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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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von Brauchitsch, Commander-in-Chief of the German Army:

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The reverse situation was not unthinkable, as the following highly unusual case shows. On September 1, 1939, Leon Schönker, the wartime leader of the Jewish community in Oświęcim, hid and cared for a wounded German pilot, who had parachuted from a crashing plane, without informing the Polish authorities of his presence. When the German army entered the town several days later, the Jews led them to the wounded man who, it turned out, was an important Nazi officer. This officer reciprocated by intervening with the local German military commander to alleviate conditions for the Jews, at least for a time. When some old, defective rifles which had been used for mandatory military drills before the war were found in a school run by the Salesian Fathers, the Germans arrested a dozen priests and threatened to execute them. Leon Schönker intervened on their behalves with the local commander and persuaded him that the rifles were useless as weapons. The priests were released from jail. Word of this deed spread through the town and Leon Schönker became a local hero.7 Sympathy for downtrodden prisoners-of-war, both Poles and Jews, taken during the September 1939 campaign and guarded by the Germans in a school courtyard in Rzeszów, was openly expressed by Polish nuns. (Testimony of Chaim Bank in A Memorial to the Brzozow Community, Abraham Levite, ed. [Israel: The Survivors of Brzozow, 1984], pp.95–96.

Twice we received nourishment in the form of a bowl of soup from the German military kitchen. The Catholic nuns brought kettles of food for the Polish prisoners. The Jewish hostages from Kolbuszowa refused to eat non-kosher food and literally starved. I owned a few “zloty” [złoty] (Polish currency) and asked the nuns if they could possibly buy me some chocolate in town. They fulfilled my request and that chocolate was the only food the Jewish hostages would eat. The nuns let me know of the horrible misfortune befalling the Jews of Rzeszow caused by the German army right after the beginning of the invasion.

Sydney W. from Pułtusk near Warsaw, who was interned by the Germans after the September 1939 campaign at a prisoner-of-war camp for Polish soldiers, recalled the assistance he received from a Polish priests in Joachim Schoenfeld, ed., Holocaust Memoirs: Jews in the Lwów Ghetto, the Janowski Concentration Camp, and as Deportees in Siberia (Hoboken, New Jersey: KTAV Publishing House, 1985), at pages 293–95.

The Germans took us to a POW camp in Radom. It was November [1939] and already cold. My leg was terribly swollen and the wound festered; I could barely walk.

… In the car with me was a Pole, an officer from my unit who was also wounded, and looking at me one day, he said, “If the Germans find out that you are Jewish, it will be your end. I advise you not to reveal that you are Jewish; our service books don’t show our nationality. …” In the camp at Radom, I met a good friend, a former neighbor, a classmate of mine at school. In the Polish army he was a medic, the Germans too used him as such in the camp. He promised to help me in any way possible. First of all, he would see to it that I would be admitted to the hospital; to do this he intended to engage the help of another fellow from our town, who was a nurse at the camp hospital. When he told me who the other fellow was, I became frightened, because I remembered him from before the war, when he was an Endek who organized and took part in anti-Jewish brawls in our town. My friend, however, assured me that I had no reason to be afraid of him, because he’d changed and now hated the Germans more than the Jews. He would help me.

In fact, the next morning, when all the prisoners seeking admittance to the hospital had lined up in front of the entrance gate, the line was so long that joining it seemed to me to be a hopeless undertaking. I realized I would not be able to stand 6 Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen, and Volker Reiss, ‘Those Were the Days’: The Holocaust through the Eyes of the Perpetrators and Bystanders (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1991), p.4; Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham, eds., Nazism 1919–1945: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts, vol. II: Foreign Policy, War and Racial Extermination (New York: Schocken, 1988), p.939.

7 Moshe Weiss, “To Commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Liberation from Auschwitz,” The Jewish Press (Brooklyn), January 27, 1995; Henryk Schönker, Dotknięcie anioła (Warsaw: Ośrodek Karta, 2005), pp.28–30. Leon’s son, Henryk, also became a local hero of sorts when a story spread that he had smashed a bicycle belonging to a German soldier. Although this rumour proved to be untrue, no one betrayed him.

19 there for hours on my wounded, aching leg, and left the line in despair. My landsman, the Endek, saw me hopping back to the barracks. He came up to me and told me not to worry. He led me through a back door into the hospital and to the admitting desk, where he persuaded a Polish doctor, himself a prisoner, to admit me as an emergency case.

The next day I was on the operating table. A big chunk of steel was taken out of my leg. The doctor told me that a few more days of neglect would have led to gangrene, which would have resulted in the loss of my leg.

My classmate told me that he had spoken to a Polish priest, who visited sick prisoners in the hospital every day, and the priest promised him that he would do everything possible to help me.

Two Gestapo men came into the ward and took away a friend of mine by the name of Kraemer, and all other prisoners with Jewish names. I was spared because my name doesn’t sound Jewish.

The next day, when the priest came into my ward, he approached my bed and asked me if I wanted to confess. I understood that by pretending that it was a confession, we wouldn’t have any witnesses to our talk. When we were alone I told him that, as he knew from my friend, I was a Jew and therefore in great danger, and begged him to help me. He was a kind man and told me that all is in God’s hand and that I should not lose hope. He gave me a small cross to wear, and having learned from my friend that I was in the military orchestra, he also gave me a little hymn book. “Tomorrow,” he said, “I will be saying mass in the hospital, as I do every Sunday. Before the services I will ask if there are among the worshippers some with good voices, or from the music band. You should step forward and I will ask you to join the choir.” He said I should behave like all the others, cross myself and kneel when the others did, and with God’s help he hoped that there would be no suspicion of my being Jewish. Since then I became known in the hospital as the choir boy. … However, after about six week in the hospital, an ordinance was received to dissolve the camp and to release the Polish prisoners, allowing them to return home.

William (Wolf) Ungar, a soldier in the Polish army who was injured during the September 1939 campaign, recalled waking up in a make-shift hospital in Gostynin and being comforted by a Catholic priest. (William Ungar with David Chanoff, Destined to Live (Lanham, Maryland, New York, Oxford: University Press of America, 2000), pp.63–64.) I came out of the dream with the strange feeling that someone was hovering over me. I opened my eyes. A priest was kneeling down, speaking to me in Latin. In nomine domine et filio et spiritu sanctu…words linked themselves together in a singsong drone. For a moment I thought I was hallucinating. Then I realized the priest was flesh and blood and he wasn’t speaking to me, but was giving me last rites. When he saw my eyes were opened he looked at me sorrowfully and made the sign of the cross.

A priest making a cross in the air over me was the last thing I expected. I was drowning in my own misery and sorrow, in pain, and a priest wasn’t someone I wanted to see at that moment. I wondered if I was really so near death that I needed the last rites? I raised my hand and motioned for him to stop. The priest looked at me, his eyes widening slightly, surprised that I would interrupt him in the process of saving my eternal soul.

“What’s the matter, my son?” he asked, putting his ear down near my mouth. “Are you in great pain?” “No, Father.” “Then what’s wrong, my child?” “I’m Jewish, Father.” He looked into my blue eyes. “You’re Jewish, my son?” “Yes, Father.” “I’m truly sorry, my son.” “I understand, Father.” Then he stood up and walked away.

Mendel (Martin) Helicher, a Jew from Tarnopol who served as an officer in the 54th battalion of the Polish army, was taken captive by the Germans in September 1939 and sent to prisoner-of-war camp in Gorlice where he was protected by his last division commander, Zygmunt Bryszewski, and other Poles including a priest. An article by Y. Shmuelevich about Helicher’s experiences published in Forward on January 17, 1966 is reproduced in the Mikulińce memorial book, Mikulince: Sefer yizkor, edited by Haim Preshel (Israel: Organization of Mikulincean Survivors in Israel and in the United States of America, 1985), at 104–113.

The Hitlerists never stopped looking for Jews among the prisoners. … One night in September 1939, at midnight, a gang of Hitlerists stormed into the hut and demanded a medical examination of every prisoner. They were looking for Jews.

20 Everyone who passed the examination and was found to be Gentile received a tag entitling him to receive food. “I, too, stood, in the long line,” Helicher said, “completely naked. My heart trembled. In a matter of minutes, the German murderers would know that I was a Jew.” At that point, a miracle happened. A man named Bigada, formerly a judge in Tarnopol, came over to the Jew. He had already passed the physical. The judge, a lieutenant, held out his tag to the Jew.

Slowly, the Jew moved out of the line. The Polish judge, who passed the exam a second time and got a new tag, was a close friend of Zigmund Brishevski. If the Nazis had ever found out, Bigada would have been shot.

Danger was not over for Martin—Mendel Helicher and waited for him anew around every bend. Once, when Helicher was standing in line for food, a Ukrainian named Olenik recognized him. They had served together in the Polish army and Olenik knew Helicher was Jewish. The Ukrainian went to the Nazis and informed on Helicher. The Nazis examined him and when they found that he had been circumcised they branded a Jewish star on his left hand so that everyone would know that he was Jewish. They incarcerated him in the Garliz [Gorlice] prison. But his good and kind-hearted friend did not desert him. He made sure his Jewish friend got out of danger.

Among the Polish officers at Garliz was the judge from Tarnopol Pisterer. He was a “volksdeutsche” (literally a son of the German people) and served as an interpreter for the Nazis who liked him very much. He even wore a German uniform.

“Judge Pisterer went to the judge I mentioned previously, Bogada,” Helicher explained, “together with the clergyman Tsach [Józef Czach?] who had been the chaplain of the 54th battalion in Tarnopol. The three of them went to see the Nazis in charge of the camp. The chaplain said that I had been a Catholic all my life and belonged to his church. My circumcision, he explained, was the result of an operation. I was released on the strength of his testimony.” To this day, he bears the Jewish star on his left hand and survived the Nazis as a devout Catholic.

When he was released from prison, he was returned to the P.O.W. camp where he lived as a Catholic among the officers and men. The Nazis no longer hurt him as a Jew.

Karol Kewes, a 15-year-old Jewish boy from Łódź, was attending a course for baccalaureate candidates in a military training camp when the war broke out. Manoeuvring between the German and Soviet invaders, Kewes’s eye was injured by German fire just before his detachment was captured by the Germans on October 5 and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp in Dęblin Fortress. Kewes was sent to a hospital in Radom where he was attentively cared for by Polish nuns, who kept silent about the Jewish origin of their charges. His experiences are described in K.S. Karol, Between Two Worlds: The Life of a Young Pole in Russia, 1939–46 (New York: A New Republic Book/Henry Holt and Company, 1986), at pages 19–23.

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