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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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117 Samuel Bak was only eight years old when the German army entered Vilna [Wilno]. A child prodigy, he had the first exhibition of his drawings a year later, inside the ghetto. After his father was sent to a labor camp, he and his mother were taken in by Sister Maria [Mikulska], the Mother Superior of the Benedictine convent just outside the ghetto. ‘In time we became very good friends, Sister Maria and I,’ he later wrote. ‘I always waited impatiently for her daily visit. She supplied me with paper, coloured pencils, and old and worn children’s books, gave me lessons from the Old and New Testament, and taught me the essential Christian prayer. After several days Mother’s sister, Aunt Yetta, joined us; later her husband, Uncle Yasha, and Father, after they managed to escape the camp in which they had been long interned, were granted the same asylum.’ Only the Mother Superior and one other nun knew that there were men hiding in the convent. Eventually, as so often, the threat of discovery or denunciation loomed, and a new hiding place had to be found. [This occurred during the massive raids on Catholic convents and monasteries carried out by the Germans and Lithuanian police in March 1942, when scores of Polish priests and nuns were rounded up and interned.—Ed.] This was a former convent in which the Germans had housed the looted archives of a dozen museums and institutions in Vilna and the surrounding towns: ‘Trucks loaded with confiscated riches arrived daily to be unloaded in the ancient building’s courtyard,’ Samuel Bak recalled. ‘There the nuns, dressed now in civilian poverty, met a number of Jews who were sent every day from the ghetto to carry and pile the thousands of volumes, documents, and rare books that filled its rooms and corridors. One small group of them created a hiding place for the days that they foresaw would follow the final liquidation of the ghetto. The evening Mother and I arrived was a few months after the liquidation. Three families were now living buried under the books.’ Sister Maria and Father Stakauskas, a Catholic priest and former professor of history who was employed to supervise and sort the looted material, provided the hidden Jews with food and other necessities. ‘Had the authorities discovered their selfless acts, they would have been tortured and executed,’ Bak wrote. ‘Their courage and devotion went beyond anything I have ever encountered. It was Maria who convinced the group in hiding to take in a woman and a child. She exclaimed to them our state of total despair. Sending us back would have meant our death. The nine people had a hard choice to make, and they vacillated, as clearly we would take up a part of their space as well as some of the very limited portions of available food. Moreover, a few of them were afraid our presence could increase their chance of being detected. But Maria made it clear how much she cared about us. The group could not afford to alienate her. All this came to our knowledge only later, but it provides one more link in our chain of miracles.’ Sister Maria visited every night. ‘She would knock lightly on a wooden beam, three knocks that were the sign for us to dismantle the bundles of books inserted into our tunnel. She always came with some food, some necessary medications, and, most important, with good news that the German armies were losing on all fronts and that the days of our ordeal were numbered. Her optimism and her courage nourished the energies that were vital for our survival.’ Father Stakauskas visited once or twice a week. ‘In his old black leather case that was stuffed with papers, he brought some hidden carrots, a few dried fruits, or a piece of cheese. But his main contribution to the boosting of our morale was his summary of the BBC news. A village friend allowed him to listen to a clandestine radio in the basement of his barn. … See also Samuel Bak, Painted in Words: A Memoir (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press;

Boston: Pucker Art Publications, 2001), pp.335–46, 353–60, and Paldiel, The Path of the Righteous, pp.241–44.

The following account is from Gutman and Bender, The Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations, volume 4: Poland, Part 1, at page 516.

In 1942, Dr. Jozas [Juozas] Stakauskas and Vladas Zemaitis [Žemaitis] were employed sorting books, including some in Hebrew that had been brought to the Vilna [Wilno] archive. A group of 12 Jewish workers was brought from the Vilna ghetto to help sort the books in the archive and their employers treated them with kindness and respect. The Germans eventually expanded the archive, adding a building to it that had once been a monastery. Stakauskas and Zemaitis exploited the abundance of space in the building to create a hiding place for their Jewish employees, whom they had decided to save. They prepared a well-concealed room on one of the building’s floors and in September 1943 hid the 12 Jews who worked in the archive along with a four-year-old girl smuggled out of the ghetto. Maria Mikulska, a nun, was included in the secret and, disguised as an archive employee, she took responsibility for the fugitives’ care. Because Germans and Lithuanians also worked in the building, there was constant danger that the hiding place would be discovered, but this did not prevent Mikulska from continuing to care for the Jews hiding there, ignoring the very real danger to her life. Mikulska was motivated by the firm belief that she was doing the right thing and all the 13 Jews she cared for were liberated in July 1944. After the war Mikulska moved to Warsaw and most of the survivors eventually immigrated to Israel.

118 Spontaneous assistance for Jews was frequent in Wilno. Beginning in 1941, Sister Helena Zienowicz, from the Congregation of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with the help of her sister Janina (not a nun), cared for three Jewish children: Wilinke Fink (born 1938), Renana Gabaj (5 years old) and her 10-month-old brother Benjamin. The Zienowicz sisters were assisted by other nuns from that congregation and by several priests: Rev.

Władysław Kisiel, who provided material and moral assistance; Rev. Romuald Świrkowski, the chaplain of the Sisters of the Visitation, who provided a false baptismal certificate (he was eventually executed by the Germans for aiding Jews); and Rev. Jagodziński and Rev. Lewosz (Antoni Lewosz?) of St. Teresa’s Church (adjacent to the gate known as Ostra Brama), who taught catechism to the two older children and thereby assisted them to pass as Catholics. The Zienowicz sisters also helped other Jews. Their story is recorded at length in Śliwowska, The Last Eyewitnesses, at pages 307–322. See also Bartoszewski and Lewin, Righteous Among Nations, pp.396–97. Helena Zienowicz and Jan and Zofia Kukolewski were awarded by Yad Vashem. (Gutman and Bender, The Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations, volume 5: Poland, Part 2, pp.939–40.) Following Helena Zienowicz’s graduation from the Nazareth Nun’s [Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazarethi] high school in Vilna [Wilno], she chose to live in the closed convent of the Wizytek [wizytki—Sisters of the Visitation] order and work as a teacher in Rabka (near Cracow). She left the convent when her mother became ill and returned to Vilna. In September 1941, Helena came upon three Jewish children: five-year-old Renana Gabaj, ten-month-old Benjamin Gabaj, and fouryear-old Wilinke Fink (later Jozef Zienowicz), who had problems with his eyesight. Abel Gabaj, a doctor from Butrimoniai [Butrymańce] in Lithuania, was the father of Renana and Benjamin. Jakub Fink, Wilinke’s father, was a friend of Dr.

Gabaj’s. One day in September 1941, Dr. Gabaj learned from a friend who worked as a policeman that a pogrom against the Jews of Butrimoniai was about to be carried out, and so the doctor decided to leave for Vilna. On the way out, the entire group of two adults and three children stopped for a rest in Angleniki, at Jan and Zofia Kukolewski’s house. There they learned that the ghetto was closed, which ruled out the possibility of hiding in Vilna. The Kukolewskis agreed to let the adults stay with them and the children found shelter a few days later with Helena Zienowicz. Initially, they were only supposed to stay with her for a few days. But because no other solution could be found the children stayed under Helena’s care until the war ended, and Wilinke, stayed under her care even after the war. The older children did not speak Polish;

they only spoke Yiddish and Lithuanian, thus complicating the situation further. Hiding three young children was not an easy task under the difficult conditions of the war. Helena lived in a small apartment without hot water or a toilet. She constantly had to obtain food and fuel for heat, not to mention the constant threat of discovery. Moreover, the children were often sick and they missed their parents. Helena represented the fugitives as her brother’s children, obtained Aryan papers from them, and taught them to speak and sing in Polish. She took care of their every need and brought them up as if they were her own children. Renana and Bejamin’s father, Abel Gabaj, survived the war and emigrated with his children to Israel.

Another nun in Wilno, Sister Aleksandra Drzewiecka, took in two Jewish children. She and the Burlingis couple,

who helped rescue the Gitelman family, were awarded by Yad Vashem. (Mordecai Paldiel, Sheltering the Jews:

Stories of Holocaust Rescuers [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996], pp.117–18.) Lea Gittelman gave birth to a girl in the Vilnius [Wilno] ghetto, and aptly named the child Getele (“of the ghetto”). In November, Lea’s husband was transferred to a labor camp outside the ghetto, together with his wife and little girl. This momentarily saved them. In the course of his work, David met Viktoria Burlingis [Wiktoria was a Polish woman, her husband Paweł was Lithuanian]. After surviving another killing raid in the labor camp, David contacted Burlingis, who agreed to take the child with her. Lea stayed with the child for a few days, until she became sufficiently accustomed to Burlingis. One day, while visitors were in the house, Getele, at the other end of the house, suddenly began to sing a song in Yiddish … “Viktoria and her husband came immediately to me; I started to weep, but they reassured me that no one had heard a word. Since the child spoke [only] Yiddish, however, they said they could no longer keep her. The next day, they told me they had found another hiding place for her.” It turned out to be a Polish nun by the name of Aleksandra Drzewecka [Drzewiecka].

In 1944, when Vilnius was still contested between the Germans and the Russians, with shells exploding everywhere, Lea and David managed to flee from the labor camp and reach Sister Drzewecka’s home to find Getele safe and sound. … In the postwar years, Lea lost track of the Burlingis family. But she maintained contact with Sister Drzewecka for many years, and the Gittelmans supported the kindhearted nun (who also sheltered another Jewish child) with packages, medicine, and money.

(See also Gutman and Bender, The Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations, volume 4: Poland, Part 119 1, pp.124–25.) Shulamit Bastacky was born in Wilno shortly after the Germans entered the city in mid–1941. She does not have any personal recollection of her rescuer, a Catholic nun, into whose care she had been entrusted by her parents.

Shulamit was hidden in a cellar for almost three years. Her courageous rescuer is not identified by name.

Shulamit’s parents also survived the war and reclaimed their daughter, who had been placed in an orphanage.

(Anita Brostoff and Sheila Chamowitz, eds., Flares of Memory: Stories of Childhood during the Holocaust [Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001], pp.121–22.) On Yom Hashoah each year I kindle the memorial candles. I kindle them in memory not only of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who did not survive the Holocaust. I kindle them also for a Roman Catholic nun, a righteous gentile who risked her life to save mine.

These memorials stir in me the image of a little girl who huddled by herself for more than three long years in a small, dim cellar. While my family and the nun are blessedly recalled now at middle age, they do not lead to any real recollection of the quiet, frightened, curly-headed little girl. She is the figure that won’t come to mind, won’t allow herself to be a part of me now. She crouches forever in the recesses of a deeper cellar, the cellar of my mind.

I was born in August 1941, in Vilna [Wilno] …, four weeks after the Germans entered the city. Our deadly game of hide and seek began that year and lasted until 1945. My mother and father who also survived the war, have had to tell me the story of my survival. They did so in the barest of terms, for any detailed narrative was too painful for them. We rarely mention the past at home, even now in America in 1996.

I don’t remember the nun, either. I know that she came as often as she could and brought me enough food to survive until she came the next time. I must have been overjoyed each time she appeared to interrupt the dark flow of hours. Now, I do not see her face; I cannot hear her voice; nor do I feel the touch of her hands. But somehow, even without memory, I know that she gave me more than food—she shared herself through a kind word, a show of affection.

I emerged from the cellar malnourished and sick when the Russian Army liberated Vilna [in July 1944]. The nun had placed me on the bank of a river, where I was found by a Lithuanian man who then placed me in a Catholic orphanage where I was given a Lithuanian name. My family found me in the orphanage by recognizing a birthmark on my body. After our reunion, we traveled by train to central Poland where I went to a rehabilitation center sponsored by the Joint Distribution Organization, a facility for Jewish children. There I was physically and emotionally rehabilitated. They gave me quartzlight treatments for sun deprivation and more importantly, a safe place where I could be a normal child.

I often wonder why I don’t remember. The answer I give myself is that my memory is blocked as a result of being deprived of family, of nurturing, and of the most basic human needs.

The feelings of a lost early childhood will remain with me the rest of my life. But my feelings of respect and gratitude for that nameless nun will remain with me, too.

Yisrael Gutman and Shmuel Krakowski, Unequal Victims: Poles and Jews During World War II (New York:

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