«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
In the summer of 1942, 11-year-old Estera Faktor and her five-year-old sister, Batia, escaped from the Warsaw ghetto and wandered through fields and villages until they arrived at the Kaluszyn [Kałuszyn] ghetto, where they were reunited with their brother, Janek, and their sisters, Halina and Regina. A few days before the liquidation of the ghetto and the deportation of its inhabitants to Treblinka, all five Faktor children escaped from the ghetto. Two of them—Janek and Regina—never made it to the Aryan side of the city. Halina, who did not look Jewish, was employed on a local farm, while Estera and little Batia reached the village of Skorzec. After introducing themselves as Christian orphans, they were sent by the village mayor to the home of an elderly, childless couple who lived in abject poverty. Despite their willingness to help, the elderly couple was unable to provide for the two girls. Ester and Batia, therefore, turned to the nun Stanislawa Jozwikowska for help. Stanislawa consulted with the Mother Superior, Beata-Bronislawa Hryniewicz, who next day arranged for the sisters to be transferred to the Dom Serca Jezusowego (Sacred Heart) convent in Skorzec, without knowing they were Jewish. When the headmistresss of their school asked them for their birth and baptism certificates, the girls had no choice but to inform the nuns of their true identity.
Hedy Rosen (a four-year-old child in the summer of 1942) and her mother had wandered through the woods for two years, seeking shelter from the fury of the Nazi Final Solution. One day they arrived outside the walls of a convent in Przemyśl in southern Poland. Panting for breath and on the verge of collapse, Hedy’s mother looked into her daughter’s eyes and told her quietly: “You have no choice. From now on your name is Jadwiga Kozowska and you are a Christian Pole.” After repeating with her several verses of a Catholic prayer, she placed Hedy near the convent’s entrance and disappeared behind a tree. Hedy stood there alone and wept. Her cries alerted the nuns, who opened the gates and fetched the child inside. There she stayed for two full years. She was the first Jewish child to be admitted. Twelve others followed in her wake.
St. Joseph’s Heart was a children’s orphanage with main offices in Cracow [Kraków]. In 1942, Sister Alfonsa (Eugenia Wąsowska) was sent from Cracow to the Przemyśl convent to help the other five nuns and one priest to care for the fortyseven orphaned Catholic children. With the approval of her Cracow superiors, the Przemyśl mother superior decided to give shelter to Jewish children; she then suddenly took ill and expired. When her successor in turn fell ill, Sister Alfonsa was made responsible for the “Jewish Section” of the Catholic orphanage. Under her stewardship, a total of thirteen Jewish children (ten girls and three boys) were sheltered in the orphanage until the city’s liberation in July 1944.
Przemyśl had a Jewish population of 20,000 at the start of the war. When the city was liberated in 1944, only some 250 Jews had survived the Nazi terror.
Hedy’s mother had in the meantime found work in a nearby village, under a new identity, and on occasion brought food to the orphanage for her daughter’s sake. “I was forbidden to show the slightest sign that I knew her,” relates Hedy, “for fear of the other children. I had to disregard her completely.” The fear of detection was a constant threat to the children and the orphanage as well. Various tactics were used. One was to tell the Jewish boys “that if a stranger comes to the convent and asks a boy what he wants to be when he grows up, he should say a priest,” Sister Alfonsa relates, adding, “We took the children to church along with Polish children, not because we were trying to make them Catholics but just so 73 nobody would suspect they were Jews.” Sister Alfonsa was committed, soul and heart, to her charges. She saw to it that the children did not lack food or clothing during those years of dearth and want for the local population. Not able to repress the severe traumatic experience which had preceded their placement in the orphanage, the Jewish children were prone to sudden bursts of hysterical weeping.
“Sometimes at mealtime a child would cry and throw his food on the floor,” Sister Alfonsa recalls. Miriam Klein remembers some of the children screaming at night and wetting their beds. “Sister Alfonsa always knew how to calm us.
Sleeping with us in the small room she was alert to every noise and often got up at night to place an additional blanket on the frightened children.” Immediately upon the city’s liberation, Sister Alfonsa took the thirteen Jewish children to the newly constituted Jewish Committee in Przemyśl and promptly turned them over. “They were Jewish children and belonged with Jews,” Sister Alfonsa emphasized. In one case, a father who was a shoemaker, made a pair of new shoes for Sister Alfonsa as a sign of his appreciation.
… Recalling her stay at the orphanage, Miriam Klein remarks, “I was privileged to experience calm and mental relaxation, and there I discovered the best and most beautiful of women.” Miriam (Maria) Klain’s account is found in Elżbieta Isakiewicz, Harmonica: Jews Relate How Poles Saved Them from the Holocaust (Warsaw: Polska Agencja Informacyjna, 2001), at pages 191–98.
My father was very well liked among the Polish population, he belonged to the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), which was valued in the Polish intellectual community, and he also was on good terms with Kedyw [the diversionary command of the Polish Home Army] … … he tried to find another place of shelter [for me]. It was a convent of the order of the Sacred Heart in Przemyśl, in Mickiewicza Street, where they also ran an orphanage. One of my father’s acquaintances dealt in cattle and knew the Mother Superior of the convent, who was a descendant of the Czartoryskis—Sister Emilia Małkowska. She herself had brought up the subject in a conversation and stated that she was going to rescue Jewish children. There were already Jewish children at the convent, but not from Przemyśl, only from Wołyń [Volhynia].. I said that I wasn’t going to any convent. Then my father took me up to the attic where there was a small window—there was an operation taking place right then. They [the Germans] were catching children and killing them. I saw how, on Mikołaja Street, they were taking these children by the legs and smashing their heads against the walls. I saw how they were burning dead bodies mixed up with living ones and layers of wood. They set fire to these heaps with petrol or something of the kind, I don’t know what, but the whole town was saturated with the smell afterwards and tew wind made the ashes fly in the air. What else did I see?
People hanged with dogs. … So my father said, ‘You’re thinking about death? Look, that’s what it looks like. If you don’t go to the convent, the same will happen to you.’ So I went, thank God I went. It was a bandage for my soul. A soothing compress. Something wonderful.
The nuns occupied a two-storey building. There were six of them, the best nuns in the world. Conditions were the pits, but the nuns were the best in the world. One of them [Sister Alfonsa] begged for food for us, going from house to house. The Polish woman who took me out of the ghetto brought milk. She was called Kazimiera Romankiewicz. … There were fourteen Jewish children in the nuns’ orphanage and the rest were Polish orphans, dirty, pitiful, flea-ridden, sickly, whose parents had been killed, among others, by members of Bandera’s [nationalist] Ukrainian groups. There were, for example, girls there who had had their stomachs cut open. They were no different to us, the Jewish girls. They had the same scared-looking eyes. We all looked the same. When I arrived with Mrs. Kazia, I was introduced to the Mother Superior. Later Sister Małkowska’s heart could no longer bear the life of continual tension and fear—she died. But that was later. Then the nuns introduced me to Hania, a Jewish girl who had been there for some time. I knew who she was because she was the daughter of a friend of my father’s, but I didn’t let on, as though I had never seen her before in my life. ‘Show Marysia where the toilet is,’ she said, ‘and where her bed is, introduce her to the life of the day-nursery.’ When we got down to the toilet, we hugged, kissed each other and burst into tears. Then other girls joined in too: Zosia, Basia, and others. In this secret way, a get-together took place, so that nobody would suspect that we knew each other. … There were three circumcised boys among us. One of them was a toddler. We took great care that nobody saw us changing his nappies, that was why either the nuns or the older Jewish girls did it. … Once the Ukrainian police, who were co-operating with the Germans, occupied the first floor of our house—we were terrified. … I had never had anything to do with Christianity. My father was a member of the PPS, my uncle was a traditional Jew … When I came to the convent, I didn’t know how to pray or make the sign of the cross, I knew nothing. Sister Jakuba told me to kneel down. I objected. ‘I’m Jewish,’ I said, ‘I don’t know whether life is worth changing your personality for.’ Then Sister Jakuba suggested that I kneel at the end of the chapel and just make miming movements with my mouth so that it 74 would just seem like I was praying. I pretended like that for a month or more. But I was never punished; I never heard a bad word, or any anti-Semitic allusions. On the contrary, it was I who asked questions; I was too clever by half. I wanted to know what God was like, why he treated us in this way.
They were patient. They were good. Whenever they had a crumb of extra food—sometimes the priest brought a piece of cake—they gave it to us. I kept hearing, ‘Marysia, open wide, I have something for you.’ The nuns took us under their protection and clasped us to their breasts. I remember them all: Sister Ligoria Grenda, Sister Bernarda, Sister Longina, Sister Jakuba and Sister Leokadia—a probationer nun who only took her vows after the war, because it was not possible during the war. And also Sister Alfonsa … So, it is hard to say when the process of conversion began, under the influence of their personal example, their love.
After a certain time, I decided that I wanted to be christened. But the nuns said, ‘No, you have parents and you’ll go back to them; faith is not some sort of pendulum.
Then Przemyśl was bombed. I knelt before the priest and kissed his hands, I begged him to christen me. The priest said, ‘If a bomb lands here, you’ll be christened.’ No bomb fell.
When the liberation came in 1944, I did not want to return to my parents. The nuns reminded me that amongst the Ten Commandments there was also this one: Honour thy father and thy mother. ‘You are sinning by not returning to your parents,’ they repeated. And of course I did not want to sin. I went back. But when I went to church for mass, my father would beat me. I went about with a swollen face. It was hell within hell, the two together. … I was very happy in Poland, I studied, I played the piano. I was the only Jew in the class, everything was working out wonderfully, except that when there was a retreat, my parents would take me away and I couldn’t receive any of the holy sacraments. I waged war with my father for four years about the Church. But I never gave up hope.
Then in 1948 we moved to Sweden … The accounts of the nuns themselves—Sister Bernarda, Sister Ligoria and Sister Alfonsa—are found in John J.
Hartman and Jacek Krochmal, eds., I Remember Every Day…: The Fates of the Jews of Przemyśl during World War II (Przemyśl: Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Nauk w Przemyślu; Ann Arbor, Michigan: Remembrance & Reconciliation Inc., 2002), at pages 211–18. The account of Hedy Rosen (Tugendhaft) is also there, at pages 163–64.
Account of Hedy Rosen:
I was born in Cracow in 1936. When the war broke out in 1939 and the Germans captured Cracow my father was immediately taken away … No one knows where he was taken, but he was never seen again.
My mother and I fled and went to Katowice and then to various towns. We lived for almost two years in the countryside— in dog kennels and horse stables with barely enough to eat. By this time my mother managed to get “Aryan” papers, as she did not look Jewish. I did look Jewish and so she had trouble getting papers for me. We went from town to town until we came to Przemyśl.