when I had to leave home. [Alex cries here, remembering the pain of leaving his mother.]
Mela and I were married in 1928, and we moved to Bialystok. Our son, Yurek, was born in 1931, and our daughter, Mary, in 1934. I was working as a textile merchant and I made a lot of money. Most of my customers were Jews, but overnight, when they put the Jews in the ghetto, I lost everything. I wanted to know what happened to my friends and customers because I heard terrible stories. I got a Jewish friend to bring me into the ghetto through a tunnel. It was dangerous for a non-Jew to be inside the ghetto so I wore a Jewish star. I saw so many children, hungry and starving. They were so skinny. The parents had been taken to "farms," but we knew what that meant. The children came around and begged for a penny to buy some bread. My Jewish friend stopped me. He said it wouldn't make any difference, that they would die anyway. I came home and told Mela we had to do something. We decided to go to Warsaw.
You know, I think I cry a lot. I cried when I had to leave my mother's house; I cried when I went into the ghetto and the little children clamored after me and kissed my coat and cried for help. I'm very sensitive to the poor. My grandmother was like that.
We got a nice one-room apartment in Warsaw, and one day I met my friend Stanley, from the next village from mine. Stanley told me he had been working for the Gutgelt family before the war; he was the chauffeur for the grandfather. He said they were wonderful people, and very rich, but now they are in the ghetto. He told me that the grandfather had taken the three sons and the son-in-law, and almost all the money, and they had left Warsaw, hoping to get to Palestine. They believed the Germans were only interested in killing men, and thought they would leave the women and children alone. So in the ghetto were the grandmother, two aunts named Janke and Devora, and three children, Jacob, Sholom, and David. The boys' mother had died when David was born. I told Stanley he should help them, that he should take the children, but he says it's too hard. I say maybe they can come to my house. I have two children, no one will notice one more. Stanley made a connection with Janke and told her that he was considering taking the children, but before anything could happen, Stanley had to go one day to the next town to buy some tobacco to sell. He asked me to go with him, but something told me not to go. The next day I found out that Stanley and all the people he was with were killed.
A couple of days later a man dressed like a German civilian knocked on my door. He was looking for Stanley, and I told him what had happened. He cried out, "Oh, now everything is finished." I asked him what he meant, and he said, "Do you know Janke?" This man was Dr. Kowalski, the brother-in-law of Janke's husband. His real name was Avraham Galer, but Kowalski was the name on his fake I.D. I told him I knew Stanley was making plans, and he asks me if I will take one boy. I tell him I will try.
I met with Janke at my house. She explained that she doesn't have any money, and that she would like to give me some of the family's real-estate holdings. I tell her, "This is still war. If after the war you can pay me, maybe, okay." She asks me, "How do I know I can trust you? I don't know you." I say, "Trust me." She cries and kisses me. I want to take her and the rest of the family, but they want to stay in the ghetto until after Passover. So two days later I meet her and take Jacob.
Jacob told Janke goodbye and right away I told him, "Jacob, from now on you're not Jacob anymore. You look just like my brother's son. Your name is now Genek. I will make you two promises right now. No matter how bad things get, we will live through it. And you will remain Jewish." I don't know how I could promise him that, but I did.
Jacob was about nine or ten years old, and so smart and clever. I told him he had to stay in his room and not look out the window. We had to be careful that the neighbors shouldn't see him. Our children liked him so much. We always divided everything fairly between all four children. I tried to make sure that the children didn't understand they were strange because Janke had told me, "Try to make sure Jacob doesn't know he's different. Try to make sure he doesn't know what danger is. If there is danger, don't talk about it."
We built a false floor in the kitchen cupboard; Jacob was skinny so he could fit in. But about two weeks later the Gestapo came because a neighbor thought she had seen Jacob. They looked everywhere, but they didn't find him. Then one day that same SS man came again, but that time my brother-in-law was visiting and he knew this man. Jacob was hiding under the sink, and we started giving the Nazi whiskey. They drank and they ate so much, and my brother-in-law convinced him his sister would never hide a Jew, so we escaped that time. But I knew I had to go looking for another apartment.
I found a nice big apartment in a quiet neighborhood. I put Jacob inside the couch, and that's how we moved across town, right under the noses of the Germans. A couple of days later Dr. Kowalski came to see me and he says, "Mr. Roslan, I want to bring you another boy. He's in a place now where he has to stay in the attic laying down all the time. He's so skinny and sickly."
So I asked my wife what she thinks. We talked. But I said, "Mela, if they catch us for one, it's the same if we have two." So Sholom came, and we changed his name to Orish. He was so hungry, but so sweet. I think he was here only two months when my Mary and Yurek, and Jacob got scarlet fever. The doctor said it is very bad. Yurek was in the hospital and he gave Mela half his medicine every night for Jacob. Then Sholom got sick, and he was too weak. Mary, Yurek, and Jacob got well, but Sholom was too sick. Dr. Kowalski came every day, but then he didn't come for a few days. One night in the middle of the night I went to Sholom and he says he feels so bad. He says, "I would feel better if you would hold me." I picked him up, and he died in my arms. We buried him in the basement, sitting up, because someone told me that was the way to bury a Jew.
Then Jacob got sick again and he had to have an operation. My brother-in-law knew a doctor who had a clinic and would do the surgery, but I had to find 10,000 zlotys. This wasn't so much money but if you had none it was too much money. I decided to go out and sell our nice big apartment and get a smaller one, and I did it. Somebody watched over me. I got 60,000 zlotys, but when I told Mela I sold the apartment she cried and cried. She said, "Orish died, Genek will die, and now we don't even have an apartment." I said, "Mela, don't worry, I bought a one-room apartment and I'll make more money so we can get a bigger one soon. Don't worry."
The next day I bandaged Jacob's head and took him to the hospital on a horse. His operation was a success, and everyone cried. Then David came to us. He was about four or five, and so cute, so cute. He had been at my brother-in-law's but it didn't work out, so we took him.
I had to keep doing everything I could think of to make money. I did a lot of tricks, but Mela, she had her tricks, too. When we moved she knew the Gestapo was looking for me so she took all my clothes to a friend's house so she could say I was gone for good. I was arrested near the end of the war, and Mela came every day to a different gate with money for me to use to buy my way out. We never would have survived without Mela. I was in jail for six weeks and Mela took care of everything, of the children and of getting me out. Until that time I was worried because she was always weak. But from that time when she had to do it on her own, she was strong. I know I couldn't have done it myself.
Then came the Warsaw Uprising, when everyone thought the Soviet troops were just outside the city and about to liberate us. Our son, Yurek, was killed on the street by a Nazi sniper. He told Jacob that he was helping the Partisans, but he never told us that. It was a terrible time.
As I said, I thought the war would be finished in two or three months. We got the underground paper and it seemed good. But '43, '44, beginning of '45 were very tough years. You know it was terrible that the boys' aunts and grandmother wouldn't come with us, too. Three weeks after we took Jacob, the ghetto was liquidated and they went to Auschwitz.
So after the war we went to Berlin looking for Jacob and David's father. We found out they made it to Palestine, so we all wanted to go. But the British wouldn't let us go, only the boys. It was so hard to say goodbye to them. They had been with us for four and a half years, and two and a half of these had been so hard. So, in 1947, I had fine suits made for them, and they left.
Mela and I and our daughter, Mary, came to the United States. We wrote letters, so many letters, to David and Jacob, but we didn't get answers. I couldn't believe it! I said, "They were like our own sons, and they forget us!" But I think their father threw all our letters away. Then one day in about 1963, we were living in Queens and got a phone call from someone in Forest Hills, New York. He asked me, "Do you have a relative in Israel?" I was so excited I said, "Yes, Gutgelt, but they changed their names to Gilat." He said, "Maybe we'll see you tomorrow." And the next day Jacob came. He was in California, studying for his Ph.D. at Berkeley. We talked and talked; he remembers everything.
He told us some old secrets: "You know, Uncle, when I went to you, Grandma said, 'Don't become a goy. Die with us together, because you will eat pork with the goys and die. Do not speak like a goy; they're different. Don't try to speak perfect.'" You know, the Jews spoke Polish with a Yiddish accent. "But then my Aunt Janke said, 'Jacob, don't listen to your Grandma. She's old-fashioned.' And that was that."
A few years later David came to study for his doctorate, and we saw him. At first I didn't recognize him. I hadn't seen him in so long, and he had a beard. But then he threw his arms around me. That was in 1980. David is a mathematician and Jacob is a nuclear scientist. We didn't all get together again until 1981. Jacob and David asked us to come to Israel for Passover, and to get our medal from Yad Vashem, and plant a tree there. I was so happy that I had been able to keep my promise to Jacob.
It was a wonderful reunion. We all had Passover together, even the boys' father. We were there for twenty-one days. David took us to the north and Jacob took us to the south. I know Israel better than Poland. Israel is like a magnet. I like Israel ten times better than the United States.
You know, Rabbi Schulweis has been wonderful to me. People like him in the world maybe you can count on one hand. He invited us to California, he sent us a ticket to go to Israel, he got us $2,000 from Buffalo, and now we get $250 every month from the foundation in New York.
The man who owns this building where we live gives our apartment for less rent. So I told my wife - this is no joke- "Schulweis is like mother and this man is like father. I have two support people." I play the lottery, and if I win I will split it with Schulweis. Sometimes he calls me and I cry when I hear his voice on the phone.
When I look back on those times I think that maybe there were so many anti-Semites in Poland because there were so many Jews who did well in business and the Poles were jealous. In this country, if something happens, nobody helps you. In my building everybody has a car, but many people are very old and can't drive anymore, but no one gives them a ride to go shopping. I never go shopping without taking someone with me.
The best years of my life were when I first came to Warsaw and become successful in business. And then I was so happy when I brought Jacob home. No one was paying me, but I felt I was doing something great. I thought, If I survive this, I've done something great.
Web Site Copyright 1995-2014 WGBH Educational Foundation