This interview with Zofia Baniecka takes place on a perfect October day on Staten Island at the home of Ruth Curtin, one of the people Zofia saved. She does not speak a word of English, so Ruth translates from Polish, with her own memories as a filter. Despite the barrier of language, we feel immediate connection with Zofia because of her warmth. Her physical presence conveys the spirit of an intellectually rigorous mind clear in its path to action. She smokes throughout the interview, but this is not a nervous gesture, more a mark of her passionate, independent character. Zofia and Ruth were schoolmates in Warsaw, and although Zofia still lives in that city, the women have maintained a close friendship. This is not Zofia's first visit to Ruth's home.
I was born in Warsaw in 1917, the only child of a father who was a sculptor and a mother who was a teacher. I came along after they had been married fifteen years, so I was a bit spoiled. I had a beautiful childhood. I went to the finest Catholic school even though we weren't religious. There were many Jewish students in my school, but only during the war did I find out which students were Jewish. They were children from assimilated homes and many of them had converted. My parents had high ideals and our house was always full of their friends talking about politics or music and art.
My father was my greatest love. When I went to the university and openly anti-Semitic behavior became even worse than before, we spoke about it often and, of course, he was against it. He had a very close friend who was a sculptor and a Jew. My father often went into the ghetto to take food and books to friends. But during the Russian strike on Warsaw in 1941, my father was killed. We were in our home when he was hit, and Mother was hit also, in the head, but she recovered.
The house I had lived in all my life was in the area in Warsaw that became the ghetto, so we were required to move when they enclosed the ghetto. Friends took us into their large apartment, and mother and I lived in the living room. Then the underground got us a large apartment, four rooms plus a kitchen, and mother and I began working constantly. She was in a shopping network of guns and vegetables. Nobody would ever suspect that a small gray-haired woman would be carrying a gun in her shopping bag.
At first I was a liaison for the underground, relaying orders from one group to another, delivering underground newspapers throughout the provinces. I got involved through social contacts: a friend asked me to join the underground press, and I agreed. I was itching to do something. I was afraid, but I had to do it. I saw the whole Jewish population wearing yellow armbands. I saw beatings on the street of old Jews, of children, shootings, the most horrible sights.
I had always been independent and patriotic and this was certainly my attitude during the war. It was unthinkable to be anything else. We hid guns and ammunition in our apartment, as well as people. The apartment was divided by curtains, and behind each one there was a different Jewish family. When our house was full, I found hiding places for the Jews with other families because it was too dangerous for them to be where the guns were. Ruth was a friend from school, so of course I didn't turn her away. She stayed only a few weeks, however, until I could help her find a safe place.
Mother and I were in constant danger because to find a gun in a private house meant a death sentence. It was proof that you were in the underground. We were in danger of being raided at any minute, so I had to take the Jews to our houses as fast as I could, even though this hurt me. I didn't like turning them away, even if I was sending them to another house. But I was in touch with the Jewish Committee so that when I had children to hide, they could help me find places.
From the window of our house I could see the ghetto. When the houses were burning during the ghetto uprising in April 1943, I saw people jumping from windows. One family of ten came and stayed for a few weeks until I found other shelter for them. No one was refused in my home. We had at least fifty Jews during the war-- friends, strangers, acquaintances, or someone who heard about me from someone else. Anyone was taken in.
I was never interrogated or nearly caught, though I don't know why. Many fellow resistance leaders perished in prison. I was just lucky. Luck, it's only luck, because I kept people and guns in my house from the winter of 1941 until the Polish uprising in August 1944.
At the end of the war Roosevelt sold out Poland. I was arrested by the Russians because I was and still am a Polish patriot. I didn't have to ask for help because my underground friends were there to help me. Until this day I am in touch with my friends from the underground.
My husband and I struggled constantly for a free Poland. We belonged to Solidarity from the beginning, and our home is a meeting place for people to study, kind of like a free university. I am not at all religious today-- not since I was eighteen have I been to church regularly-- but I do still believe in human beings. There are many people who have saved my belief in humanity, and that is why it is important for people to know about this time, of Poland during the war, and that there were those of us who did try to save Jews. It is necessary for the children to know that there were such people.
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