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«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»

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One day three Volksdeutsch appeared in the parlour with a demand to hand over the little Olczak girl, whose mother was a Jew. They demanded an inspection of all the children, and had come with precise instructions. Sister Wanda [Garczyńska] locked the little girl and a few others whose origin can easily be guessed behind the enclosure on the second floor, and the rest had to file into the parlour. Then they began to inspect the house, first the ground floor, then the first floor. Sister Wanda showed them round. Her explanation that the enclosure was on the second floor and that access there was forbidden by the rules of the Order was passed over in silence, and the three Germans started to go up the stairs. We remained on the first floor. I can still hear their heavy footsteps today—I can remember the appalling fear—we knew all too well what would happen to her and the children. Some sisters were praying in the chapel as the footsteps approached the door of the enclosure. Then there was a monent’s silence, and we heard Sister Wanda calmly say: ‘I shall once again remind you that this is the enclosure.’ And again there was a silence, in which it was felt as if everything around us and inside us had died and gone still.

And then footsteps coming down the stairs, as they were gone.

At that point, at the nuns’ request Irena Grabowska took me away from the convent to live with Maria Jahns in Pruszków.

… According to the list, my mother and grandmother spent that terrible Easter at Tworki, where they lived from March to June 1943. … The nuns had taken me back again. The girls in my class were getting ready for their First Communion, including those of Jewish origin, with their parents’ consent, if they were still alive, or that of their guardians if they had any. My secular family approved of the Catholic education that was instilled into me at the convent, besides which I had been christened before the war.

Yet the nuns did not force any of the girls in their charge to change their religion. Dr. Zofia Szymańska-Rosenblum, who

in September 1942 saved her little niece from the Ghetto and brought her to Kazimierzowska Street, writes in her memoirs:

“With the greatest subtlelty Sister Wanda asked me if I would agree to Jasia being christened and taking Holy Communion, assuring me that it was the child’s ardent wishand would be desirable in terms of safety. ‘But if you have any objections, please rest assured that my attitude to Jasia will not be changed and that I shall save the person.’” Jasia’s mother had been deported from the Ghetto earlier, probably to Treblinka, her father fought in the Ghetto to the last moment and must have been killed there. I had no idea about my schoolfriend’s experiences. She did not talk about them, and if she cried, it was only when no one could see. We were both very excited about our First Communion. We wrote down our sins on cards, so that, God forbid, we would not forget them during confession. We spent hours at our prayers in the chapel, and now and then we ran to one of the nuns with the happy news that we felt a ‘vocation’. Two jolly, lively little girls, enjoying life, as if they hadn’t a care.

On 3 June 1943 the day of our First Communion came. Some photographs of the ceremony have survived. In one of them seven little girls in white sacramental vestments are posing for the camera—it is the classic souvenir picture, taken by a professional photographer. Five of the girls in the photograph are Jewish. I am astounded by the courage, and at the same time the sensitivity, of the nuns. They heroically regarded hiding these children as their Christian duty. They treated the inevitable threat of death as a consequence of their decision. But where did they get the motherly sensibility that prompted them, amid the all-surrounding danger, to give us a little joy? Not just spiritual but also secular, the kind little girls should have—somehow they knew we had to look pretty in our white dresses, made to measure and decorated with embroidery, that we had to have little white garlands on our heads, our hair twisted into curls, and that we must have a souvenir of that memorable day. Those photographs, and I have several at home, always move me with their festivity and

–  –  –

Conditions at the boarding school on Kazimierzowska Street were described by Zuzanna Sienkiewicz, a frequent visitor, in her account in Władysław Bartoszewski and Zofia Lewin, eds., Righteous Among Nations: How Poles Helped the Jews, 1939–1945 (London: Earlscourt Publications, 1969), at pages 360–61.

In those horrible times Sister Wanda [Garczyńska] radiated love of her neighbours, be they who they may, and even the enemy was not forgotten in her ardent prayers, in her begging God for forgiveness for the crimes being committed incessantly in those times. One of those ‘operations’ of which Sister Wanda was in charge at the time was that of hiding little Jewish girls. She took them into the boarding school with false documents. Some were easily passed off as ‘Aryans’, but others had very prominent Semitic features. These poor little ones would disappear into pre-arranged hiding places whenever there was a visit by the Germans. Some ‘Aryan’ mothers reproached Sister Wanda, asking how, at a time when it was so difficult to get an education for children, a Catholic school could be filled with non-Catholic children to the detriment of Polish Catholics. Sister Wanda was convinced that she was behaving righteously but, like all people truly great in spirit, she was very humble and she decided to seek the advice of a wise priest on this matter. It was then that Father [Stanisław] Trzeciak came to Kazimierzowska St.; he had been known before the war for his stand, often very firm, against the influence of the Jewish faith on our Polish psyche. For many he was the standard-bearer whose public utterances they used to justify their anti-Semitic actions. Then, when Sister Wanda presented the entire argument and the reproaches which she had suffered for her actions, Father Trzeciak remained silent for a moment and then asked: ‘What is the danger to these little Catholic girls if you do not have room for them?’ ‘They will study in worse conditions or they may even completely lose these years of school.’ ‘And what danger would there be to the others if you were to send them away?’ ‘You know, Father, inevitable death.’ ‘Therefore, Sister, you do not have the right to hesitate and consider. Priority goes to those little ones in danger—to the little Jewesses,’ answered the priest.

These are facts which I know from Sister Wanda’s own account to me and, in addition, I know that in all the Homes of the Nuns of the Order of the Immaculate Conception, in Szymanów, in Nowy Sącz, in Jarosław and other places, smaller and older Jewish girls were hidden and sheltered and in urgent cases, so were their mothers.

In Kielce Voivodship I know of cases where an entire village knew that a Jew or Jewess were hiding out, disguised in peasant clothes, and no one betrayed them even though they were poor Jews who not only could not pay for their silence but had to be fed, clothed and housed.

The aforementioned Rev. Stanisław Trzeciak, pastor of St. Anthony’s Church on Senatorska Street in Warsaw, was reputedly the most outspoken anti-Semitic priest in interwar Poland, yet during the occupation he demonstrated deep concern for the fate of endangered Jews, especially children.19 According to historian Szymon Datner, Rev. Trzeciak rescued at least one Jewish child.20 According to a statement submitted to Yad Vashem by Tanchum Kupferblum (alias Stanisław Kornacki) of Sandomierz, later a resident of Montreal, he also sheltered two Jews from Kraków who survived the war (http://www.savingjews.org/righteous/cv.htm—Cieslakowski, Jan).

Sister Wanda Garczyńska is also remembered fondly by other Jews whom she helped such as Anna Clarke, who found herself with her parents in the Hotel Polski in Warsaw in the summer of 1943. Hotel Polski was set up by the Germans in order to lure Jews out of hiding by holding out a false promise of passage to safe countries. (Anna Clarke, “Sister Wanda,” Polin: A Journal of Polish-Jewish Studies, vol. 7 (2002): 253–59).

And in Hotel Polski I saw my cousin Esther Syrkis … She was here with her sisters Idunia and Mala, Mala’s husband, and 19 Tomasz Szarota, U progu Zagłady: Zajścia antyżydowskie i pogromy w okupowanej Europie (Warsaw: Sic!, 2000), p.49; Wojciech Jerzy Muszyński, “Trzeciak Stanisław,” in Encyklopedia “Białych Plam” (Radom: Polskie Wydawnictwo Encyklopedyczna, 2006), vol.

17, p.214.

20 Andrzej Żbikowski, ed., Polacy i Żydzi pod okupacją niemiecką 1939–1945: Studia i materiały (Warsaw: Instytut Pamięci Narodowej—Komisja Ścigania Zbrodni przeciwko Narodowi Polskiemu, 2006), 389, 418.

52 the three little daughters of the three sisters. They had exchange papers to go to Germany, and were getting ready to leave the next morning. With a pile of children’s clothing getting rapidly smaller on her ironing board, she was telling me of Sister Wanda.

Sister Wanda had hidden her, her sisters and a sister-in-law of one of them. Found a job for Mala’s husband as a gardener in one of the monastery’s gardens. Most important of all, hid the three little girls. When the mothers came to claim them before coming to the Hotel, the children were ‘full of lice’, Esther took her eyes off the board to look at me— ‘but alive and in one piece’. ‘Don’t write anything down, but here is her address. Go to her when in need and she will help you, too,’ she was saying next morning, shortly before the whole group left in an orderly fashion. And to their death, as we now know. A few hours later the Gestapo Marias came and took away everyone still in the Hotel.

When the trucks came I was standing in the wide entrance gate of the Hotel. Two girls in a party of workers passing the gate on their way to register at a brick factory in the neighbourhood made room for me between them. … Outside the Hotel they let me go free … My own meeting with Sister Wanda took place late in the fall of that same year when I needed a place to stay. From a dark street up a dark staircase and into a large dimly lit room where Sisters slept all across the floor. Soon I found a mattress, too. ‘Why are you risking the lives of so many people because of me?’ I asked Sister Wanda. ‘For the love of the God we have in common’, she answered.

Soon Sister Wanda had a job for me. A country estate had asked for a governess for a high-school boy. Sister Wanda had confidence in my ability to teach the required subjects except one. I was to teach the boy religion.

… Here now in 1943 was a nun in her cell patiently teaching me the arcane of her religion, the catechism, the prayers, the mass, to fool her parishioners. The miracle of the mass was the fact over which I stumbled over and over again, both the fact and the significance of the fact that the transformation of the bread and of the wine was happening in front of my eyes. … At the estate, my 14-year-old student showed little enthusiasm for study, secular or religious, thus leaving me plenty of time for the ponds, the woods and air of the countryside. Then on Sunday morning it was time for church.

Sister Wanda had warned me in Warsaw not to try to avoid going and I went. No one made any remarks about my behaviour either at church or later. But many eyebrows must have been raised. … Never before except for a school excursion had I been inside a church, let alone during a service in a little country church. I couldn’t have known where to stand, to sit, to get up, make the sign of the cross or to kneel.

The story of some twenty children—among them, Felicia Riesel and Lilian Lampert—cared for by the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is confirmed in Gutman and Bender, The Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations, volume 4: Poland, Part 1, at pages 99, 227–28.

[1] In 1941, immediately after the German occupation of Lwow [Lwów], Maria and Bronislaw [Bronisław] Bochenek decided to help their Jewish acquaintances who had studied at the university with Maria before the occupation. After the ghetto was sealed off, the Bocheneks took food to David Riesel, a Jewish doctor, and his family. Maria also gave her birth certificate to a Jewish woman named Susanna Glowiczower, which made it possible for her to move to Warsaw. Bronislaw, who was forced to flee because of his left-wing views, settled in Cracow [actually, Warsaw], where he was later joined by Maria. The Bocheneks continued their good work in Cracow [Warsaw], offering shelter to Riesel, his wife, Lea, and their six-year-old daughter, Felicia, who had escaped from the Lwow ghetto. Since the Bocheneks were on the Gestapo’s “Wanted” list, Felicia was transferred to a local convent [on Kazimierzowska St. belonging to the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Vurgin Mary21], while her parents fled to Warsaw. The Bocheneks themselves also fled to Warsaw, after finding an apartment in Lwow for the three members of the Amscislawski family, who also sought refuge with them. The Bocheneks likewise sheltered Professor Jozef Feldman, who was being hounded by the Gestapo, first in their Cracow home and later in their Warsaw home. In Warsaw, the Bocheneks helped Professor Henryk Glowiczower, Susanna’s husband, who was already in Warsaw under an assumed identity. Throughout the occupation, the Bocheneks saw to all the needs of their Jewish acquaintances who sought refuge with them. They took special care of Lea Riesel, who was in the throes of a nervous breakdown, and her daughter, Felicia, who had taken ill at the convent and required hospitalization. In undertaking these selfless acts of courage, the Bocheneks were guided by an unwavering sense of loyalty to their friends.

[2] Sister Wanda Garczynska [Garczyńska] was the prioress of the Chaste Sisters [Niepokalanki—Sisters of the Immaculate Conception] Nunnery in Warsaw, which served as a shelter for many Jews, especially children, during the 21 Grynberg, Księga sprawiedliwych, p.49.

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