«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
The Jews had served in the Polish Army and were separated as captives from other Polish soldiers with the defeat of Poland. Since they were expected to be transported to the death camp [actually a gravel pit at the time, which was later transformed into a hard labour camp for Poles and then a death camp for Jews—Ed.] at Treblinka, northeast of Warsaw, Father Mirewicz risked his life in rescuing them. This involved hiding the Jews and obtaining fabricated documents for them as well as transportation. Through various means, the Jesuit was instrumental in having the seventeen Jews transported to the relative safety of the Russian front [actually Soviet-occupied Eastern Poland—Ed.].
Moreover, in 1942 Father Mirewicz had occasion to escort a Jewish fugitive by train from Biłgoraj in the Lublin area to Milanówek in the Warsaw area where the fugitive could join the members of his family who were being hidden by a Christian family. Even though the Jesuit had permission to travel, officials were constantly checking the papers of passengers. When the train reached Dęblin, within the district of Warsaw, a policeman came into the car and demanded to know if Mirewicz’s companion was a Jew. Fortunately for the priest and the fugitive, the whole compartment came to their rescue by insisting that Mirewicz was escorting a “lunatic” to a hospital asylum.
During the war, Father Mirewicz had cooperated with the Council for Aid to the Jews in Poland. Known as “ŻEGOTA,” its code name, it had originated among Catholics … Despite these dangers, never did Mirewicz find any Christians who
44 Gutman and Krakowski, Unequal Victims, p.227.
131 refused to cooperate with him in helping the Jews.
Father Mirewicz referred to the obstacles that were encountered in trying to rescue the Jews. At times not only did their appearance and their speech betray them, but there were cases of Jews who had lost their nerve in those trying circumstances and even revealed to the Nazis the identity of those Poles who had given them shelter. The Jesuit found that, in the case of rescuing those seventeen Jews from Lipowa Street, the Jews whom he had helped did not wish to risk their own lives even though they were happy to be liberated. In 1944, when at least three of them returned to Lublin with the liberation forces of the Russians, Mirewicz was disappointed to learn that two of those whom he had rescued wanted nothing to do with him lest they be exiled to Siberia by the Lublin Government on the suspicion of having collaborated with a sympathizer of the exiled Polish Government.
There are many accounts of priests providing guidance and encouragement to the faithful who assisted Jews. The reason that Polish rescuers turned to priests is not because they thought that helping a Jew was wrong—indeed according to their religion it was a sin to harm one’s neighbour, including a Jew, but rather for assurance that they should persevere despite their fear and the grave danger that they were exposing their own families to.
In his memoirs A Warsaw Diary, supra, at pages 87–88, Michael Zylberberg describes how his Polish benefactors in the Czerniaków district of Warsaw (St. Anthony’s Parish), turned to their parish priest for guidance.
Our poor family were keen to have us without rent at a time when people were taking enormous sums to hide Jews. They had no previous knowledge of us but felt they had a sacred duty to shelter anyone in need. Of course, our existence had to be a closely-guarded secret. … Both the grandmother and her daughter prayed frequently that God would help them and us. When we were worried that something might happen, they always assured us that they would stand by us and protect us. Their compassion was outstanding.
Easter was getting closer and a new problem arose for us. Mrs. Klima said she had to go to confession and that she had to tell the whole truth. That included telling about us. She was afraid that the priest might not approve and regard this procedure as dangerous; she was at a loss what to do, and asked me for advice. I begged her to let us know what day she was going to confession, so that we could stay out of the house all day. Thus she would not need to mention us and would have a clear conscience. We kept out of the house that day, as promised, but Mrs. Klima confessed everything to the priest!
Happily for us and for her, however, the priest assured her that she was performing a noble service on helping those in danger. She returned home overjoyed.
Esther Kimchi, a native of the town of Złoczew near Wieluń, was a little girl when the war broke out. The family moved to Warsaw. One day they escaped from the ghetto where they had been forced to move into. Her parents turned to Polish acquaintances who agreed to take the child in. She survived the war protected by this pious Polish Catholic family, encouraged in their resolve by their parish priest. After the war young Esther was reunited with some uncles who had also survived. Her parents perished. (Esther Kimchi, “Due to the Merits of the Righteous of the World,” in Sefer Zloczew [Tel Aviv: Committee of Former Residents of Zloczew, 1971], pp.272–75.) My parents also faced this decision and decided to use their connections. I was left outside the ghetto in a safe hidden place. To tell the truth, a hiding place was also found for my mother, but she preferred to stay in the ghetto in order to save me, for she feared that if she was discovered she might reveal my hideaway. Thus, she sacrificed herself for me.
My parents left and I remained with Polish acquaintances from before the war. They consented to keep and protect me in their house in order to avoid being captured by the German killers … At first, I was not completely isolated from my family since my father took risky chances to see me. He would dress up as a sanitation worker and reach my hiding place or he would smuggle something to the “Aryan side” and use the opportunity to visit me. These activities were very dangerous. Once, I even heard his injured call when he encountered German guards that fired at him while crossing the ghetto passage.
Towards the end of 1941, the visits stopped and I stopped seeing him. Slowly, I began to realize what was happening there in the ghetto and what was happening to my protective family. I saw on the horizon the flames that were rising from the burning ghetto. This was a picture that I will never forget.
A new chapter began in my life. I erased my youth, so to speak, from my memory and all it stood for. I became an inseparable part of the adopted family, although I had certain reservations in my heart. I understood that I am not like everybody in the family for I had something to hide.
132 My adopted parents had families and when somebody asked the husband who I was, he pointed to his wife and said she belonged to them and vice-versa. My stay in the flat was also irregular since I had a hiding place in a box of straw near the fireplace. I did not attend school but received lessons from the oldest daughter of the family who had just turned 18.
All the children in the family were warned to keep my presence a secret and to reveal nothing about me to friends or relatives.
My luck was that the children were older and could be trusted. But I was still a small girl and had to be drilled about the fact that I was no longer Jewish and not to say something that might reveal my identity or lead to insinuations … In order to provide me with an absolute hidden identity, the family decided to convert me to Christianity. Thus, when the family went to mass on Sunday I was part of the family and prayed with them. In retrospect, it appears that my conversion to Christianity was of great importance and would play an important role later on in my life. The days of the terrible rule seemed to prolong themselves. The Germans were victorious on the battlefields and seemed invincible, and there was not even a spark of hope for change. This situation depressed everybody, especially my savior family for they were in constant mortal danger. The lack of change and the constant fear of hiding a Jewish child in their home began to wear thin in the house. The husband especially began to show signs of despair, but the wife, who was a devout Catholic, went to consult the priest about the situation. He gave her spiritual strength to hold fast in her belief of saving a soul. From then on, not only was I protected by the lady of the house but also by the Catholic Church. Needless to say, the husband and wife squabbles on the subject ended with the husband’s submission to the wife’s decision to continue to hide the girl. … The family treated me very well. They liked me and spoiled me by providing me with everything that I needed in spite of the hardships due to the war situation and the shortages. They sometimes even treated me better than their own children so that I did not feel underprivileged. Following the Polish uprising in Warsaw, the city lacked food and to a certain extent water, but I hardly felt it as I was provided by the savior family with the necessary needs.
Since I did not attend school for fear of being exposed, the daughters of the family taught me how to read and write.
They also escorted me to church and instructed me how to pray. Sometimes I joined the church choir. I was always escorted by one of the girls when I visited the priest at the church and he always stressed the importance of religion and adherence to it. As for myself, I was still rather young to understand the importance of religion. The home atmosphere however was one of warmth and reception. I received and gave gifts, participated in family celebrations, and felt as though I belonged to the family.
Meanwhile, the war was nearing its end. The pressure on the Germans grew by the day and they prepared for the final battle in the city. They ordered the entire civilian population to abandon the city. There were no cars, so we started to walk in the direction of Lodz [Łódź]. We walked for about two weeks until we reached some abandoned camp that became our temporary abode.
Halina Neuberg (now Zylberman), a native of Kraków, moved to Warsaw with her parents during the occupation where they passed as Christians under an assumed identity. At one point she confided in an unknown priest at the Church of the Holy Saviour (Zbawiciela) where she and her mother would meet her father, who lived on his own for safety’s sake. (Halina Zylberman, Swimming Under Water [Caulfield South, Victoria: Makor Jewish Community Library, 2001], pp.38–39.) One afternoon after meeting my father in the church, I had an overwhelming urge to talk to the priest. I entered the Confessional Box and in a few short sentences I told the priest how I felt. It all came tumbling out, that I was Jewish, that I felt inferior to the whole human race, that I couldn’t bear it any longer. I had a naïve trust in priests because they were often Polish patriots. That didn’t necessarily mean that they were sympathetic to Jews, but this time, I was in safe hands.
He listened to me patiently and seemed moved by my confession. He said: “I sympathise with you my child. You must never consider yourself an inferior being. You are not. It’s just the times and this dreadful was that are responsible for the injustices and cruelties that are inflicted on people. Please believe that this will pass eventually, and you must have the patience and stamina to survive it. Our God is everywhere. He watches over his children and helps them. It doesn’t matter what their skin colour is, or their religion. As long as you are a good human being then he will be with you, my child.” His words were so important to me that I remember them, word for word, to this day. They lifted my fear and depression and as I left the church, I became aware of the sunshine and the first signs of autumn approaching.
During the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, Halina and her mother were captured by the Germans and given jobs as cooks at a German army base. Eventually, with the help of a priest, they were released from their service in the German army. They survived in a Red Cross camp in Pionki until the withdrawal of the Germans. (Ibid., pp.88– 120.)
Many Poles helped Jews in a variety of ways, sheltering them or supporting them financially, risking a great deal in doing so and exposing themselves to various dangers. The majority of Poles undoubtedly felt great sympathy for the Jews and categorically condemned the humiliation of their Jewish fellow-citizens. But there were others who emphasized with pride that they were not Jews and that German treatment of the Jews was a matter of indifference to them. Some felt deep compassion for the Jews, but were subconsciously glad of the benefits their destruction brought. There were also Poles— but surely few in number—who actively collaborated with the Germans and it is difficult now to ascertain whether they did this out of conviction, because of direct material benefits, or whether they were forced to do so by German blackmail.
Can the Polish population of Warsaw therefore be categorically described as anti-semitic or philosemitic? Can the population as a whole be characterized through the actions of individuals? No, the people behaved in the same way as anyone would probably have behaved in similar circumstances, including the Jewish population. There were good people, there were evil people, there were indifferent people. Just as there always are all over the world.
I must make one observation here. In hiding, I realized how deeply humanitarian the role of religion was, how much the teachings of the Catholic Church influenced the development of what was most beautiful and noble among believers. Just as in critical moments the majority of people turn to God for help—even if their faith is not particularly strong—so the very thought of God dictates to them the need to help their neighbour who is in danger.