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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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In the spring of 1944, the Germans transferred to Szczawnica the well-known Helcel Institute, a home for the aged in Kraków … I was the chaplain of that institute. Along with Sister Bronisława Wilemska, the superior, we sheltered among the residents of the institute two Jewish woman and three Jewish men. Of course, it was necessary at the outset to obtain for them the so-called Kennkarte or identity documents. … All of the charges of the institute as well as the personnel [nuns and lay staff] knew that there were Jews hidden among us. It was impossible to conceal that fact, even though it was known what danger faced those who were responsible for sheltering Jews.

After the passage of weeks and months many of the residents of Szczawnica learned of the Jewish retirees. No one betrayed this to the Germans who were stationed in the immediate vicinity … The following account is found in Gutman and Bender, The Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations, volume 4: Poland, Part 1, at page 487.

During the occupation, Reverend Albin Malysiak [Małysiak] and Sister Bronislawa [Bronisława] Wilemska helped five Jews. At that time, Sister Bronislawa was the head of the Helcel Home for the Aged and Retarded in Cracow, where Reverend Albin was chaplain. In 1943, five Jews came to the home and stayed there as wards: Katarzyna Styczen [Styczeń], 45; Helena Kachel, 50; Zbigniew Koszanowski, who was in his forties; Henryk Juanski [Juański], who was in his thirties, and another man who was aged between 30 and 35. They were provided with forged papers, meals, and clothing. “We helped them for humanitarian reasons. Jesus Christ told us to love everybody,” wrote Reverend Albin in his 86 testimony to Yad Vashem. In the spring of 1944, all the tenants of the Home, including the sisters, nurses, and secular staff, were deported by the Germans to Szczawnica Zdroj [Zdrój], Nowy Soncz [Sącz] district. The five Jews also went along to Szczawnica as if they were regular residents of the home. “Nearly all those living in the Home knew that Sister Wilemska and I were hiding Jews,” wrote Reverend Albin. Many of the residents of Szczawnica knew it too, but no one informed the authorities, despite the fact that there was a German police post in the neighborhood. Helena Kachel died in the fall of 1944. Soon afterwards, Katarzyna Styczen also died. The men survived until the liberation in January 1945.

Katarzyna’s daughter, Maria Rolicka, went to Szczawnica after receiving news of her mother’s death. “I talked to the sisters and the reverend father who helped my mother and the four other Jews,” she wrote. Reverend Albin told her that he and her mother had many “long talks and discussions. We used to walk in Gorny [Górny] Park in Szczawnica and discuss different problems of Jews, Poles, and humanity in general.” One of the Jews rescued at the Helcel Institute was the mother of Mary Rolicka, who wrote about her family’s fate in “A Memoir of Survival in Poland,” Midstream, April 1988, at pages 26–27.

My first encounter with Holocaust documentation was watching a scene from the movie Shoah, which, by chance, I saw on television. The scene struck me as unfair to the Poles, and I decided that I had an obligation to tell my side of the story. … Despite what Raul Hilberg has said in his book The Destruction of the European Jews, thousands of Jews escaped from the Warsaw ghetto, and thousands—not “several hundred”—were living in Warsaw. The people who escaped (Hilberg called it “evasion”) either hid with the help of Poles, or became partisans, or, like me, lived openly by using Polish identities. The latter was possible only if one did not “look Jewish”, and could blend with the Polish background, as far as language and behaviour are concerned.

This was a dangerous life; many did not make it. But living with Poles gave me an insight in the Polish way of thinking about the Jews and the Holocaust. I met all kinds of Poles; they did not know I was Jewish, nor anything of my personal background. My father founded the Zionist organization in Chmielnik; my grandfather, founder of a synagogue in Chmielnik, was a Zionist and taught his sons to follow his path.

In the scene of Shoah that I saw, a stupid-looking group of country folk was asked by Claude Lanzmann, the director of the film, why the Holocaust had happened. They replied that perhaps the Jews had their blood on their own hands, because they had killed Jesus Christ. I never heard this anti-Semitic statement during the Holocaust. The implication is that the idea comes from the Catholic Church, but in that case would the Church have helped the Jews?

I must state here positively that many Poles, and the Church too, helped the Jews, knowing that there was a death penalty for that. I do not say there was no anti-Semitism in Poland, or that there were no Polish blackmailers, or collaborators with the Gestapo, paid “per capita” for denouncing Jews. All of us passing as Poles had very painful encounters with such criminals. But how can one expect that there would be no criminals among the Poles? Is there any country in which criminals would not take advantage of the vulnerable? … Nazi propaganda described deportations from the ghettos as “resettlement for work.” Many wanted to believe this: Jews are optimists, and the truth about deportations was difficult to believe for the Jewish victims in the ghettos, and for the West, where these facts were known. Clandestine data were brought to Chmielnik by Anielewicz, the hero of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; my mother believed him. She decided that the family had to flee, and got the necessary Polish documents.

My grandfather was shot by the SS. My father was sent to Buchenwald. But four members of my family escaped in the last week before the deportation. My mother found shelter in Warsaw; it did not work out. She ran to Cracow [Kraków], to which I had gone directly from Chmielnik. A mother of my Polish friends recommended me to a woman who had a room to rent. My mother, however, had to rely on little hotels, boarding houses, and pensions, swamped by Jews escaping from the ghettos, where a witch hunt for Jews was going on. My mother went through a terrible ordeal: she stayed only a few days in each place. I kept finding new accommodations for her. She could barely survive.

But then a landlady recommended her to the Sisters of Charity, a group of Roman Catholic nuns. She found a safe haven in the Retirement Home in Szczawnica, where she survived the war with other Jewish “retirees”—as far from retirement age as she was. I met her in 1944 in Cracow, where she was brought by the Sisters. She could not find words to thank them. They gave her not only economic but moral support, without which she could not have survived the many months of anguish about my fate, especially the two months of the Warsaw Uprising [of August 1944]. Nothing is equal to what the Sisters did for my mother.

With this tale of survival in Poland, I hope to rectify some of the unjust treatment of Poles in historical accounts of the Holocaust.

The Daughters of Mary Immaculate extended help to Jews in various localities. The following accounts pertain to

the towns of Hrubieszów and Lida. (Jan Żaryn, Dzieje Kościoła katolickiego w Polsce (1944–1989) [Warsaw:

–  –  –

[1] Sisters in Hrubieszów aided Jews especially during the liquidation of the ghetto. Sister Błażeja Bednarczyk … transported Jews and their belongings from the ghetto to the town square and she fulfilled their requests such as buying food, fruit and other items. On several occasions she thought that she would not manage to survive the ordeal, because the Gestapo had caught her red-handed [and was nearly shot].

The Sisters also sheltered an 11-year-old girl in their convent in Hrubieszów. (Kurek, Your Life is Worth Mine, pp.125–26.) [2] ‘One day, we found on the porch [in Lida] two small children of Jewish nationality aged one-and-a-half and two-anda-half years old. The children were horribly neglected. One of the boys suffered from trachoma and the other had an enormous furuncle on his head. It was the war—one could not get necessary medicines, and there were no separate rooms for them so they had to sleep in a common room with the healthy children. Sister Konstancja [Bolejko] worked hard during the day and watched over the children during the night. She suffered all that hardship only to save the children and spare them from death. She baptized the boys, giving them both the name of Antoni. We kept it most secret from the other children that they were Jewish. But somehow somebody must have found out about it and informed the Germans since an automobile soon arrived at the house. The Germans asked to speak to the director and they immediately asked about the whereabouts of the Jewish children. I replied that there were no Jewish children in our place and asked Sister Nela to bring the children which had recently come to us. We had previously agreed that we would show Polish children whose nationality would be easy to prove, and that we would hide the small Jews. That time we succeeded and the Germans left empty-handed.’ … One morning in the spring of 1944, two persons dressed in military uniforms and carrying rifles and rucksacks appeared and headed straight for our barn, where we hid with the children. … The said that we are looking for our children, those who had been left on the porch. … The parents were overjoyed to see their children.

An unusual rescue was that of Dr. Olga Goldfein (Goldfajn), who twice took refuge in the convent of the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Family in Prużana, in eastern Poland. Unable to remain there permanently, dressed in a nun’s habit, she made her way with Sister Dolorosa (Genowefa Czubak), to her benefactor’s family home near Łowicz, in central Poland. They were put up at many churches along the way—in Białowieża, Dąbrowa, Sokoły, and Małkinia. Genowefa Czubak was recognized as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem. The following account was prepared in 1945, shortly after the events in question. (Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman, eds., The Black Book: The Ruthless Murder of Jews by German-Fascist Invaders Throughout the TemporarilyOccupied Regions of the Soviet Union and in the Death Camps of Poland During the War of 1941–1945 [New York: Holocaust Library, 1981], pp.206–12.) The war caught me in the border town of Pruzhany [Prużana], where I was a doctor in the hospital. … At 5:00 A.M. on November 2, [1942] Gestapo men encircled the ghetto and announced that we would be evacuated. … On November 7, I received a note from a nun whom I knew—Sister Chubak [Genowefa Czubak]. She asked me to meet her. I went to the barbed-wire barrier and saw her. She gave a liter of vodka to the sentry, and we were permitted to talk.

She gave me 300 marks to bribe the guards. I told her that I was exhausted and in no condition to struggle any further; I said it would be better if I left this life. When we separated, I decided to be rude to the guard so that he would shoot me. … But the sergeant did not shoot me.

Then I went to Berestitsky, a barber friend of mine. I knew him to be a resolute person. I called him out into the alley and said: “I wanted to take poison, but poison didn’t work; I wanted to be shot, but German bullets won’t kill me. I asked him to help me. Berestitsky carefully raised the barbed wire; I crawled under it, crossed the street, the gardens, and the yards, and rushed to the convent. Soon I was with my acquaintance, the nun. She immediately gave me different clothes and hid me. I had three places to take refuge—in the cow shed, under the stairway, and between two cupboards. I sat locked up and constantly looked out of the window to see who was coming. All this time I had terrible toothaches, and I could not sleep at night, but I could not go to a dentist. The week passed in constant terror. In the daytime I hid in the room, and at night I would come out in the yard and listen to what was happening in the ghetto. It was dark and terrifying. Fires blazed around the ghetto, and machine guns and light tanks were stationed all around. Planes flew over the ghetto.

At the end of the fifth week of my stay in the convent a representative of the Judenrat came to me with letters from the 88 chairman of the Judenrat and my husband. They wrote that the Germans were interested in my health. (The Germans believed that I was still sick after the poisoning.) If I did not return, the ghetto would suffer because of me.

I did not take long to think the matter over: if the ghetto was in danger because of me, I would return. But I did not know how to enter the ghetto. The messenger said that he would disguise me as an employee of the commissar who was going to the ghetto to find good wool to knit him a sweater.

A few hours later I was in the ghetto. … At 5:00 A.M. of January 28, [1943] troops approached the ghetto, and at 7:00 an evacuation was declared. At 8:00 many carts were brought in to remove us from the ghetto. … The first group of carts set off at 9:00 A.M., and I was one of the passengers.

It took us five hours to reach the Linovo [Linowo] station, where the Germans told us to get out of the carts. Everyone was beaten on the head with whips until he or she lost consciousness. I received two such blows, and my head buzzed like a telegraph pole. … We were kept at the train station for three hours … We were thrown into the cars like sacks of potatoes.

… At the last minute, just before the car was to be sealed, I jumped out onto the tracks. My “badge” was covered with a large kerchief. I walked quickly down a street, came to a garden, and walked along a fence into a field. After that I walked only through fields, since there were Gestapo men on the road. … In this fashion I walked until 2:00 A.M. Finally I reached the town. I wandered around the outskirts of the town for two hours, afraid to meet anyone. I approached the convent with extreme caution and quietly knocked on the window. The mother-superior opened the door and immediately began to rub my hands. My friend, Sister Chubak, put me in her bed, and I fell asleep.

In the morning (January 29) I was awakened by crying. It was one of the nuns; it turned out that she was afraid that my return to the convent would doom the nuns. Sister Chubak tried to convince her that we would leave the following day … At that point I broke into the conversation and said that if I had managed to jump from a death train, I would manage to leave this house without causing any unpleasantness.

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