«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
We went to Włodawa across the gardens and fields so that no one would see us. She left me by the church and forbade me to go back to her house, because she was very much afraid. I went to the church and went looking for the priest … I saw the priest by the little house behind the church and I went up to him. I said: ‘Good morning, Mr. Priest. I’m an orphan, please can you help me?’ The priest [Rev. Dean Józef Sobieszek] smiled and said: ‘Go and see Mrs Orzechowska, the doctor’s wife, and tell her that I sent you.’ And he gave me Mrs Orzechowska’s address, even though I knew where she lived, but I did not say anything because I was pretending not to be from Włodawa. But Mrs Orzechowska and her husband recognised me straightaway and told me not to be afraid. I burst into tears and told them everything. Then Mrs Orzechowska sent me into the country to a priest she knew who knew that I was Jewish. The priest taught me how to talk so that no one would know that I was Jewish, how you must not say ‘Mr Priest’ but ‘father’, and many other things. I stayed there for several days.
Harold Werner, a Jewish partisan active in that area, recalls in his memoirs, Fighting Back: A Memoir of Jewish
Resistance in World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), at page 191:
In a small village not far from the Bug River, we went at night to the house of a friendly local priest and asked him to take us to the shallowest point of the river. He led us to a spot where the water was waist deep, and with our weapons over our heads we crossed, with the priest leading the way. When we got to the other side, we directed him to go back.
Diane Armstrong (née Baldinger), born in 1939 and known as Danusia, together with her parents Henek and Bronia, spent the war years in the small town of Piszczac near Biała Podlaska under the protective umbrella extended to them by Rev. Roman Soszyński, the parish priest. The remarkable story is told in Armstrong’s moving saga, Mosaic: A Chronicle of Five Generations (Milsons Point, N.S.W.: Random House, 1998), at pages 294–307, and 573–83. During a recent visit to Poland she visited the town where her family hid for three years under assumed identities and posing as Catholics—the Bogusławskis. There they were befriended by the priest who played chess with her father. The Gestapo was close by and they lived in fear of being denounced.
Ever since my father [Henek] had arrived in Piszczac, the problem of making friends had been on his mind. Being newcomers made him and Bronia too vulnerable, because all new arrivals were suspected of being Jews until proved otherwise. He’d noticed that all the other newcomers in the village, who were Catholics, soon found mutual friends or church connections which made them accepted, but neither he nor Bronia could claim such links. He’d already asked the church organist to enter his certificate of baptism into the parish records. Although it was a false certificate, once it was entered it would appear genuine and he’d be able to make copies if he ever needed proof of baptism.
It was vital to make friends and become part of village life as fast as possible. … A few weeks after the new priest [Rev.
Roman Soszyński, then 32 years old] had arrived, Henek was heading towards the post office. … He was about to walk into the post office when he heard a cart rattle along from the direction of Chotylow [Chotyłów]. The driver tugged the reins, the cart stopped, and out stepped the new parish priest, brushing the sleet off his black soutane. His heart beating at his own audacity, Henek hastened towards him and apologised for accosting him in the street. ‘On the contrary, my dear Dr Boguslawski,’ replied Father Soszynski with a disarming smile. ‘I’m the one who should apologise for not having called on you, but I’ve been following the bishop’s orders [not to call on his parishioners, but let them seek him out]. What can we do, we live in such dangerous times!’ Heartened by the priest’s friendly manner, Henek pressed on. ‘This evening my wife and I have invited some friends over to our place. If Reverend Father would come and have a glass of tea with us, we’d be honoured.’ Roman Soszynski looked with interest at this greying man whose neatly trimmed moustache and slight limp added to his air of distinction. He’d already heard about the new dentist from the organist, who’d reported the conversation about the baptism certificate with a look which had implied some doubt. But he liked Dr Boguslawski’s sincerity and his direct gaze.
‘I’ll be delighted to come tonight and meet your good lady,’ he replied.
When Henek told Bronia the good news, her forehead crinkled like a washboard. ‘How do I know what to say to a 181 priest?’ she fretted.
‘Don’t worry about anything, leave the talking to me,’ Henek said. ‘Anyway, he seems very approachable.’ As it turned out, the evening proceeded better than either of them could have hoped. Roman Soszynski was an entertaining raconteur with an easy flow of conversation, and although his observant gaze missed nothing, he knew how to put people at ease.
He loved to hear what was going on in the parish and laughed at jokes as loudly as anyone, but with his Jesuit training he also enjoyed arguing, debating and exchanging ideas. One of his regrets about coming to this sleepy hollow was that there would be little opportunity to sharpen his wits, so he was delighted that the dentist was a thinking man, well read and cultured. … Before leaving that evening, Father Soszynski told Henek that he’d welcome a game of chess in the presbytery.
While they washed the glasses after their guests had gone home, Henek couldn’t help smiling. ‘Just imagine, the son of Reb Danil Baldinger playing chess with a priest!’ … Not a day passed without some traumatic incident which threatened to reveal their secret. … before long, rumours about the Boguslawskis were spreading through the village. … Father Soszynski had heard rumours about the Boguslawskis. … ‘At school today one of the children said that Danusia was Jewish,’ he said casually. Henek’s eyes were boring into his face. ‘I told them it wasn’t true,’ Father Soszynski continued. … he [Henek] understood that the priest was letting him know that he was on his side.
Diane Armstrong’s recent meeting with the priest, now in his 80s, restored a lost part of her childhood and gave her a new perspective on those years in hiding. She had always been angry at the villagers and their rumours. Now she understood that everyone had suspected they were Jewish, but no one had denounced them. The village, under the guidance of the priest, had protected them. Her anger now turned into wonder and gratitude.
Benevolence shines from Father Soszynski’s face. In a voice that’s surprisingly strong for a man of eighty-three, he says, ‘I was thinking about you just two days ago. I thought about your parents and wondered whether little Danusia was still alive. While I was in town today someone said that people from overseas were looking for me. I thought of you straightaway. Danusia! I thought, and flew home like a bird!’ Why should this telepathy astonish me, when the fact that I am looking into the face of the priest who helped us survive the war in Piszczac is beyond anything I ever dreamed of? … While he speaks, I keep pushing back the question that is nagging at me. Not yet, I keep thinking. Not yet. Suddenly Father Soszynski stuns me by answering my unspoken question. ‘Of course I knew that you were Jewish. We all knew.’ … Father Soszynski continues his reminiscences. ‘Not long after I arrived in the village, your father asked the organist to enter his certificate of baptism into the parish records. This seemed a strange request, and I wondered then whether he had bought this certificate somewhere. If so, it was a very smart move because once the information was recorded, he’d be able to obtain authentic copies. Still, in those days it was better not to know too much so I decided not to inquire too closely into it and we entered your names in the parish records.’ … One day in 1944, Mrs. Forycka, the doctor’s wife, came to see me and dropped a bombshell. “Has Reverend Father heard the latest? The whole town is saying the Boguslawskis are Jews!” I thought to myself, Jesus Maria, can this be true?
Then I recalled that business with the baptism certificate, that embittered fellow Mr Jozek [Józek] who came to work with your father but turned out to be a Jew, your mother’s nervousness, your father’s constant vigilance … Next day, your father came to see me. He was not the same person. He had lost all his strength, he was a crushed man.
Despair in his eyes. So sad to see.’ … “Catastrophe, Reverend Father!” he told me. “They’re saying that we are Jews …” … ‘When your father came to see me that day, I felt like weeping,’ he says. ‘Such a cultured, witty man, so intelligent and companionable. How could I not extend a helping hand? I said, “Doctor Boguslawski, let’s look at it another way. There’s no merit being born a Pole any more than there is disgrace being born a Jew. It’s not up to us. It’s up to God. I can’t feel proud of being born a Pole any more than another should feel ashamed of being born a Jew. But the issue is that to accuse someone of being born a Jew today is to sentence them to death.”’ He leans towards me. ‘You know, the Gestapo were stationed only three kilometres down the road in Chotylow.
‘So I said to your father, “Doctor, let me figure out how to climb out of this pit. I won’t run from house to house, but what I will do is come to your place this afternoon with my sister, and we will walk down the centre of the main street of the town so that everyone will see that we’re coming to visit you as if nothing has happened. Let them all see. Will you give us a glass of tea when we come?” … ‘I can still see the relief on your father’s face when I told him that I’d come over that afternoon and keep coming to visit him,’ says Father Soszynski. … For the first time in my life I realise that our only hope of survival, however slight, rested entirely with Father Soszynski. … ‘After that visit with my sister, I kept coming more often than usual, to demonstrate my support. When the villagers saw 182 their priest socialising with your parents, they figured out that I must know what I was doing, and decided that they had no business gossiping about them.’ Leaning towards me, Father Soszynski says with great emphasis, ‘And no-one in that village denounced you, even though everybody knew that you were Jews. In your case, Piszczac passed with flying colours. We had drunkards, thieves, and cheats amongst us, but on that occasion, everyone behaved beyond reproach.’ … Throughout my life I had been angry that our existence in Piszczac had been so tenuous, that dangerous rumours had proliferated and that, had the war continued, one of our neighbours or acquaintances would have denounced us to the Germans. But Father Soszynski’s account of our survival helps me to see it in a different light. During the Holocaust it took only one person to send hundreds to their death, but it sometimes took one hundred people to save a single Jewish life. For the first time I realise that by their silence the people of Piszczac had helped us to survive.
An unnamed village priest in the vicinity of Drohiczyn on the River Bug assisted Bella Bronstein, an orphan, by finding her a position with a local farmer under her new Christian identity, Antonina Bujalska. Later the priest visited her when she was hospitalized, provided her with money, and invited her to sing in the church choir. Bella Bronstein was helped by many Poles as she moved from village to village, even though she was recognized as or suspected of being Jewish. The priest also kept a Jewish housekeeper who went by the name of Wanda. (David Shtokfish, ed., Sefer Drohiczyn, [Tel Aviv: n.p., 1969], pp.29ff (English section).) I came by a Catholic church, and sat down to rest a while chanting a holy Christian hymn. An old man came out of a little house and invited me in. I accepted the invitation willingly. The old man was the warden of the church. After he gave me some warm food in his cozy little room I asked him if I could find employment around the place. He suggested that we go in to see the priest who might take me in as help to his housekeeper. It turned out later that the priest’s housekeeper was also a refugee Jewish woman who was not too anxious to have another Jewess around … (not unusual in those terrible days).
The priest however, was glad to help a child in distress and sent me to one of his rich parishioners, with a recommendation. I was accepted and was again rechristened Antonina. My new patroness was the wife of a rich farmer.
She offered me the job in the cow barn and sheep shed, in which they had over eighty heads. I was too timid and scared to refuse the job although I knew that it was really too hard for a girl. I was willing to try and so I remained in the service of this family.
The churchwarden left me there, and I again felt at home with good people. At night I heard them talk about the horrible situation and how the poor Jews were being exterminated. … The rainy season began. Every day I had to take the sheep to pasture, and I returned soaking wet. Yet I didn’t mind the cold or the discomfort of my wet clothes. I was determined to go on; until one day I caught cold, and got sick; but I was afraid to tell anyone how miserably sick I was. However, my kind mistress noticed how I suffered, and when she measured my fever it was above 40 degrees C. The doctor came and I was ordered immediately to the hospital. Now it was a struggle for life and all my thoughts were how to get well again.