When we arrive at the dilapidated, two-room house of Stefan and Shoshana Raczynski, in Be'er Ya'akov near Tel Aviv, they introduce us to Danny Ragovsky, a young bus driver who isn't just paying the couple a social call. He has something to tell us. A year and a half before, he had seen a television program describing how the Christian rescuers had been ignored and mistreated in Israel. Danny explained their situation: "Because they weren't Jewish, they had never been entitled to the same rights as citizens, and now they were being denied their pensions. And really, these people are the 'flowers' of our society. We must remember them because a nation which doesn't honor its past will never have a future. These rescuers saved the people who helped build Israel. Here they are called 'The Righteous Among the Nations' and yet we have neglected them all these years. These people are not looking for publicity. They're modest. They're not talking about money either. It's only about attention, you know, tenderness, not more than that."
Danny became connected with Shoshana, who had begun a lobbying network of the forty rescuers in Israel. To get them to meet one another, Danny took them on his bus to Herzlia for a picnic at the seashore; he has continued these outings as regular social occasions. "A lot of them are very old and sick," says Danny. "Now, since this was made public, they're finally getting an extra pension, an honor pension. But it's been a year and it's a little late. They've been living in very, very terrible conditions."
Stefan: I was born in a 1921 on a farm near Vilna. I had a brother and two sisters, and my parents were farmers. Our family was Catholic, and deeply religious. You know, when six people live together they always help one another, and that's what it was like in my family. It was considered natural. In a nearby town lived 800 Jews. My father loved his fellow man; he would take me to meet the merchants, and he taught me to respect Jews.
Shoshana: I was in the Vilna ghetto, and when I was twenty years old my parents were killed and I escaped. I got to a nearby village and started caring for an old woman who had tuberculosis, and Stefan found me there. When the woman died, Stefan's mother invited me, through Stefan, to come to their home, to stay there, and she even offered to be my mother. And once I was there I met a lot of Jews there.
Stefan: Our farm was even seven kilometers from a forest where Nazis took all the Jews from the nearby town and shot them. They dumped their bodies into a ditch and covered it with sand. I remember seeing them falling like matches. Now some of the people at different stages managed to escape, and they knew about his farm and that the owners were good people who would take them in. Some who were shot but not killed managed to get out of the forest and make their way to the farm.
It was a natural thing to do, like when you see a cat on the street, hungry, you give it food. When the Jews started coming from the forests and they were hungry, we gave them food and we didn't think anything of it.
The first man to come was a friend of mine from that town who had escaped before they were taken to the forest. After that others came that I didn't know. We had one Jew who used to pray so loud that you could hear him two kilometers away. All the neighbors knew he was there. We had three religious Jews who would eat only dairy, and we had to bring in special plates for them. Altogether we took in about forty people, but we would have only between four and ten at one time. The neighbor kept four people, and that neighbor was also giving the Jews a place to work besides a place to stay.
Shoshana: When I was there you had twenty people in your house, all at the same time. I think you're trying to be modest. I remember the time when Stefan's mother prepared for us a ceremonial dinner for Chanukah. She put colored carpets on the floor, and we all sat together, twenty Jews, and ate, drank, and sang in Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew. And Stefan guarded in the yard so no stranger would approach the house.Stefan's father would say to each Jew, "Everything that we own belongs to you as well." And Stefan himself slept in the barn with a few of the Jews hiding there.
Stefan: We all felt terrible anxiety that cannot be described. We were scared that the Nazis would come and kill us and burn us. In fact, it was hard for us to believe that it would not happen. Everybody was scared the same way that today Israelis are frightened of terrorists in certain areas.
Every month about twenty or thirty soldiers came looking for Jews. They broke down doors, tore things apart, did everything to find Jews. I stood guard when the Nazi soldiers approached and hid the Jews in the forest. Each of the Jews had a special place to hide; some dug bunkers, or holes which they covered with trees and leaves. They spent a lot of time in these hiding places during the day.
People ask me why I didn't join the Polish Partisan Army, but everyone was fighting everyone else. I didn't want to take part in that. I only wanted to clean the land of the murderers. I was ready to do everything to remove from the neighborhood people who were denouncing the Jews to Lithuanians and Germans. Then a Lithuanian officer told my father they knew we were hiding Jews and we'd be killed if they were found. My father and the officer made a deal: he let the officer live in my uncle's house for free, gave him all the vodka he wanted, in exchange for becoming our informer. He began telling us whenever the Germans were coming so we could make sure the Jews went to their hiding places. After that we all felt a little freer, and because we weren't so scared, the Germans didn't really search the house so much. They would just come sit and drink. One day Germans came to the house and got drunk, but one who was sober found one of the Jews hiding in the barn. He shot him and arrested my father. My mother went to the Lithuanian officer and asked what we should do; this was a jail from which no one ever returned. We had to pay his way out of jail. When he came home he told us about how they had began to torture him when the call came from the officer telling them to release him. After that they left us mostly alone. The police acted as if they were scared or ashamed, or maybe they thought we had only the one Jew here.
The world was crazy; it was like a comedy. Really, there was a lot of humor involved. It was like a game - we wouldn't let ourselves think that....
Shoshana: We wouldn't agree with the world being run that way. And the harder the Germans worked, the harder we worked, because we couldn't accept that way of living.
Stefan: It was like gambling for us. That's how we felt about it. Risking our lives. We only lived until tomorrow.
Shoshana: We ended up being addicted to it.
Stefan: And we were all together.
Shoshana: After the war, Stefan and I married and lived in Vilna, which was then part of Russia. He was almost sent to Siberia, so we returned to Poland under the repatriation laws which said that any Pole then living in Russia may return to Poland. In 1958, we began trying to get a visa to come to Israel, which was refused us because Stefan wasn't Jewish. It was only through my brother that we got permission to come.
Stefan: Jews lived in Poland for one thousand years, but Poles were not allowed in Israel even for a peek. In my passport it said that I am a Jew, but later I hired a lawyer to rewrite it, because I didn't want to lie.
Shoshana: I was a Zionist so I had always wanted to come to Israel, and my only brother had already come here.
Stefan: We finally came to Israel in 1960. All the rest of my family stayed in Poland. My father is now dead, and my mother is very old. Just before we left for Israel, my father told me, "In Israel, Jews will dote upon you for what you did for them during the war." I was convinced this would be so.
Shoshana: Stefan has changed a great deal since we came to Israel. They injured him; he felt humiliated and he became cynical. When our son went to the army he wanted to be a pilot. They told him, "Your father is a Polish Catholic; you won't be a pilot." Stefan went there and told them, "My son wants to be a pilot, and he will be one." Of course, today our son is already an ex-pilot, and we're very proud of him.
Stefan: He's a great pilot. He gave a lot for Israel. Our daughter got married and lives here.
Shoshana: One day a few religious Jews were throwing stones at our house, screaming, "Go away, goy."
Stefan: I was a Catholic and I will stay a Catholic. Things have been very hard for me here in Israel, but I don't regret what I did during the war. I was honored by Yad Vashem as one of the "Righteous," and in 1985 I was quoted in a newspaper as saying, "I will yet one day hang myself from the tree in the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations. Maybe this will move something." But I've become a little less angry now.
I'm sure none of us who are living in Israel regret what we did. Now the country is trying to make amends for the way they wronged me.
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