«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
My mother heard about a convent there that was taking Jewish children to save them from the Germans. My mother was dressed in peasant clothes and left me at the St. Joseph orphanage run by nuns from the order of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. My mother instructed me to say that my aunt from another city could not take care of me and that my parents were lost. The Mother Superior accepted this story and for along time the nuns did not know that I was Jewish. I was the first Jewish child they took and after me they took more until there were about thirteen Jewish children The Mother Superior was Sister Amelia [Emilia] Małkowska and the orphanage was at 80 Mickiewicza Street. There was Sister Ligoria, and Sister Bernarda. Sister Alfonsa was a third nun who left the order [after the war] and moved to Australia and married a Jewish man.
The nuns did not try to convert us. There was one girl, Hania, who refused to go with her uncle from the United States after the war. She remained with the nuns and was eventually baptized, married a Polish man, and lives in Przemyśl. Many of the children like myself went to Israel and have lived there. Miriam, my friend in the orphanage, is a neighbour in Israel to this day.
I remember a time when German soldiers came to stay in the orphanage and they played with the little boy, Staś. One day a woman wanted to take him with her when she left with the German soldiers. One of the nuns rescued him. He was circumcised and would have been discovered. Interestingly, he could only ask two of the older Jewish girls to change his diaper so that no one would discover that he was circumcised. Somehow he knew this even though he was only two or three years old. …
Testimony of Sister Bernarda:
I was in Przemyśl three or four years, 1942 to 1945. I was in the order of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. We had in our orphanage thirteen Jewish children and about forty Polish children. It was located at 80 Mickiewicza Street. It was across the street from a church and we could see the altar from our windows. Before this we had an orphanage that was destroyed by a bomb. The City gave us this building which had been previously owned by Jews who had been forced into the Ghetto. This was a two-storey home in disrepair. We conducted also a preschool and there were rooms for games and play.
Sister Emilia-Józefa Małkowska was the Mother Superior of our order. I worked with Sister Ligoria Grenda. Some women delivered some of the Jewish children. I did not know her. Sister Superior did not tell us any particulars in order not to endanger us with this knowledge. The less we knew the better. But I knew that some of the boys were circumcised and from the shooting in town I knew we had Jewish children.
Conditions were very hard at this time. We had little food and there was terrible hunger. We scraped the bottom of the barrel for any remnants of marmalade for the children. The Germans were right next door, behind the wall, and we all lived in fear that they would discover the Jewish children. These children were very afraid of the Germans. One little boy, Edek, slept with me in my bed and in the middle of the night would cry out, “Auntie, Auntie, save me! They will shoot me!” One child was named Hania and she was twelve. Before she came to us she was hiding in a chimney. She was terribly malnourished. Her parents who lived in Zasanie had been shot by the Germans.
My job in the orphanage was to wash laundry and scrub floors. I would dress the children in clean underwear and they would get it dirty very quickly. I was sixteen years old and so the children did not confide in me too much. There was a lot of work just to keep the children clothed. I patched and sewed and picked lice off the children. My own clothing I made into clothing for the children. There was little food. We made sugar from red beets. Bread was made with sawdust. We had no coal to heat the house. We bathed four or five children in the same water. We did not know any last names. There was Bronek, Julek, etc. Maybe Sister Superior knew the last names. We knitted sweaters and sold them for food. We knitted until two o’clock in the morning. Five children slept under one cover. We made our own soap. We had no vitamins. The children were hungry and we filled them with potatoes.
There was a Mr. Walczak who would buy wounded horses and give us meat and fat. The children ate soup made from beets and horse fat. We would go on quests for food. I was not used to this from my upbringing but we would go out to collect money for the children. The children did not starve and no one died of hunger. They did catch colds due to lack of vitamins and sufficient clothing. You could not keep them on a leash. They would run around in the garden and play.
The children were dirty and brought lice with them in their clothing. Most had scabies. The wounds were very deep in their skin and the wounds festered and as they hardened they would scratch because it itched them a lot. Eventually I got a recipe for a salve. I had to get some grey stone crystals, grind them up and I mixed it with horse fat and sulphur which became a salve. I applied it twice and the itching went away. If someone knew what I had done I would have gone to jail.
Their skin was so delicate. It all ended well. One had to stand on her head to do what one could for these children. None of the children died and no one was discovered by the Germans.
There was a Polish organization, RGO [Rada Główna Opiekuńcza—Central Welfare Council] it was called, that helped us quite a bit especially near the end of the war. There was also a man who would bring us money, medicine, and clothing.
I did not know who he was. We grew some vegetables and fruit in our garden but conditions were very tough.
We did not christen the children. Because we had some Ukrainian and Polish children, the Jewish children went to church. I gave Maria the key to the church across the street and showed her the place she and the other Jewish children should hide if the Germans came to the orphanage in search of Jewish children. It was in a secret place in the altar where the holy relics were kept. The children were well-trained and would not say anything unnecessary, and if they were awakened in the night by the Germans they would still do very well. How much terror these children experienced! Fear, hard work, this was our reward. We had no employment possibilities. Our work was for the Lord and we made sacrifices for the sake of the children. Our aim was to save human beings. We did not do it for compensation. After all the Jews had nothing. They were begging for food, begging to live.
76 After the war, the children went in different directions. Some were picked up by relatives and friends. Most went to Israel.
Hania did not want to go with relatives. She wanted to convert to Catholicism. She eventually did, married, and lives in Przemyśl. I correspond with many of the “children.” We reminisce about the war very seldom. The stresses are gone and it is very hard to return to them. For them these years were hell, they suffered very much. Maria was constantly praying, “Please, God, let my parents return and not be shot.” She wanted to convert but the priest would not agree as she was only 14 years old. Eventually she did convert after the war.
The youngest child was Stasiu and he was only two and a half. His name now is Gabriel Koren and he lives in Israel.
Whenever I would wash him he would move his bowels on the floor. The memories of this time have been paid for in nervousness, bad health, and bombings. The children were very aware of what was happening. Stasiu had a game in which he would throw his hat in the air and when it came down he would yell, “Bomb!” We did our best not to scare the children. They were scared enough and so were we.
Testimony of Sister Ligoria:
I stayed in Przemyśl from the winter of 1943 till 1956. The orphanage was established when transports of refugees from Volhynia [fleeing massacres by Ukrainian nationalists] started coming. The Germans would bring adults and very many children. All of them were put in the camp at Bakończyce in Przemyśl. Rada Główna Opiekuńcza (RGO) turned to Mother Superior Emilia Małkowska, a great child lover and orphan protector about organizing an orphanage. The RGO arranged a house in Mickiewicza Street, opposite the church at Błonie. It was a very primitive building in bad condition.
The RGO would take children out of the camp and put them in our shelter. At first, no one had even considered admitting Jewish children. The kids were mostly Polish. A lot of them did not know their own names. They were sad and apathetic.
No wonder, some had witnessed the death of their parents.
We were terribly poor, even though the RGO did their best to help. At least the children did not cry of hunger. After some time also Jewish children started appearing. Those cases were handled by Mother Superior only. She did not let us in on the secret for safety reasons. There was always somebody involved in the “deliveries.” I particularly remember one name.
It was Mrs Romankiewicz, who lived near the Ghetto. Some children came to us by themselves. Among them was a small, eighteen-month-old boy. The children’s surnames were changed. Usually they had no documents. If anybody knew anything about their background, it was Mother Superior. She tried to get rid of any similarities. We only knew about some of those Jewish children, not all of them. It was Providence that saved them, not us. It was so very dangerous. The house, the backyard, the garden could be seen easily—we never locked the children up.
We kept about thirteen Jewish kids, boys and girls. I was the go-between for the RGO and the orphanage. My job was catering. I used to go to the Town Council where one could always get something by begging.
The one who took more care of the children was sister Bernarda. She did what she could: she would sew and change the clothes from her own outfit. The children from the camp were in a terrible hygienic condition, some of them were injured.
We had to help one another as there were only a few of us: five sisters and thirty children. Of course, I also looked after the kids. I remember very well carrying little Staś in my arms. He was a pretty boy. Everybody loved him! He was the youngest one. I couldn’t recognize him when I saw him fifty years later. I have the closest contact with Marynia, Maria Klein (Miriam). She writes to me in Polish. After the war I used to receive many letters, some “children” visited me in Cracow with their parents. I am not in touch with them any more. [This account is from October 1998—Ed.] Only with Marysia, always twice a year. And with Staś. All of them survived. I always say that it was nothing but the great Divine Providence over those children and us all. I tell them: “You should thank God, not us, we didn’t save you.” One day, a car full of men stopped opposite our house. They got out and looked at the building. I was afraid that they had discovered somebody and were going to enter the orphanage any minute. I was scared! Sister Superior was already very ill at that time (she died on 12. 04. 1944). I couldn’t even pray. Suddenly they got back into the car and drove away. I don’t really know what they were after, but it was a frightening moment for all of us.
Our house was never searched by the Gestapo. There was one more orphanage in Przemyśl, run by the Sisters of the Order of Providence [in Zasanie]. We learned that somebody had given them away. The Germans went there and decided that the nuns had not known one of the kids was Jewish. They took the child away and that was it.
In our house a group of military officers occupied one or two apartments. They were not German, they were soldiers of some other nationality. Somebody told me that our children would visit their place sometimes, including Staś. They took to him very much. Staś was circumcised and he would often pee in his pants. But he never did it while at their place. A miracle? Just think if they had started changing his clothes!
Those medals, awards, they shouldn’t be for us. It was God who chose to save those children. It was His great protection, Divine Providence. I am positive about it.
Our children were, among others, Marysia, two Jadzias, Irenka, Stasiu, Edziu … I can’t remember many names. [The 77 account is from October 1998—Ed.] Ah, yes, there was also Zosia. I remember, when I went to the RGO one day, there
came a thirteen-year-old girl and asked to be taken under protection. The president of the RGO asked me:
“Will you take her, sister?” “Well, yes, I will.” And Zosia, the Jewish girl, came with me.
We tried to organize their time. There were different age groups. The eldest child was fourteen. They were all very apathetic. Well, they had been through terrible things. We couldn’t make them smile. They just sat there and stared ahead.
We tried to keep them busy, to prevent them from thinking. We organized physical exercise for them. They would go to church with us and learn to pray. Sister Bernarda used to make them stand at the back of the church for other children not to see that they didn’t know how to pray. They learned with time. They were very worried when the front was approaching.
The older girls asked to be baptized, but we didn’t do it. Later they recalled it like this: “For me the church was heaven and rescue, while being Jewish meant the Germans and death.” Such were their associations.
At the end, when parents and families started collecting their children, they didn’t want to leave. Stasiu stretched out his arms and screamed: “Tyćka Gina Tyćka Gin!” He meant Sister Longina who worked in the kitchen and loved him very much. The children used to call us “mateczki” (mothers), hence “Tyćka.” Apart from Sister Longina, Sister Bernarda and myself, there was also Sister Alfonsa Wąsowska. … There was also Sister Jakuba. And, of course, our Mother Superior, Sister Emilia from Warsaw, a good and noble person, mother of the orphans.
Testimony of Sister Alfonsa:
I was born in Węgrów, Poland. My father was a farmer. I had four brothers and sisters. My father bought animals for butchering, and he often did business with Jewish people. Jews were often in our home.