«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
let us perish together. I couldn’t entrust my children to the gentiles,” he concluded with determination.
(Pearl Benisch, To Vanquish the Dragon [Jerusalem and New York: Feldheim Publishers, 1991], p.131.) Żegota activist Irena Sendler (Sendlerowa) recalled that sometimes Jews asked her for “guarantees” that their children would survive the war. Sendler explained to them that she could not even assure the children’s safe passage out of the ghetto. This too discouraged Jews from seeking placements for their children with Christians.
(Żegota: Council for Aid to Jews in Occupied Poland (1942–1945), Documentaries International Film & Video Foundation, Washington, D.C., 1998.) It is true that some Poles asked for payment for the care of their Jewish charges, just as virtually all Danish rescuers did,14 but this was to be accepted given the risks involved and the material hardships faced by everyone under the German occupation. As a recent study shows, unlike Western Europeans, the overwhelming majorirty of Poles were simply not in a position to offer long-term material 15 assistance to Jews. Honest survivors, such as Yitzhak Zuckerman, a leader of the Jewish underground in Warsaw, are appreciative of even paid aid to Jews. Moreover, realizing that devout Jews would have done the 14 Until the fall of 1943 Danish Jews were unmolested. SS general Dr. Werner Best, the German in charge in Denmark, gave a free hand to Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, the martime attaché at the German embassy in Copenhagen, to do whatever was necessary to derail the planned deportation of the Jews. Duckwitz flew to Sweden, where he secretly met with President Per Albin Hannson. The Swedish president assured him that should the action against the Danish Jews take place, Sweden would in principle be ready to admit them. When the round-up of Jews was about to begin, Duckwitz made his way back to Sweden to alert the Swedish government to be ready to admit the fleeing Jews. The local German naval command warned the Danish underground of the impending fate of the Jews, disabled the German harbour patrol, and turned a blind eye to the rescue operation. The Jews who were transported to Sweden by Danish boatmen were allowed entry. Since the rescue operation took place with the connivance of the local German naval command, there were no casualties either among the Jews or among the boatmen. During the initial stages of the rescue operation, only well-to-do Danish Jews could afford the short passage to Sweden. Private boatmen set their own price and the costs were prohibitive, ranging from 1,000 to 10,000 kroner per person ($160 to $1600 U.S. in the currency of that period). Afterward, when organized Danish rescue groups stepped in to coordinate the flight and to collect funds, the average price per person fell to 2,000 and then 500 kroner. The total cost of the rescue operation was about 12 million kroner, of which the Jews paid about 7 million kroner, including a 750,000 kroner loan which the Jews had to repay after the war. See Mordecai Paldiel, The Righteous Among the Nations (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem; New York: Collins, 2007), pp.105–109; Leni Yahil, The Rescue of Danish Jewry: Test of a Democracy (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1969), pp.261–65, 269.
While the Danish rescue is constantly extolled without reference to the minimal risk it entailed to the rescuers and the handsome compensation they took (in fact, most historians suppress this information); conversely, the Polish rescue effort is deprecated without reference to the death penalty the Germans imposed on the Poles for providing any form of assistance and the fact that hundreds if not thousands of Poles paid with their lives for this “crime.” See, for example, Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich at War (New York: The Penguin Press, 2009), pp.64, 390–91. At the same time, Evans downplays German guilt. Ibid., pp.555, 560.
15 Grzegorz Berendt, “Cena życia—ekonomiczne uwarunkowania egzystencji Żydów po ‘aryjskiej stronie’,” in Zagłada Żydów: Studia i materiały (Warsaw: Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów, IFiS PAN, 2008), vol. 4, pp.110–43.
If I gauge the phenomenon by one of the finest figures I knew, Irena Adamowicz, who helped Jews deliberately and consciously, as a devout Christian, who assisted as much as she could, I nevertheless cannot ignore the fact that she also saw another mission for herself: to convert Jews, since there is no greater commandment than to convert Jews to Christianity, accompanied by the faith that will save the world. I’m not saying she would have abandoned someone even if she hadn’t kept her sights fixed on the Christian purpose; but let’s look at this from the other side: for example, if a rabbi chanced to save a gentile. He wouldn’t see anything bad if, at this opportunity, he began telling him about the religion of Moses and the various practices of Judaism. Is there anything wrong in that? Irena also filled such “missions.” I know of at least four or five such cases.
Rev. Stanisław Szczepański of Wilga near Garwolin, together with his sister Marianna Różańska, sheltered two Jewish sisters in the parish rectory for several months, and provided them with false documents that enabled them to survive the war passing as Poles. (Israel Gutman and Sara Bender, eds., The Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, volume 5: Poland [Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2004], Part 2, p.679.) One day in September 1941, German policemen surrounded a labor camp for Jews in the forest near Wilga, Garwolin county, Warsaw district, and prepared to make a Selektion among the inmates. Several prisoners, fearing for their fate, fled from the camp. They included the sisters Luba and Lea Berliner, who knocked on the door of the village priest [Rev.
Stanisław Szczepański16] and asked for assistance. Marianna Rozanska [Różańska], the priest’s sister, quickly placed the two fugitives in hiding and when the Germans came to search for them she carefully shielded them. The Berliners stayed in their hideout until Rozanska equipped them with forged papers, with which they survived by enlisting for forced labor in Germany. After the war, one of the Berliner sisters stayed in Germany, and the other resettled in Israel.
Escapees from the Warsaw ghetto were taken in by the Sisters of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Warsaw suburb of Żoliborz. Ruth Altbeker Cyprys, who was assisted by numerous Poles while passing as a Christian in Warsaw, writes about her stay with the Sisters in the early part of 1943 in her memoir, A Jump For Life: A Survivor’s Journal from Nazi-Occupied Poland (New York: Continuum, 1997), at pages 129–30, 134, 163, and 222.
At my friend’s house, the advocate Mrs. L., I met her husband’s sister, Sister Maria-Janina, a nun of the Sisters of Resurrection Order from the Convent in Zoliborz [Żoliborz] Street. Apart from her duties in the convent she directed a small carpenter’s workshop in a shed near the cloister. Sister Maria-Janina, upon learning of my troubles, offered me accommodation on the workshop premises, which I gladly accepted. The room was small but comfortable. Although it was very cold and lacked conveniences, I felt at home there at last. I could spend my whole time there doing whatever I liked except for a few hours during which the room served as an office. Slowly I grew acquainted with my new surroundings.
Next to my room, in the kitchen, there lived a maidservant who ran the house and cooked for the boys in the shop. She had an illegitimate son … On top of this she was very inquisitive and talkative. It was apparent that the shed was inhabited by other people as well: I heard voices through the partitions although I never saw anybody. In great secrecy Sister MariaJanina confided in me that in the next room there lived two Jewesses. The older one, who had typically Semitic features, never went out, not having been registered anywhere. The younger one on the contrary was out all day, and was even employed somewhere.
Sister Maria-Janina advised me not to communicate with them. Actually I preferred sitting alone in my little room, during the long evening hours, not making any new friends. I noticed the same trait in the behaviour of Jews in hiding: a tendency to keep away from other Jews. One could only tell the other sad stories, terrible experiences, the loss of nearest and dearest ones—there would be no end of unhappy memories. In order to live on we had somehow to forget the past and strive to become accustomed to the present.
Sister Maria-Janina, who was sixty years old, had an exceptionally beautiful character. The widow of an advocate, for 16 Michał Grynberg, Księga sprawiedliwych (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, 1993), pp.459–60.
44 the past fifteen years she had been devoting her strength and energy to the convent and public welfare. The toy workshops were designated for the poorest boys, the street urchins. The Sister admitted anybody who applied. … As I had no job at the time I tried to help out as much as I could. Whenever there was anything to sort out in the city I went readily. Often I was sent to cash money in some welfare institution, or to collect provisions for the boys. … One day in our house in Zoliborz a skirmish broke out which could have had very serious repercussions for all of us.
The boys were coached in grammar school subjects by a teacher popularly nicknamed ‘Student’. This ‘Student’, as it turned out, was a Jew—a fact of which Sister Maria-Janina was well aware. Quite by accident a young man came to the workshop and recognized the teacher as a fellow student from university, a communist, with whom he had constantly quarrelled. These two had a very sharp altercation after which the visitor reviled the Sister for sheltering a Jew. It was quite obvious that the unexpected visitor was bound to turn the teacher over to the Gestapo, and the trembling inhabitants of our slum implored the teacher to leave, for a short time at least. He was courageous, however, and insisted on staying;
he admitted that in any event he had nowhere else to go. Sister Maria-Janina’s behaviour was remarkable. She did not give him notice nor did she tell him to quit. ‘God will help us,’ she said, and nobody denounced us. Yet I considered it unsafe to stay in the small house in Zoliborz and as soon as I had received another offer of a job I took the opportunity and left the hospitable shelter, but I stayed in touch with Sister Maria-Janina until the end of the war.
Afterwards, Sister Maria-Janina signed a deposition attesting that she was Ruth Albeker’s relative. As the latter
A genuine Aryan relative was priceless to a Jew at that time. The best documents could prove worthless if a crafty Gestapo man asked: ‘It’s all right with your papers; they are in order and I believe you to be an Aryan. But give me some names of your friends or relatives who have known you for a long time.’ Such a Jewish Gentile, a human creature with no relatives and acquaintances would then be lost.
After the failed Warsaw Uprising of 1944, Ruth Altbeker was evacuated to the Kraków area. There she encountered Mrs. Maria, who had also been evacuated from Warsaw. Mrs. Maria, who worked closely with a Polish organization that rescued Jewish children, had sheltered Ruth Altbeker’s daughter, Eva, and several other Jewish children. During the evacuation Mrs. Maria had become separated from two of her Jewish charges, but they were found living in a small town under the guardianship of a local vicar and soon rejoined Mrs. Maria.
Although she attended mass regularly in many churches during the occupation, Ruth Altbeker encountered no hostility on the part of the Catholic clergy toward Jews.
Exceptionally, Jews decided to convert to increase their chances of survival. Halina M., then a child, and her mother Zosia, a widow, were saved through the intervention of a Polish acquaintance, who directed her mother to a priest at the parish church of the Holy Saviour (Zbawiciela) in Warsaw and later arranged to place Halina in the care of the Sisters of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Halina and her mother assumed the identity of Polish Catholics by the name of Chmielewski and survived the war. (Henryk Grynberg, Drohobycz, Drohobycz and Other Stories: True Tales from the Holocaust and Life After [New York: Penguin Books, 2002), pp.206−11.) Mother bought honey-cakes in a honey shop on the corner of Marszałkowska Street and the Square of the Redeemer [Saviour], and often talked with Pani Renia who worked there. Her husband, Pan Stefan, was an engineer with the gasworks. One day Mother said to her, “I have a problem. I have to move into the ghetto.” “Why?” Pani Renia asked.