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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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Gina Hochberg jumped from a train near the village of Zaszków, to the north of Lwów, which was in the parish of Kościejów. An elderly Polish priest purchased a ticket for her to return to Brody under her new identity and escorted her to the nearby train station. (Interview with Gina Hochberg Lanceter.) Anna Heller Stern, a native of Bolechów near Stryj, in Stanisławów voivodship, survived with the assistance of false documents that were supplied to her by an unnamed priest. (Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million [New York: HarperCollins, 2006], p.390.) She shared, too, her own remarkable story of hiding … she showed the picture of the Polish priest who had saved her life by making false papers for her. … she showed us the false baptismal certificate, the one that had given her the name Anna, which she’d kept ever since. Matt took a picture of the document. ANNA KUCHARUK, it said.

The Roman Catholic church in Mikulińce, in Tarnopol voivodship, was used as a hiding place for a group of Jews who survived in that town with the assistance of Poles. (Article by Patt Morrison of the Los Angeles Times (1983), reproduced in Haim Preshel, ed. Mikulince: Sefer yizkor [Israel: Organization of Mikulincean Survivors in Israel and the USA, 1986]; English translation posted at http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/Mikulintsy/Mikulintsy.html.) There first furtive handshake, one midnight 40 years ago in a town patrolled by Nazi troops, risked both their lives—the young Polish Jew on the run and the young Roman Catholic with a conscience.

On Tuesday, the Redondo Beach man who once knocked on the right door for help and the Polish man who answered 164 the knock clasped hands again—openly this time—as they were reunited in a ceremony honoring the Pole, Jan Misiewicz, for concealing Leon Kahane and 10 other Jews from Nazi sweeps that sent 6 million others to death camps.

Every night for seven months, as German and Russian troops battled around them, Misiewicz and a friend, Michael Ogurek [Michał Ogórek], carried food and reassuring words to the Jews. Five were hidden in a makeshift room in the cross-tipped spire of a Catholic church where Misiewicz’s father was deacon—and six more, including Kahane, were in a bunker beneath a German soldier’s outhouse.

From September 1943, until the Russian advance in April 1944, Misiewicz and his friend, now dead, were the lifeline for the 11.

And some, like Kahane, now 60 and a rabbi, have survived to thank him. … Kahane’s family had already moved several times by the time they came to the town of Mikulince [Mikulińce], where Misiewicz lived. And there, Kahane heard rumors that the Misiewicz family would help Jews in trouble. … Still, on Yom Kippur, 40 years ago, Kahane had to take a chance that the gossip was true. His family had been dispersed after the last arrests, and he and his brother were hiding in the forest outside of town, fasting until nightfall to observe the religious holiday.

Then they split up to find food, and Kahane never saw his brother again. But he did find Misiewicz, who became more than a brother.

“I crossed through the Catholic cemetery and went to the gate,” Kahane recounted. There he saw a Ukrainian soldier, suborned to the Germans, peering in the Misiewiczes’ window. “I knew if I made just one little noise, I’d be discovered, he (Misiewicz) would be caught, an entire neighborhood would be destroyed.” So he hid for hours until the soldier left, and at midnight, he knocked furtively on the door.

“This man’s hand, this man’s smile greeted me,” he said Tuesday.

From that night, he spent seven months in the dark, cramped darkness of the bunker under the latrine, with only Misiewicz and Ogurek to trust. The pair, knowing that they were being watched came by with food and news; they even banked the hidden entrance with cattle manure to mask the scent of meals they brought. … But Misiewicz, who was “surprised” by Tuesday’s ceremony, said that as a good Catholic, he could have done nothing else. “When I saw that the Jewish people were hunted everywhere, I knew what the end was going to be for these people,” he said, as Kahane translated.

His family, headed by his father, “a very religious man,” decided “without hesitation” to help, “in spite of the fact that I heard troops were shooting people in every corner of town.” It was as simple, Misiewicz said, as “loving my neighbor as myself.” (See also Gutman and Bender, The Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations, volume 4: Poland, Part 1, p.521.) Mila (Amalia) Sandberg (later Mesner) of Zaleszczyki, then a young woman, was interned in the ghetto in Kołomyja together with her parents and sisters. There they received help from Poles on the outside, and even a former Jewish employee of their father’s who sent food by way of a priest from Zaleszczyki. After the ghetto in Kołomyja was liquidated, Mila and her sister Lola reached the ghetto in Chodorów. Mila and her sister Lola had befriended a Pole, Albin Thiel, who approached Rev. Ludwik Peciak, the dean and pastor of Kołomyja, to assist his Jewish friends by issuing baptismal certificates which would enable them to pass as Catholics. Rev. Peciak extended assistance to other Jews as well. Mila and her sister survived the war with the help of a number of Poles.

(Mila Sandberg-Mesner, Light from the Shadows [Montreal: Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada, 2005], pp.30, 79–82, 90, 104–105, 106.) At home, our Jewish cook and Catholic maid were both loved and respected by us, the children. Our Polish friends invited us to their Christmas dinners. Mrs. Nedilenko used to send us a plate of Christmas goodies, and my mother reciprocated with an equally elaborate plate of sweets on Purim. In our home, I don't ever recall hearing a derogatory remark about other people’s religion or customs. Overall, we were quite at ease in the homes of our Polish friends and did not feel out of place among them. It would be difficult to overestimate how this ease in our relationships and familiarity with Polish life helped to ensure our survival later on, when we had to pass for Catholics and live under assumed Polish names. … We hid in the forest until the next morning, when we met some Jews on their way to work. They told us that we were near Chodorów, that the ghetto there was still open, and that we could temporarily hide there. In the Chodorów ghetto, the people welcomed us with warmth and sympathy. They seemed to be better off than the people in the Kolomyja [Kołomyja] ghetto. We were fed and put to bed. They even arranged for a telegram to be sent to Albin [Thiel], with a coded message 165 stating that we were alive. Albin arrived the next day with some clothes, money, and our papers. When he arrived, we all broke down sobbing. He cried with us. He loved my parents and mourned their fate.

The Catholic church in Kolomyja was located on Sobieski Street. Albin went to see the parish priest and told him: “I have to save the lives of a number of Jews. Will you help me?” The name of the priest was Father [Ludwik] Peciak. His reply to Albin was: “You provide me with the names of people living in Kolomyja from the town registry, and I'll get you copies of the birth certificates.” It was only later that we learned that Father Peciak had made out numerous birth certificates to help many people.

After spending a day with us in Chodorów, Albin returned to Kolomyja and vacated his living quarters. He then went to the ghetto, to our place, and retrieved some of our clothing. Next, he contacted a friend in Lwów, who lived with his mother, asking him to put us up at his place. His friend consented, but to no more than three persons. Albin then returned to Chodorów with clothing, money, and identity papers, and took Lola [her sister] and I by train to his friend’s house in Lwów, while Jasia [her cousin] remained behind in Chodorów. The trip was traumatic for Lola and I; just a few days ago another train had been taking us to the Belzec [Bełżec] death camp. … Sometime later, Albin fetched Jasia and smuggled her into our place. … Early in the spring of 1943, Albin’s assignment arrived. It was with the Liegenschaft in Ernsdorf near the town of Bobrka [Bóbrka]. The job came with a furnished apartment, and this was where he moved in with his “wife,” Maria Kabanowska-Thiel (Lola), his wife’s cousin, Stanislawa [Stanisława] Schmiedel (me), and his maid, Aniela Wojciechowska (Jasia). Shortly after, he arranged a job for me, first as a secretary and later as a statistician in the Liegenschaft offices.

Being an employee of the Estate Administration, I received rations. We were no longer hungry. I worked for the Ernsdorf Liegenschaft, which administered some twenty estates. … At about this time, the Germans issued an order that everyone had to obtain an ID card called a Kennkarte, a document proving there were no Jewish ancestors in the family. To obtain a Kennkarte, one had to show copies of birth certificates going back three generations. Kolomyja, from where we had to get duplicates of the birth certificates, had already come under Soviet control, and the SS had executed Father Peciak: obtaining the necessary papers seemed impossible. But Albin solved even this problem. He went to the Bishop’s palace in Lwów, where the archives of all parishes of this juridiction were kept. He explained the obvious difficulties of obtaining documents from Kolomyja and requested copies of the birth certificates from the archives. He succeeded in getting them for all of us. We were also fortunate that the documents showed no traces of Jewish ancestry. All we had to do then was provide photographs and proof of residence. … Father Peciak was the parish priest of the church of Sobieski Street in Kolomyja. It was his invaluable assistance to Albin that saved our lives. Unfortunately, I have no further information that would shed light on the heroic work of this saintly man, who died a martyr’s death at the hands of the Gestapo.

I know that Albin sought his help in procuring copies of birth and baptismal certificates for many Jews. Jasia, Lola, and I were among the lucky ones he had helped, Albin having access to the City Hall registers. Father Peciak asked him to obtain a list of names of persons born in Kolomyja of the approximate age of those he intended to save. Albin passed the list of names to Father Peciak, who then issued copies of the birth certificates. I know Albin received many such life-saving documents from Father Peciak. Among those who obtained such papers were our friends, Iser and Toni Reisman. Sadly, the Reismans were later caught by the SS and murdered. The irony is, that it may have been Father Peciak’s own signature on the Reismans’ documents that led to his arrest and execution.62 Father Peciak truly merits the epitaph: “Perished for the cause, faithful to God’s commands.” … On the first floor in our house was my father’s office, where his right-hand man, Gedalia Barad, ruled. He was an accountant … Shortly after the invasion by the Red Army, our mill was nationalized. … Barad continued to look after the financial affairs of the mill. He even remained in this capacity for a short while under the German occupation. Barad was still there in the fall of 1941, when we were in Kolomyja and hungry. Through a local priest who served as an intermediary, he arranged for the delivery of flour to us. I still recall how deeply we were moved by this gesture of good will.

Memorial books record the assistance provided by priests in the voivodship of Volhynia (Wołyń), in southeastern Poland, where Poles, a small minority among the Ukrainian majority, were themselves being systematically murdered by Ukrainian nationalist factions. (Shmuel Spector, The Holocaust of Volhynian Jews, 1941–1944 [Jerusalem: Yad Vashem and The Federation of Volhynian Jews, 1990], pp.248–50.) 62 The circumstances of Rev. Peciak’s death are unclear. He is believed to have been killed in prison or in a death camp on April 16, 1943.

See Wiktor Jacewicz and Jan Woś, Martyrologium polskiego duchowieństwa rzymskokatolickiego pod okupacją hitlerowską w latach 1939–1945, Zeszyt III (Warsaw: Akademia Teologii Katolickiej, 1978), 136.

166 Poles living in the cities had fewer opportunities to assist Jews in finding shelter. The German and Ukrainian administration watched them very closely. Polish Catholic priests formed a group apart in this respect. Thus in Rovno [Równe] a priest by the name of Sirkiewicz [actually Ludwik Syrewicz, the Dean and local pastor] together with a notary Szumski handed out birth and baptism certificates to the hiding Jews. A priest from Janowa Dolina (his name is unknown [actually Rev. Jan Leon Śpiewak]), who distributed baptism documents, was arrested and, as a punishment, sent to the Kostopol ghetto where he worked at hard labor together with the local Jews. The members of his flock brought him food which he shared with the ghetto residents. In Vladimirets [Włodzimierzec] the priest Dominik Wawrzynowicz volunteered to sell church treasures to help the local Judenrat to pay ransom imposed by the Germans. He also preached the duty to help the Jews. [He also preserved valuables which Jews had entrusted to him.63] In his efforts he was assisted by priests of congregations of the villages in the district. The priest Ludwik Wołodarczyk [actually Wrodarczyk, the pastor of Okopy] from the villages across the Słucz River rendered considerable assistance to the refugees from Rokitno and the environs.

One of the survivors related a story of his meeting with a Polish priest, which took place in a small church one kilometer from Trilisitse [Trylisica near Szczurzyn, Łuck county]. The witness decided to appeal for help to the old priest serving in the church. The priest invited him in, knelt, prayed and having finished he asked him what he wanted. The Jew asked for

help and based his request on the New Testament. Thereupon:

He embraced me, kissed my head and both of us started crying. I felt that my pain was his pain too. He offered me money but I refused to take it. He promised me work—to copy his book on honeybees breeding. He cheered me up and promised to find out what had happened to my family in Lutsk [Łuck].

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