(From "The Path of the Righteous: Gentile Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust" by Mordecai Paldiel (KTAV Publishing House, Inc in association with The Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers, 1993)
Late one evening in April of 1943 a knock was heard at the door of the Suchodolski family in the village of Krzynowloga Wielski (Warsaw region). Adam Suchodolski opened the door and slowly made out the shadow of a man in front of him, his body swollen from hunger. The man fell down on his knees and begged for mercy. "Please help me stay alive." Adam and his teenage daughter Jadwiga painstakingly studied his face and finally perceived that it was none other than Michael Shaft, who, with his family, had lived in the village many years before. Michael had left the village to study law in Warsaw. The vicissitudes of the war had taken him from one place to another, and earlier that same month he had participated in the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Escaping, he had wandered back to his native village. The Suchodolskis--Adam, his wife Stanislawa, and their children Jadwiga and Stanislaw, hurriedly consulted among themselves, weighing the risks and dangers, and decided to take Michael in.
As danger lurked on all sides, from neighbors and untrustworthy relatives, they decided to keep Michael's presence a secret. A pit was prepared in the granary, the opening of which was covered with animal fodder. There, Michael remained hidden, cut off from the world, for almost two years, 'til the village's liberation on January 15, 1945. He was regularly fed by a member of the Suchodolski family, who approached the granary through the chicken coop, ostensibly to feed the poultry. "The food was handed to me through a narrow crack. In the winter, rain penetrated the pit. But in spite of the discomforts, I resolved to make it through."
After the liberation, word soon spread that a Jew was being nursed back to life in the village. One day a group of partisans broke into the Suchodolski house and demanded that Michael be turned over to them. Young Stanislaw held them off long enough to allow Michael to jump out of bed and escape through the back door. Realizing they had been duped, they gave chase but did not catch up with him. In revenge, they ransacked the Suchodolski house. That night Michael came back. Soon thereafter, Michael and Jadwiga were married and left the village, eventually emigrating to Israel in 1957.
"I come from a very devout Catholic family," Jadwiga states in a letter to Mrs. Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel, in 1972. "My family and I did what we did because we wished to observe the commandment of 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.' I am proud, indeed, to be counted as a Righteous person. At the same time, I am glad that my family and I performed such an important commandment, and I believe that due to this, we have merited a place in the world-to-come." (953)
To guarantee the safety of their charges, some rescuers kept the secret even from their immediate families. In July 1942, when rumors became rife that the Germans were planning to liquidate all the children in the Lesko ghetto, Dr. Nathan Wallach contacted Jozef Zwonarz, an acquaintance of his wife's family, who agreed to take their three-and-a-half-year old daughter under his care.
Soon thereafter, Dr. Wallach and his wife were transferred to the nearby Zaslaw labor camp. On December 16, 1942, some 400 young Jewish women were assembled in the main square of the camp and were shot down. Wallach's wife was accidentally felled in the ensuing stampede. She lay motionless for a while, then slipped away unnoticed when the mayhem ended.
The following day, the Wallachs fled to Lesko and again asked Jozef Zwonarz for help. Jozef, an engineer by profession, was forty-five years old at the time, married, and the father of five children. Having already arranged for the Wallach's young daughter to be sheltered by Jan Kakol, a forester, he now resolved to save Nathan and his wife.
Jozef hid them in a specially constructed underground shelter beneath the workshop shack near his home. He kept the matter a secret even from his own family. In the words of Nathan Wallach, "He did not want his wife to know, reasoning that she might say the wrong thing at the wrong place...At times he brought us...potatoes or bread from his own house, and sometimes he excused himself for not wanting to eat at the family table, asking instead that his meals be brought to him in the workshop, and these he then turned over to us."
The hiding place turned out to be quite cramped. "The tomb," as the occupants termed it, measured 5 feet by 3 1/2 feet and was about three feet deep. It was impossible to stand up and even difficult to sit up. "For two years, we could not stand up, but had to sit or lie prone--two persons on one side and two on the other [initially there were four persons in the hideout], with our eight feet intertwined. For two years, we did not see the light of day. We never left the place." Fear of exiting the "tomb" even at night was compounded by the precarious location of the Zwonarz house. To the right--Gestapo headquarters; to the left, the Schutzpolizei (Nazi security police), across the road--the Ukrainian police ("who were worse than the Gestapo," Wallach notes).
Zwonarz's charges could not pay their own expenses. "We had no money with which to buy food on the black market. We did not give him even one cent, for we had escaped from camp empty-handed." To obtain what was needed for the additional expenditures, Jozef hired himself out as a farmhand in return for payment in kind, in the form of barley. "For four days and four nights, we did not see him (he usually visited us at night, bringing food). We had nothing to eat and drink. We could discern noises and we were desperate...We felt we should commit suicide." Finally, Jozef suddenly appeared. "There is no way to describe our joy. He said he had barley with him." To provide for the cooking, Jozef ran an electric cable from the hiding place to the city's main circuit, not his own house's line, so that the extra kilowatts would not show up on his meter. He also installed an electric bulb in the pit. From the potatoes he brought them, they fashioned a checkers game which helped alleviate their boredom and fears.
"He would visit us every evening. Removing the pit cover, he would begin encouraging us." His constant comings and goings aroused his wife's suspicions and she concluded that he was having an affair. She also became aware that food was missing. When a precious ball of cotton disappeared, she gave free rein to her pent-up anger. Confronting Jozef in the workshop, she accused him of dallying with another woman. Those hidden below could clearly overhear her angry shouting: "You ought to be ashamed, carrying on like this at such a late age...the father of five children." Not knowing how to respond, he remained silent.
As the Russians drew near Lesko in the spring of 1944, the city came under bombardment. A shell struck Jozef's workshop. Jozef, deciding to move his charges to the cellar of his house, he finally told his wife the truth. It was imperative that the inmates of the pit get to the Zwonarz home, only 45 yards away but as they emerged they discovered to their consternation that they could not move their limbs. "I was the first one," Dr. Wallach testifies. "I fell and could not get up. I could neither walk nor stand. I had to crawl to the house. We exited at night fall, but the dim light was like the blazing sun to us, because we had not beheld light for almost two years." Reaching Zwonarz's cellar at last, they hid there for another six weeks until the Red Army moved in.
After the liberation, when they had regained enough strength, they bade farewell to their benefactor, and excused themselves for not being able to reward him. He responded by removing his wristwatch and handing it to them, together with a $10 bill, saying: "Take this, it's all I have. You'll need it to start a new life."
"Our Awakening Angel," the Wallachs term Jozef Zwonarz, referring to the legendary angel who is to rouse the dead from their graves on Judgment Day. Wallach recalls that Zwonarz often told them, "I am a Jew like you, the difference being that I am a Jew freely walking the streets and you are hidden Jews." Reacting to the unfriendly remarks made to him by some of his fellow townsmen, he stated, "I am not ashamed; I did what everyone should have done. They did not do it. They should be ashamed." The Wallachs still find it difficult to compass the boundless goodness of this man. "He took from his family and from his children's mouths." (331)
Jerzy Kozminski and Family
Jerzy Kozminski was a seventeen-year-old lad who supplemented his father's income by smuggling hard-to-get food into the Warsaw ghetto. The Glazer family had done some business with him. On April 18, 1943 Jerzy was in the ghetto on one of his errands. It was late in the day and past curfew time, so he was invited to sleep over at the Glazers'. Early the following morning, the Warsaw ghetto uprising broke out. Since fighting was still in its early stages and had not yet spread throughout the ghetto area, it was still possible to escape. Samuel Glazer turned to Jerzy and said, "We are Jews and doomed to die, but you don't have to sacrifice your life," urging him to jump over the wall and flee. Before doing so, Jerzy gave Samuel his family's address in Wawer, a Warsaw suburb on the right bank of the Vistula River, and told him that if a miracle occurred and they got out alive, they should immediately get in touch with his family.
On April 30, 1943, with the Germans using flame throwers to flush the remaining defenders out of their shelters, the Glazer family managed to escape from the burning ghetto. Their group initially comprised only five persons: Samuel, his wife, his father, a sister-in-law, and a twelve-year-old niece. Subsequently members of three additional families joined them, making an overall total of twelve persons. Desperately hoping that Jerzy's promise to help would not be compromised by the group's large size, they sent a note to him through a messenger. Before long Teresa Kozminski, her husband, and Jerzy, her stepson, came for them. Teresa's husband was at first fearful that the presence of such a large group would jeopardize their safety, but Samuel relates, "Teresa, infused with exemplary courage, insisted that we all remain."
The Kozminskis took the group home and built a shelter under the floor of the building they lived in to accommodate all fourteen of them. There they remained for sixteen months, until the Soviet liberation of Wawer on September 10, 1944. At first, the group paid for their upkeep with whatever money they had managed to take along. When this source dried up, the Kozminskis, especially Teresa ("the household's living spirit"), continued to care for them. At times, the group expanded to twenty-two persons, including distant relatives, who were forced to abandon their previous hideouts as a result of betrayals. Jerzy was eventually arrested by the Germans for his underground work, taken to the notorious Pawiak jail, and brutally tortured. He lost all his teeth, yet remained silent. Dispatched to Auschwitz and later to Mauthausen, he survived the war and is now a professional engineer in Poland. "The interesting thing about this family," Samuel notes, "is that we did not know them before," and in spite of this "the whole family, including Teresa's elderly father, was enlisted to help us."
In late August 1944, fighting between the advancing Russians and the retreating Germans reached the area where the Kozminskis lived. When the Germans ordered the civilian population executed, all of them left except for Theresa, who stayed with the fourteen people in their shelter, bringing along her three-year-old son. "She came down to us in the bunker. This lasted four weeks. Mrs. Kozminski would leave the hiding place, under a hail of bullets, in order to fetch some food." The hiders and their protector all breathed freely when the Russians entered Wawer on September 10, 1944. (115)
Wanderings and On the Run
For many fugitive Jews, survival in Poland meant wandering from place to place, especially in off-the-beaten track places, passing the night outdoors in inclement weather, and begging for food and an occasional roof over their heads. Lest we forget, it was open season on Jews, so approaching local inhabitants for help was fraught with great risks. Such as for Josef Czarny, who escaped from Treblinka (one of the most notorious of the Nazi death camps, where some 750,000 Jews perished) during the short-lived rebellion in August 1943 and wandered in the nearby woods for about a month. At the end of his strength, he knocked on the door of a farmer, near the town of Prysow, and was warmly received by Szymon Celka. At first Josef suspected that Szymon intended to betray him to the police for a reward, but as he turned to leave the hamlet, Szymon stopped him with the following words: "My son, don't go. I am helping a group of Jews in the vicinity and you shall join them. It is enough for you and them to have escaped from that camp. You must remain alive so as to tell the world what the Nazis did to your people." At this, Josef burst into tears. Szymon Celka continued to care for Josef Czarny in the coming weeks. "I could write a whole book about this man's qualities...An angel, indeed," Josef says. Of the fewer than 500 Jews who escaped from Treblinka, only about fifty survived. Josef Czarny was one of them, thanks to Szymon Celka.(467)
Irena Sendler was one of the most active members in the Council for Aid to Jews (code name "Zegota"), a Polish underground organization, which operated primarily in the Warsaw area. In the early days of the German occupation, she worked to alleviate the sufferings of many of her pre-war Jewish friends and acquaintances. Employed by the Social Welfare Department of the Warsaw municipality, she carried a special permit allowing her to visit the ghetto area at all times, ostensibly for the purpose of combating contagious diseases. This afforded her ample opportunities to furnish many Jews with clothing, medicine, and money. When she walked through the ghetto streets, Irena wore the "star" armband as a sign of solidarity with the Jewish people; wearing the armband also helped prevent attracting attention that might have interfered with her valuable work.
In the summer of 1942, Irena was invited to join the newly founded Council for Aid to Jews. She became a valuable asset to Zegota, for she already claimed a large group of people dedicated to her charitable work, including her companion Irena Schultz, and she had a widespread network of contracts inside and outside the ghetto. Under the code name "Jolanta," she arranged for Jewish children to be smuggled out of the ghetto and for secure places to be found for them with non-Jewish families in the Warsaw region. Each of her coworkers was made responsible for several building blocks where Jewish children were sheltered. "I myself had eight or ten flats where Jews were hiding under my car," Irena proudly states. The sheltering families received financial support from Zegota.
In October 1943, Irena was arrested by the Gestapo, taken to the infamous Pawiak prison, and brutally tortured. Failing to get information they wanted, her inquisitors told her she was doomed. In the meantime, however, her Jewish underground companions had bribed one of the Gestapo agents, and on the day she was to be executed, she was freed, although she was officially listed among those executed. Forced to stay out of sight for the remainder of the German occupation, Irena conducted her humanitarian activities from her hiding place.
Irena Sendler explained that her actions were driven by lessons learned in the unique atmosphere at her parents' home. Her father was a physician, and "most of his patients were poor Jews; I grew up among these people. All my life, I had Jewish friends." She then added, "My family taught me that what matters is whether people are honest or dishonest, not what religion they belong to." (153)
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