«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
A week after the capture of Swislocz a new commander arrived and the persecution of the Jews intensified. I found out that I was being sought as an enemy of the Nazis and as a Jew. I therefore decided to escape to Bialystok [Białystok], where some tens of thousands of Jews lived. Moreover, this move would bring me closer to Lublin. The pharmacist and the priest agreed with my decision.
To facilitate my flight from Swislocz, they contacted a certain Polish woman, the directress of an orphanage situated on the main road to Bialystok, and asked her to allow me to stay there. She agreed without a moment’s hesitation. It emerged that I had once defended her against a groundless charge of maltreatment of Soviet orphans. After sleeping one night at the orphanage I departed unseen at dawn, supplied with bread, which was worth its weight in gold. The directress knew that I was a Jew and that I was escaping from Swislocz. I had gone no more than thirty meters when I heard her calling out to me to stop. She ran towards me, took the chain with the cross hanging on it from her neck, and fastened it on mine. I did not remove that cross throughout the journey to Bialystok. I was surprised and moved by her concern to protect me, and could find no words to thank her.
The distance to Bialystok was about eighty kilometers. … Like me, there were other Jews from small towns walking to the large Jewish center at Bialystok.
When I left Grodek [Gródek] a Jewish lad of about fourteen fell into step with me. He too was making for Bialystok. A few dozen meters behind us were four Jews. Four kilometers outside Grodek I saw a German truck approaching, and when it reached us three German soldiers armed with rifles sprang out. They come up to me. “Jude?” they asked. I sensed danger and grew tense. Then one of them saw the cross around my neck. “Los,” he muttered. They left. A few minutes later I heard firing. The Germans had shot the Jews walking behind us.
I was shocked. Despite my blistered feet I continued walking with the boy and even accelerated my pace. By evening we reached Bialystok. I parted company with the lad … I could not stop thinking about the Polish woman who had saved my life and the boy’s. I do not recall her name, nor do I know her whereabouts. Swislocz is now part of the Soviet Union. I have searched for her address, but to no avail.
But I do know that when she ran towards me and placed the cross on my neck she did so for humanitarian reasons: to save a human life. In my heart I retain a deep sense of gratitude to her, and to the priest and the pharmacist. I learnt subsequently that the priest had died and the pharmacist had left Swislocz.
Dr. Kac from Łódź had taken refuge from the Germans in Soviet-occupied Eastern Poland. Fleeing Lithuanian collaborators in the summer of 1941, he made his way back from a camp near Nowa Wilejka to Warsaw. In January 1942, he recorded his testimony which attests to extensive help received from Poles, among them a priest, along the way. (Andrzej Żbikowski, ed., Archiwum Ringelbluma: Konspiracyjne Archiwum Getta Warszawy, volume 3: Relacje z Kresów [Warsaw: Żydowski Instytut Historyczny IN-B, 2000], pp.471–74.) Indeed [Polish] peasants very often helped us at no cost. We entered their cottages where they frequently refused to take anything from us when they offered us milk, bread, etc. Apart from that they showed us compassion and were indignant at everything that was happening to the Jews. … It is important to stress that I encountered exceptionally sincere warm-heartedness from Catholic peasants and Polish landlords. I was comforted and helped with money, food, and a place to sleep. My wound was dressed in manor houses. … The area I now entered had Polish police who tended to accommodate the Jews. In one of the Belorussian towns [i.e., in a Polish-speaking area incorporated in the so-called Ostland, and earlier Soviet Belorussia], not far from the Lithuanian personally before he came seeking shelter in the company of Dr. Majzel, a local Jewish doctor, and his wife. Ibid., p.209.
With the German takeover of Eastern Poland in June 1941, the Germans started to round up and execute Jews.
When they entered the village of Pohost Zahorodny (or Pohost Zahorodzki) near Pińsk, in Polesie (Polesia), Jews
started to flee and found shelter in the garden of a Catholic priest. That story is related in Voices from the Forest:
The True Story of Abram and Julia Bobrow, as told to Stephen Edward Paper (Bloomington, Indiana: 1st Books, 2004), at pages 30–33.
Their numbers had now swelled to over forty and included young men and children as well.
Nearing the mansion of the Polish priest, Drogomish [Rev. Hieronim Limbo], they heard the galloping of horses.
The mansion, where the priest lived with a housekeeper, was also the church where he held services for all of the Catholics in Pohost Zagorodski.
Drogomish, in his black robes and white collar, saw them from the window and rushed outside. The priest was old and bent, and known throughout the village to be a good-hearted man. … People would come from miles away to tour his gardens and catch the smell of jasmine and orange blossoms.
He had been sitting alone in his garden alcove sadly contemplating the growing turmoil in his village and apparently trying to think of some way to help. Now the disturbance had come to his front yard. He rushed out to see how he could aid the fugitives.
Urgently, he motioned the Jewish men and boys into his garden. The garden spread over two acres, but was dwarfed by the potato patch, which was a quarter-of-a-mile wide and half-a-mile long, stretching all the way to Bobric [Bobryk] Lake and filled with two-foot-high potato plants.
Quickly, the fugitives left the road, following the priest down the furrows between the plants to the edge farthest from the road. There, in the weeded dirt furrows between rows of potato plants, they lay down to hide. From this position, they could probably hear the passing of the SS riders moving into the shtetl.
Nazis from Borki now entered Pohost Zagorodski from the north, riding past the Polish school on Mieshchanska [Mieszczańska] Street. Both groups converged on the marketplace and dismounted. ….
The soldiers started moving house to house, brandishing their machine guns and whips … Accompanied by the local [Belorussian] police force, they forced all the men they found into the street. … In the village hospital, those men who were too sick or infirm to move were shot on the spot.
Almost ninety men and young boys were rounded up and forced to the marketplace. … In the center of the village, the Obersturmbannfuhrer called to his sergeant, “Is that all you found?” “Yes, Herr Obersturmbannfuhrer,” the sergeant replied. “That’s it.” This was not good enough for him. … Twenty SS troopers mounted their horses … down Dworska Street to the church. When they reached the old mansion that now served as the Catholic Church … As the sergeant and his men started into the garden on their horses, Drogomish ran out once more.
“What are you doing in my garden?” he yelled. “You are stomping on the plants. You’ll destroy them.” “There are Jews hiding in the garden,” the sergeant said.
“There is nothing here except the potato plants. And you’re ruining them,” the priest said, moving in front of the horses of the sergeant and his men, trying to block their way.
“Get out of the way, Father,” the sergeant demanded.
“No,” Drogomish said, defiantly. “You have no right. This is a holy place, the grounds of the church.” “Toss him out of the way,” the sergeant said to his men. Four soldiers dismounted and threw the frail priest to the ground.
“Jew lover,” the sergeant snarled.
The soldiers then searched the field, knocking over the plants, trampling on others and tearing up the dirt and crops.
Thus they combed the field while the forty Jews lay trembling in the dirt.
Finding the men, the SS forced them to their feet, whipping and beating them with sticks as they herded them back to the marketplace.
When a hundred and thirty Jewish men and boys were finally assembled in the Rynec [Rynek] marketplace, the SS soldiers mounted their horses and formed a circle around them to prevent any escape attempts. Then they made them run down Dworska Street across the Bobric River bridge out of town. … The SS troops took the Jews past the Bobrow lumberyard to an old Jewish cemetery. In the cemetery, the soldiers lined them up in groups of ten. … 37 The Jews, in their lines of ten, were marched to a row of tombstones … There they were made to kneel down with their backs towards the soldiers. The SS shot them with their machine guns.
A priest is credited with saving a Jewish family when the Jews of Mołodeczno were being rounded up by the Germans in October 1941 for execution. Chana Szafran (née Pozner), her sister Luba and her father Mordechai, who were outside the town at the time, were arrested by the local police on their return but released thanks to the intervention of a local priest who knew Mordechai Pozner. From there they reached the ghetto in Wilejka where they remained until April 1943. Chana Szafran describes the circumstances of her rescue in her account published in Moshe Kalchheim, Be-komah zakufah, 1939–1945: Perakim be-toldot ha-lehimah ha-partizanit be-ya’arot Narots’ (Tel Aviv: Irgun ha-patizanim, lohame ha-mahtarot u-morder ha-geta’ot be-Yi’sra’el, 1991), translated
as “At the Onset of the War in Molodecno,” Internet:
On Saturday, the 25th of October 1941, very early in the morning, our wish neighbor came in panic to the house and said that, once again, the Germans had surrounded the town. She suggested to my mother that we should all flee together. My mother said that first my little sister Liuba, who was eleven years old and I, should run to our father and tell him to hide.
She assumed that just as before, the Nazis were only looking for men. So both of us ran as fast as we could and told Father about what had occurred in town. I never saw my mother again. Later on, when I was in the police station, I found out from that neighbor that Mother was killed while she tried to escape from the house. The Germans had shot at her as she tried to flee. … All the Jews who were found that day were collected and put in the local police building. We met about fifty men, women, and children. Amongst them was also our neighbor—Paula Drutz. She was the one to tell me about the fate of my mother.
While we waited in the police station, my father saw an army buddy of his who was now one of the policemen. He was sitting there nonchalantly playing his guitar. My father [Mordechai Pozner] begged him as a man who was to be shortly executed, to give note to the local priest. At first, he ignored Father’s request, but when my father pleaded, he agreed to bring the note to the priest. At midnight, the priest arrived with two policemen to the station. They took my father to one of the private rooms, and, after some time, he was returned. He explained to us the plan: one of the policemen would soon come, and take him to the bathroom. After some time, my sister Liuba and I should ask also to go to the bathroom. We would all then escape. While we were waiting for my father to go, they would call Jews one by one and then the Jews would return, beaten-up and confused. The girls were returned with torn clothes and looks of horror in their faces; it wasn’t difficult to guess what had been done to them.
In Molodecno [sic], there was at that time a large POW camp that contained Soviet prisoners. Because of this camp, the entire town was lit up by huge projectors to prevent the escape of POWs. When the policemen who escorted us took us outside of the police station, he yelled to us, “Run very quickly, kikes! If you don’t run, I’ll shoot you!” We ran as fast as we could and hid in the rubble of homes that stood on either side of the street. This was during a curfew hour when nobody was allowed to walk about in town, so we had to wait until morning in order to leave our hiding place. We then walked to the edge of the street—the place where we had originally decided to reunite with Father.
Like this, because of my father’s quick thinking, we were saved from the fate that the rest of the Jews in the police building encountered. The reason why this priest cared so much for my father was that my father, before the war, was a political representative of the community and knew the priest well. When the Soviets had invaded the area in September of 1939, they had arrested the old priest, saying that he was engaged in anti-Communist propaganda. Father had collected signatures from the local population and had collected testimony that this priest was only involved in religious matters, and, after a short time, the Soviets listened to the pleas of the town residents and released the priest. At the time when our life was in danger, he saved my father as well as the two of us.
During the years 1941 and 1942, Lerer [Moshe Lerer was a librariarian at the YIVO Institute in Wilno] and I worked together in the Zatrocze concentration camp near Landwarow [Landwarów]. Here, I clearly sensed that inwardly he had made up his mind about everything and ultimately had made peace with death. Barely fifty and some years old, he looked 38 like an old man who was already critically ill, with his bent body, extinguished eyes and deep, sunken cheeks. His resignation, it seems, was noticed by the rowdy element in the camp and they bullied him. Tears get stuck in my throat when I remember the heavy work that was intentionally placed on his bent shoulders. We all tried to make it easier for him and to take upon ourselves some of his duties; if this work was with peat or in unloading goods—the younger ones among us tried to make it easier for him everywhere and to take his place. He appreciated this very much and a sort of tender feeling to all of us was planted in him along with his resignation and he wanted to comfort and cheer us up.