«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
Augustine’s church, now within the confines of the walled ghetto. Bishop Niemira worked closely with the Security Corps (Korpus Bezpieczeństwa), an underground military organization of the Home Army which maintained numerous contacts with the Jewish Military Union. Some of his activities were described in Andrzej Chciuk, ed., Saving Jews in War-Torn Poland, 1939–1945 (Clayton, Victoria: Wilke and Company, 1969), at page 50. (This is one of several accounts about Bishop Niemira.) Henryk Szladkowski (Slade) … was assisted by the Catholic Bishop Niemira of Warsaw. When the Jews were being ordered into the Ghetto he rang the diocesan offices and asked for “Mr. Bishop Niemira”. The Bishop supplied him with a Certificate of Baptism and other falsified documents and before parting asked Mr. Szladkowski to refer to him any Jew who may need financial or other assistance.
Halina Gorcewicz was 13 years old when the war broke out. Her mother was a Polish Catholic and her father a Jew, who had nominally converted to Catholicism to marry her mother, but retained a strong identification with his Jewish tradition. Forced to live in the Warsaw ghetto, they were parishioners of St. Augustine’s church on Nowoliki Street. Although the parish was formally closed, some priests remained, including Bishop Karol 104 Niemira, the nominal pastor, and Rev. Franciszek Garncarek, the acting head of the parish. The priests of this parish were active in smuggling Jews, especially converts, out of the ghetto. Their work was continued later at the church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also within the ghetto, which remained open longer. It is there that Halina Gorcewicz went for help after the revolt in the ghetto was finally crushed by the Germans in early May of 1943. (Halina Gorcewicz, Why, Oh God, Why?, Internet: http://www.booksreborn.org/klinger/why/Why.html. See the chapters titled: “Ghetto, end of September 1940,” “Ghetto, the last days of April & May, 1943,” and “Warsaw, end of May, 1943.”) Early the next morning Mama went outside the wall on a special mission to the nuns … She had not been able to arrange anything with the nuns. The Germans had extended their attentions even to them. So she went to the Church of St. Augustyn [Augustine] at Nowolipki and found there not only the parish priest but also His Excellency, Bishop Niemira. She explained our situation to them. It was agreed that they would take the children. So she was comforted in this respect … We decided to ask engineer [Joachim] Jachimowicz what possibilities there were for the boys. Especially since they could be exposed to danger without Polish documents. They must accept that risk. And, of course, the condition that they take a vow not to give away how they found themselves on the other side.
Because I was still unable to give the boys any help I stood guard in the evening when they managed to get the children through the passage-way to the other side. Mosze came back happy and delighted, announcing that everything went off fine and the children were in a shelter beneath the church.
“So many children, oh boy!” he added. “I thought they wouldn’t have room for ours. The nuns took them away at once.
I told them I’d come for them when the storm had passed over our place. You know, Hana, that tall, older one … well, I’ve forgotten his name. You know, that … sort of rabbi of yours … you know …” “Ah, you mean Bishop Niemira?” I put in.
“That’s him!” Mosze picked up. “He patted me on the arm and said: ‘I’ve heard about you! I’ve heard what a brave boy you are. Remember—we’ll find a place for you here as well in case of need. Just come to me.’ I thanked him as best I knew how and ran off because there wasn’t much time left to get back through the passage-way.” … On my way back to my room I looked in on Mama. … She told me that she was very worried about the next day,
especially about me and the boys. … She began to explain further:
“Lala, my dear. For a long time now I’ve been trying to get papers—not only for you, but also for others—but it is not easy. … Remember one thing always. In case of anything, sometime, about some need, or at a difficult moment—your last chance is to reach His Excellency Bishop Niemira. You are to remember that. But as long as I am by you and with you and I do whatever is within my means, it is not ye time to go to him. He has problems of helping others on his mind at the moment and the most important thing is to tear out of this hell at least some of the youngest children who can be saved.” … [May 1943]: I was at Nowolipie and from here it was not far to the church [of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary] at Leszno. …That was my one and only chance of escape. My old church of St. Augustyn at Nowolipki had ceased to exist as a church long since. … And so I moved off, alone and deserted, over holes, craters and burial grounds of embers and rubble in which people lay buried. … In this way I covered a good distance from the place of slaughter. Somewhere beyond the corner of Karmelicka St. I found a half-buried cellar. I did not know what I might find there. But it was from there that, in 1939, tunnels led to a larger shelter—and from there right under the church. I did not have a torch or light of any kind. The question was— would I find the way? Had the tunnels collapsed or been filled in? … A small hole at the entrance. I just managed to squeeze through. … So, very carefully, I lowered myself bit by bit, finally to touch the ground with my feet. … Complete silence—a deathly hush. But suddenly it seemed to me that I could hear a murmur above this ceiling. I could not believe my ears. Should I call out? Try to find out if there was someone there? No. better not risk it. I had no weapon with which to defend myself if it came to that. … Using both my hands and my head, I exerted all my strength to find out whether this flap really could not be moved. It did move a little and I even saw a weak ray of light through the gap, but I did not have sufficient strength to lift the flap clear. It was heavy. … Finding one more cross-piece, I climbed higher by using it, bending down as I felt the flap against my head. … I had to open it completely. But what if it fell with a crash? I could feel cold air coming through. Perhaps this really was a prison dungeon? Such thoughts raced through my brain. … I could not go back—back to what? Where? So it was God’s will.
105 Whether to die there among the corpses in the dark—or here. Surely better here, even if it was a prison. … So … One, Two, Three! The flap fell to the floor with a crash which echoed in all directions. I disentangled my arms and legs from the ladder. A weak ray of light was coming as if from a candle shimmering in the distance. It helped me to find a grip and pull myself up. … Suddenly I felt someone’s warm hand touch mine and help to pull me up. For a second I lacked the strength to look up and see who this could be. … Stretched out on the floor, I saw a man’s gray head leaning over me,
the body draped in a dress reaching the ground. A warm voice—such a warm voice!—spoke to me quietly:
“Dear child, how did you get here? Are there many with you? We’ve waited so long!” When the initial impression wore off I could not believe that I was alive, that my eyes were seeing a man who was a priest—and that the place I had reached was a church.
He put his protective arms round me and led me to the other end of the second cellar where the small candle was burning, asking about others for whom he had been waiting, who were supposed to come here. That was why the entrance had been blocked, because they knew the password which they were to use so that he would open the flap. … He was surprised by my appearance and although I was very tired I told him as concisely as I could how I had got there.
I mentioned the bodies lying there, which I could not see in the darkness. … He stroked my hand and told me to sit down in a soft armchair. He excused himself for a moment, saying he would bring me some warm [grain] coffee. When he had gone I saw in the candlelight that the place was not large, but there was an altar. It was a small chapel in which this priest had sat waiting for those people from below the ground. He must have been a good man.
Deep in thought, I did not sit in the indicated armchair because I was too dirty. I knelt before the small alter, empty but for a Sacred Cross and the one candle. I lost myself in a prayer of thanksgiving … I also prayed for those who had remained in that “Dante’s Inferno” on earth and for all those who had not reached here. …
I felt a soft touch on my arm although I had not heard approaching footsteps. And these words:
“Come, child. You need a wash and you must be hungry! And you are surely tired, so must rest.
“You are in a reasonably safe place, but not to the extent that you can feel completely free. Here is our other underground chamber.” I turned and saw two men in clerical clothes. I looked at them and rubbed my eyes, unable to believe what I was seeing. I
fell on my knees again, saying:
“Praise be to our Lord. Is that His Excellency, Bishop Niemira?” “Yes, child,” came the reply. “We were arrested by the Gestapo at one time because of the children we rescued. But they released us. We have our chambers upstairs. They do not know about this hideaway, fortunately. That is why the new father, whom you did not know, is keeping vigil here. We only come here occasionally. It is not safe for us to be away from upstairs for long, or the Germans might discover this place.
“We have been waiting for several days for a larger group of those heroic ghetto fighters, then you came alone. Fr.
Sebastian has told me everything. I have forgotten your name, child. I know you and your parents. Wait—just a minute, just a minute—especially your Mama. Ah, I know! After that Gestapo investigation my brain has dimmed a little. Yes, you’re from Pawia, right? Oh yes, Mme. Zuzanna is your mother. A splendid woman!” “Does your Excellency perhaps know something about my Mama? Is she alive?” “Oh, yes. She has been very ill. She is with Mme. Oziemblowska [Oziembłowska] at present. She gazes at the burning ghetto in which she has long since buried you—and you are alive, thank God!” “Yes,” I replied. “Only thanks to the merciful Almighty, that is true, was I able to reach here. And for this favour I am grateful with all my heart.” “You will have to change your clothes before you can get out of here. Father Sebastian will give you anything at his disposal. I have, however, something in mind which I want to suggest to you, dear child. You were given the name Halina at your christening. That is not a Catholic name. I saw, however, how you prayed. … Have you been confirmed?” “No,” I answered.
“Then, I will confirm you myself. But not today, only tomorrow—and not in the morning but here, at night. Later you will leave here with God and go to your mother. It is a great pity that those for whom we’ve waited have not reached here. And now goodnight with God, darling. Father Sebastian will tell the rest.” His Excellency Niemira blessed me, raising his worthy hands above my head, whispering a prayer. When he finished, he
“I am proud of you! You are a brave girl. May God be praised.” “Amen,” I replied. I rose from my knees, but with such difficulty that if Fr. Sebastian had not supported me, I would have found myself on the floor. I had no strength left.
Fr. Sebastian led me down a similar shaft to the one which had brought me here to another, lower underground chamber. These were mattresses there and blankets for those who had been expected. There was a basin with water and a 106 little soap, also a wash cloth and a lot of women’s and men’s clothing on a chair in the corner.
Fr. Sebastian told me to have a wash, choose something for myself from among the underwear and clothes to change into. When ready, I was to pull on a string in the corner which would ring a bell letting him know. He would then provide me with a meal. I now felt acutely how tired and hungry I was. There was a wooden ladder here coming down. There was a small shelf on one wall on which stood a Crucifix and a small candle shone. So it was not dark. … A few moments later Fr. Sebastian came down, carrying a tray with a modest meal. Hot grain coffee, one slice of black, clay-like bread and an army biscuit. … “Eat, dear child, with a good appetite,” said Fr. Sebastian. “There’s not much of it, but our circumstances also are such that we must ration ourselves. And this is not supper, but breakfast—for it is morning now. You would not know it here, without a window. This is a special hideaway. … You must sleep, for you are very tired. It is quiet here. Should anything unexpected happen I will wake you and let you know. Here are some matches. I will douse the candle as I go out. … Goodnight! Stay with God!” … when I opened my eyes the candle burning on the shelf with the Crucifix again cast its soft light, penetrating the darkness. Father Sebastian was sitting by me, stroking my cheek.
“Come, child, get up! Before you get another meal you must offer yourself to God. Everything is ready for your confirmation, which His Excellency Niemira will administer to you himself. Here you are—here is a rosary if you would like to pray first. The ceremony will be upstairs.” “And my confession?” I asked.
Father Sebastian replied:
“Last night you confessed to us both the finest deeds of your life. You need not add anything more. You are as pure as snow and may you remain so always. I am going upstairs. You pray and come up right away. It is still and quiet underground now because it is night. …”
I wanted to pray, say at least part of that rosary, but I could not. …In place of prayer, my lips whispered once more:
“What for? Why, oh God, why? I live, I have survived and they are all dead. Why?”
From upstairs came Fr. Sebastian’s voice:
“Come up now, dear!” I smoothed down my hair and my dress and went up. Fr. Sebastian was waiting and he led me to the altar before which I had knelt yesterday. Waiting there was His Excellency Bishop Niemira.