«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
Mrs. Chumatovsky went there first to discuss the project and to make the necessary arrangements. When she returned with a favourable answer, we prepared the girl for the trip. She was told that she was going to an aunt’s where there were other children with whom she could play outdoors and have lots of fun. For several days our landlady taught the child how to say prayers in preparation for her new life and new name under the crucifix. The child slowly accustomed herself to the new role. Her intuitive understanding of the danger which hung over her and her mother drove her to do her best.
She seemed to know instinctively that all this was necessary to avert a terrible catastrophe.
With a heavy heart, her lips pressed tightly together to restrain her sobs, Zille packed Elsa’s things and sent her away.
Mrs. Chumatovsky stayed with the child at the convent for several days. Elsa would not let her leave. She wept and pleaded not to be left alone. When the child was somewhat calmer Mrs. Chumatovsky was able to return.
Exactly where the convent was, the Chumatovsky, of course, refused to say. In case of arrest the parents might not be able to endure the torture and might give the information to the Germans, bringing tragedy to the convent and all its inmates. Besides, the parents, in their anxiety, might attempt to communicate with the child and unwittingly betray the secret. The Chumatovskys obtained a Catholic birth certificate in the girl’s new name and assumed legal guardianship over her.
Just before the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944:
We also managed to take little Elsa Friedrych out of the convent near Cracow where she had been hidden. The child of our heroic Zalman Friedrych was now completely alone; her father had perished in a gun fight with the Gestapo, her mother had been killed in Maidanek [Majdanek]. She was later brought to the United States and adopted by American comrades.
In actual fact, Zygmunt Freidrych daughter, who used the name Elżunia, was sheltered at the orphanage of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Mary in Zamość, whose activities are described later on. Marek Edelman, one of
Whether or not a Jewish child should be christened also proved to be a contentious matter that was not always easy to resolve. In order to blend in, a Jewish child in a Catholic institution or passing as a Christian in a Catholic milieu needed to receive the sacraments together with the other children. To do so without incurring sacrilege required that the child be baptized. This often posed a dilemma for nuns and priests, as well as for the parents of the Jewish child. (Goldstein, The Stars Bear Witness, pp.224–25.) I am reminded of an incident—one of hundreds—which occurred in the family of Shierachek, the former Jewish policeman, my fellow tenant on Grzibovska [Grzybowska Street in Warsaw]. His sister was a servant in a Christian home in Waver [Wawer, a suburb of Warsaw]. Naturally she had to act the part of a Catholic. Regularly each Sunday she attended church and participated in the religious ceremonies with her neighbors. Her thirteen-year-old daughter lived with her, under the protection of her emploers’ daughter, a schoolteacher. Supposedly, the little girl’s parents had been arrested by the Nazis, and she had been placed in the custody of the teacher. The girl was raised as a Christian.
The mother, although not at all religious, was deeply concerned about the child. She feared that in time the little girl would forget that she was a Jew and begin to feel truly like a Christian. She would thus be lost to the Jewish people.
Before her school examination, the little girl had to go to the priest for communion with all the other students. The teacher, a deeply religious woman, refused stubbornly to be a party to this deception. Her convictions would not permit her to send a Jewish child who had not been converted to such a holy ceremony. It would be a betrayal of her own religious faith.
The teacher consulted two other priests—the priest at the school was permitted to know nothing about it. One of them told her that his convictions would not permit him to baptize the girl under compulsion. The second, considering the desperate situation of the child, agreed to perform the ceremony.
Now the mother was assailed by doubts. She was afraid that the impressiveness of the ritual would give her child the final push toward Catholicism. In her anxiety she came to Grzibovska to consult with her brother, Marek Edelman, and myself. Hard and bitter, Marek was inclined to oppose the whole idea on the ground that it was tantamount to capitulation.
Child or adult, he was damned if he would recommend knuckling under to those Nazi bastards. To hell with them! But the more conservative counsel of Shierachek and myself prevailed. To save her life, the child must be baptized.
Decisions to shelter Jews in convents of nuns were often made unilaterally by the superior of the order or of a particular convent. Sometimes, as in the case of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in their Warsaw convent on on Kazimierzowska Street, the decision was made collegially. The superior, Sister Wanda Garczyńska, wanting a unanimous agreement, summoned all the nuns to a meeting which began with a reading of the Gospel of St. John, chapter 15, verses 13 to 17, that begins, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for a friend …” and ends “These things I command you, that you love one another.” Ewa Kurek-Lesik records the event, as movingly related to her by Sister Maria Ena who took part, in “The Conditions of Admittance and the Social Background of Jewish Children Saved by Women’s Religious Orders in Poland from 1939–1945,” Polin: A Journal of Polish-Jewish Studies, volume 3 (1988), at page 247.
It was 1942–43. The school on Kazimierzowska had been closed. The SS was based in a huge block opposite our house, where the RGO [Central Relief Council] kitchen was open and functioning almost without a break. The people, too, came in a constant stream—children, young people, adults with canisters for soup. Only for soup? For everything.
Kazimierzowska pulsated with life—from the nursery to the university. Amongst the hive of activity there were also Jewesses. Real ones. With red, curly hair, freckled, with prominent ears and unusual eyes. Thoroughbreds. There could be no mistake. It was well-known that concealing a Jew meant the death sentence.
The sister knew that other orders had already been warned and searched. So she hid nothing, withheld nothing. She called us together. She began the conference by reading a fragment of the Gospel of St John. … She explained that she did not wish to jeopardise the house, the sisters, the community. She knew what could be awaiting us. There was no thought of self. She knew: you should love one another as I have loved you. How? So that He gave His Life.
I lowered my head. I did not dare look at the other sisters. We had to decide. If we said one word, openly, honestly admitted to fear for our own skins, our own lives, the lives of so many sisters, the community. … Was it prudent to risk it for a few Jewesses? It was our decision whether or not they would have to leave.
18 Adam Kopciowski, Zagłada Żydów w Zamościu (Lublin: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej, 2005), p.194.
More than a dozen Jewish girls found refuge at the boarding school run by the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Kazimierzowska Street in Warsaw. Among them was Joanna Olczak, born in 1934 to a Polish father and a Jewish mother who had converted and married in the Evangelical (Augsburg) faith. Joanna, like her mother, was considered to be a Jew under German racial laws. Joanna was brought to the school in the spring of 1942. (Joanna Olczak-Ronikier, In the Garden of Memory: A Family Memoir [London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2004], 253–63.) I remember Nena [i.e., Irena Grabowska, a member of the Home Army] well. It was she who took me, on the advice of the Sisters of the Order of the Immaculate Conception, from Piastów to the boarding school they ran on Kazimierzowska Street in Warsaw.
I can clearly see my first encounter with that place. I am standing on the threshold of a huge gymnasium, holding Irena’s hand tightly. The shining floor smells of fresh polish. By the wall a large group of girls are sitting cross-legged, all staring curiously at the new girl. I am dying of embarrassment and fear. For the first time in my life I must remain alone in a new place, with strange people. I want to tear away from Irena and run home crying, but I know it is not possible. There is no home, and if I ‘make a scene’ here—my grandmother’s most abusive definition of hysterical behaviour—I shall compromise myself in the eyes of these girls for ever, and that will not help me at all. So I take the first conscious decision of my entire life: I let go of Irena’s hand and, on that shining floor, in defiance of fate, I do a somersault, then a second, and a third, and keep on rolling until I end up at the other end of the room. The girls clap and the nuns laugh. I know I have won their hearts, I feel accepted, and thus safe.
That was when I found a way of coping with life by hiding my true emotions behind a jester’s mask. I put a lot of effort into pretending to be a resourceful, cheerful child and into amusing everyone around me. It was the special skill of many occupation-era children. None of the dozen or so Jewish girls hidden at the convent, some of whom already had terrible experiences behind them, ever despaired or showed their sadness or fear about the fate of their loved ones. The crying was done at night. The day went by as normally as could be, like before the war, criss-crossed with all sorts of activities. The nuns were gentle and smiling. Nowadays I cannot understand how on earth such extraordinary calm and cheerfulness prevailed in that ark sailing on the oceans of the occupation nightmare, when absolutely everything going on inside the convent carried the risk of death. They were not just hiding Jewish children, but also teaching subjects banned by the Nazis. There were secret study groups for secondary-school pupils, secret university lectures, a priesthood [chaplaincy] for Home Army soldiers, contacts with the underground, help for prisoners and people deprived of a living, and food for malnourished Jews who had escaped from the Ghetto. Courageous and composed, the nuns were only people, after all, and must sometimes have been terrified at the thought of what would happen if the Germans discovered just one of those crimes. Everyone knows how easily adults’ worries are passed on to children. How did they manage to protect us from fear? They did not hide the danger from us. Frequent alarm practices prepared the schoolchildren for surprise raids by the Germans. When an internal bell rang during lessons, we gathered the pre-war books for Polish and history from our desks double-quick and shoved them into a special storage space—a sort of cloakroom-among our shoe bags and gym kits, where we always put them away after school anyway. Sometimes the alarm was real—then the nuns hid the endangered children in the enclosure. I am told that I once sat inside the altar for a few hours during one such search, but I cannot remember. By then I was already thoroughly versed in conspiracy. I knew by heart all the new facts in each successive fake identity card. This time my mother was called Maria Olczak, née Maliszewska, and my grandmother had become her own daughter’s mother-in-law, borrowing the name Julia Olczak, née Wagner, from my father’s late mother.
My grandmother’s sister Flora, alias Emilia Babicka, née Płońska, daughter of a carpenter born in Łunińsk in Byelorussia, was no longer her sister, but just a chance acquaintance. Flora’s husband Samuel was called Stanisław.
Luckily he was still her husband, which made his life much easier, because his daughters, Karolina and Stefania, who had two different surnames and were not apparently related to each other or to their parents, were always making blunders and were incapable of hiding their family connections. It was all very complicated.
What did I tell my schoolmates at the boarding school about myself? I do not think anyone ever asked me any questions, which is amazing, because everyone knows how full of curiosity little girls can be. Evidently the nuns issued a strict ban on talking about personal matters. That must be why I had no idea about the situation and origin of the other pupils. How 50 many secrets those little heads must have been hiding. How many lies they must have contained. How much information as seemingly basic as one’s first name, surname and family address they had to bury as deep as possible in their memories to avoid revealing them accidentally and causing a disaster. The challenge to ‘be yourself!’—that basic condition for mental sanity—had been replaced with the categorical order: ‘Forget who you are and become someone else!’—which was a lifesaver, but later on, after the war, made life immensely complicated, because it was hard to recover one’s lost identity.
Once every two weeks I visited my family, who were still living in Piastów. Irene used to collect me from the convent and take me home. … The convent refectory smelled of ersatz coffee and slightly burned porridge, while little girls chased up and down the corridors laughing. The whole boarding school was absorbed in preparing a Nativity play for Shrovetide. The play was entirely written and composed by Miss Zosia Orłowska—nowadays Zofia Rostworowska, wife of Poland’s first Minister of Culture after independence was regained in 1989—who rehearsed our roles with us. The show was to be performed before an audience from the city: relatives and friends of the pupils. The little girls of Jewish origin were also eager to take part, so the good Miss Zosia came up with the idea that they would appear as couriers of the exotic Three Kings. Coloured turbans and make-up would disguise their Semitic looks. I was a Negro page and, all backed-up, I could freely show off my gymnastic skills. Nowadays the first-hand accounts that Sister Ena has collected in her book [Where Love Matured into
Heroism] remind me of other, less amusing adventures. Anna Kaliska writes: