«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
A young Jewish woman from Pruszków by the name of Balbina Synalewicz was taken to work as a labourer on a farm in Czerniaków outside Warsaw. One day she received word about the fate of her parents, who were confined in the Warsaw ghetto, from an unknown priest who had met her father by chance. (Elsa Thon, I Wish It Were Fiction: Memories, 1939–1945 [Hamilton, Ontario: Merkel & Deahl, 1997], pp.24–25.) One day, as I was working in the field, someone came to tell me that a man was waiting for me. I brought the raft to the other side and ran to the kitchen, where I introduced myself to the man. He was about twenty or twenty-two years old. His face was round, he had dark blond hair and blue eyes. He wore a sport jacket and black trousers. He got up to greet me.
“I have a message for you from your father.” “How are my parents?” I blurted. “How did you happen to meet them? Where are they?—A cascade of words, questions: I asked so many things. He couldn’t answer some of these questions because he didn’t know. Others, I suspected, he wouldn’t answer because he knew too much.
“I saw your father in the place where he worked. He gave me your address, and asked me to see you.” “How were you able to travel?” “I’m a priest. The Germans don’t allow us to wear our religious habits. I have to dress in civilian clothes.” “What was my father doing when you saw him? Did you see my mother?” “No, only your father. They are locked up in the ghetto. In the morning the SS take them out for different chores outside the ghetto. Your father wanted to know how you were. He asked if you had heard from his your sister.” “Are you allowed to enter the ghetto in Warsaw?” “I’m sorry, no, I can’t. It has been sealed off.” We talked for a while. Chana asked him to stay with us for supper. But he excused himself and left.
I tried to think of something to say that would help my parents in some way. But nothing occurred to me. I wrote a letter
Later, with the help of the Polish underground, she obtained false identity documents in the name of Elżbieta Orlański and moved to Kraków. She maintained contact with Warsaw through letters sent to a Mother Superior in Warsaw. (Ibid., pp.31–32, 61.) One day in the middle of summer of 1942, we were coming from the fields when someone said that Leah wanted to see me.
She was in the kitchen with another woman, chatting. Leah introduced me to her as Irena Adamowicz.
Irena was a leader in the [Polish] Scout movement. Outraged by the injustice done to the Jews, she helped out however she could. Irena travelled across the country making contact with halutzim in the major ghettos and telling them about how the clandestine movement operated. … Irena talked to me for a while. She told me that I would be sent to Krakow [Kraków]. She asked me how I felt about the work and whether I knew how to pray. I told her I knew the prayers by heart after so many years of hearing the Catholic students saying their prayers every morning at school. She seemed satisfied with my answers. Irena gave me an address, and told me to send a letter there on the seventh day of every month as a sign that I was still alive. Whenever the underground needed me, they would let me know. She handed me a prayer book. “Be careful, and good luck,” she said. … As Irena had instructed me, I addressed my monthly letters to the Mother Superior; absolutely no one else knew.
Jews who had acquaintances among the Catholic clergy turned to them for protection in the face of the unfolding terror and uncertainty. Alfred Szancer (later Królikowski), born in Kraków in 1928, recalled the efforts of his father Zygmunt Lancer, to secure the family’s future. (Account of Alfred Królikowski, “Helped by Żegota,” in Jakub Gutenbaum and Agnieszka Latała, eds., The Last Eyewitnesses: Children of the Holocaust Speak, volume 2 [Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2005], pp.134–35.) It was impossible to live in the empty apartment on Rzeszowska Street [in Kraków] because of the expectation that it would later be included in the ghetto area, and my father was determined to avoid being enclosed in the ghetto. Thus he made contact with a former classmate, Father Stanisław Proszak, a parish priest in the village of Biały Kościół, eighteen kilometers from Kraków, in the direction of Ojców. This priest helped us a great deal, giving his guarantees on our behalf when we rented a room at a local farmer’s, and later, by recording in the parish books a fictitious baptism of our entire threesome (Father, Mother, and me) and issuing us certificates of baptism. At that time our given names were also changed for the first time—Father’s to Stanisław Zygmunt, Mother’s to Jadwiga Zofia, and mine to Jerzy Alfred.
According to our thinking then—somewhat naive, as it turned out later—this was supposed to disorient the Germans in case they discovered our escape from Kraków.
On the basis of these documents and thanks to Father Proszak’s connections, we received temporary indentification documents from the local administration—which we used as evidence of our identities for a brief period of time. For a time, Father, unable to make a living in the village, worked in Kraków at the Władysław Klimek Iron Foundry, owned by a friend of his, and on Sundays, he rode his bicycle to Biały Kościół. This lasted until the spring of 1941, when Father was warned—I don’t know how and by whom—of the necessity to flee further.
In the early months of 1940, Eta Chajt Wrobel, who was part of the nascent underground movement in Łuków, undertook a mission to Łódź, where she had lived previously and, with the help of a Pole, managed to steal some guns from German officers. On the way back she had an encounter with an unknown Polish nun—a chance meeting that saved her life. (Eta Wrobel with Jeanette Friedman, My Life My Way: The Extraordinary Memoir of a Jewish Partisan in WWII Poland [New Milford, New Jersey: The Wordsmithy; New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 2006], pp.53–54.) In the meantime I decided that it would be prudent to go back to Lodz [Łódź] and get the guns that Janek was still hiding for me. And this time I didn’t wear any yellow stars; I wore instead the crucifix [her Polish girlfriend] Lola’s mother had given me. … At Janek’s house, I knocked, and he answered the door. When he saw me, he pulled me into his apartment. I told him I’d come for the guns. He have me two guns wrapped in women’s clothing and put them in my handbag. We decided it would be best for me to make several trips to pick up the rest … taking only two guns at a time.
33 On my way back to Lukow [Łuków], as we pulled into one station, I noticed Gestapo agents surrounding the train. I was terrified. I had no papers and if they searched my bag, I would have been shot on the spot. Though I tried to keep my demeanor cool and calm, something must have shown in my face. A nun sitting across the aisle noticed me and looked into my eyes. I still remember how beautiful her young face was underneath the cowl of her habit. Suddenly, she got up and ordered me to take her suitcase. I obeyed without saying a word. She pushed her way past the Germans as I followed behind her like a maidservant. The Gestapo agents had no time to react to her leaving the train so quickly and never asked her or me for our papers—after all, she was obviously not Jewish, and I was wearing a crucifix.
I walked with her for at least two blocks before she stopped, turned, and looked straight at me. “What are you up to?” she asked. “I can see death in your eyes.” She also saw the cross I was wearing, blessed me, and sent me on my way. She knew exactly what I was up to, and must have guessed I was a Jew, but yet didn’t give me up. That woman, whoever she was, saved my life.
The second trip I took for guns was uneventful; the third trip was something else again.
Later, when the ghetto in Łuków was being liquidated in 1943, Eta Wrobel declined an offer of assistance extended to her by a Polish acquatance (Ibid., 75).
A few days later, one of the women who sometimes let me stay at her house brought me a birth certificate froma Polish girl who had died. She asked me to leave and live with her as a Christian, and that her priest would help me. Again, I had to say no—I didn’t want to leave my Tateh [i.e., dad] and brothers.
34 Germany Attacks the Soviet Union, June 1941
The eastern half of Poland had been invaded and seized by the Soviet Union in September 1939 in consequence of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. Germany turned on its erstwhile ally and attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941.
Jews fleeing from the advancing German armies found succour and refuge with a Catholic priest in the small town of Porozowo near Wołkowysk. (Account of Kalman Barakin, in Michał Grynberg and Maria Kotowska, comp.
and eds., Życie i zagłada Żydów polskich 1939–1945: Relacje świadków [Warszawa: Oficyna Naukowa, 2003], p.386.) The Germans entered Parasowo [Porozowo] only in the evening [of June 24, 1941]. Immediately they ordered all the men from the town to assemble in the main square. There they separated the Jews from the Catholics. The Jews were lined up in rows and counted, and every tenth one was told to leave the ranks and line up on one side. About twenty men were assembled in this way. The Germans immediately put them against a wall and shot them. My friend and I were in the square standing among the Jews, we were counted but were fortunate not to have been among the ten and thanks to that we remained alive. Then all of the men, both Jews and non-Jews, were locked up in the church. It was very tight there, and there was simply no air to breathe. We were kept in the church the entire day, and then released. The inhabitants of the town returned to their homes. We and other Jews, refugees from Białystok and other localities, about 24 persons all together, went to search out local Jews, but they did not allow us into their homes for fear of the Germans. We therefore went to the priest of Parasowo—Grabowski, who took us in and received us very cordially. There were already about 25 Poles, who worked in the airfields, in his home. A group of Germans came to Grabowski and wanted to take us away, but the priest rescued us. He told them that we were workers who worked in the airfields and the Germans left us alone. Rev.
Grabowski kept us at his house for all of seven days. He gave us food and drink free of charge. He constantly excused himself that he did not receive us the way he should … He then obtained from the Wehrmacht [military authorities] a certificate allowing us to return to Białystok without obstacles. We returned to Białystok as a group of 24 persons on the first or second of July.
With the rapid flight of the Soviets, the ensuing breakdown in law and order in the latter part of June and the early part of July 1941, was seized on by criminal elements to rob and to settle scores with those believed to have supported the former Soviet occupiers. Jewish accounts record that priests spoke out against, and intervened to curb abuses directed at, Jews in several localities to the east of Łomża. Among the most outspoken priests were Rev. Franciszek Łapiński of Rutki, Rev. Feliks Bryx of Knyszyn, and Rev. Cyprian Łozowski of Jasionówka.
(See the respective accounts in Paweł Machcewicz and Krzysztof Persak, eds., Wokół Jedwabnego [Warsaw:
Instytut Pamięci Narodowej–Komisja Ścigania Zbrodni przeciwko Narodowi Polskiemu, 2002], volume 2, pp.330, 238, 196–98.) A similar report comes from Powursk, near Kowel, in Volhynia. (Asher Tarmon, ed., Memorial Book: The Jewish Communities of Manyevitz, Horodok, Lishnivka, Troyanuvka, Povursk, and Kolki (Wolyn Region) [Tel-Aviv: Organization of Survivors of Manyevitz, Horodok, Lishnivka, Troyanuvka, Povursk, Kolki and Surroundings Living in Israel and Overseas, 2004], p.418.) In the interwar years, Alexander Bronowski, a lawyer, was engaged by Bishop Marian Leon Fulman to represent the diocese of Lublin in legal matters despite vociferous protests in the nationalist press. After the war broke out Bronowski settled in Świsłocz, to the east of Białystok, in the Soviet occupation zone, where he continued to work as a lawyer. He describes his experiences there after the German entry in June 1941, and the assistance he received from several Poles, among them a priest—Rev. Albin Horba, the pastor of Świsłocz. Rev. Horba was transferred to the nearby parish of Międzyrzecz in May 1942, where he continued to help Jews by providing them with false baptismal certificates. After the war he was arrested by the Soviet secret police and held in various prisons until April 1948.11 (Alexander Bronowski, They Were Few [New York: Peter Lang, 1991], pp.7–9.) 11 Tadeusz Krahel, Doświadczeni zniewoleniem: Duchowni archidiecezji wileńskiej represjonowani w latach okupacji sowieckiej (1939– 1945) (Białystok: Polskie Towarzystwo Historyczne–Oddział w Białymstoku, 2005), pp.45–46. In his memoir, Rev. Horba does not confirm Bronowski’s story of having turned to Bronowski to defend Poles in Soviet courts. Rev. Horba says he did not know Bronowski 35 At court I appeared in show trials, political trials, criminal cases and the like. When the accused were Poles, the local priest and the pharmacist (a Pole) frequently turned to me to defend them. … My work at Swislocz [Świsłocz] was satisfying. I had social connections with both Jews and Poles. I lived comfortably.
This situation prevailed until the outbreak of war between Germany and the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. It took everyone in Swislocz by surprise. The evacuation of the court and other Soviet offices to the east was hurriedly organized.
The judge suggested that I leave Swislocz with the court. I declined, saying that my aim was to contact my family who were in the ghetto in Lublin; the judge understood.
On the fourth day of the war, June 26, 1941, Swislocz fell to the Germans, who began executing communists and rounding up Jews for heavy forced labor, looting their property. As I was known in the town not only as a Jewish lawyer but also as a lecturer who spoke out against the Nazi crimes, I realized that I had to find a hiding place. I left my apartment. First I went to my friend the pharmacist, and he, after hiding me for several days in his pharmacy, took me to the priest’s apartment [actually they hid in a cellar near Rev. Albin Horba’s rectory—Ed.].