«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
Through his housekeeper, Sister Pelagia, the mother superior of the Sisters of the Family of Bethany, Krystyna Modrzewska was put in contact with a convent of that order in Mełgiew near Lublin, whereas her mother was sheltered in a small convent of that order in Międzylesie near Warsaw. Rev. Dziubiński also provided baptismal certificates to the Bass sisters, whose account is found later on. (Bartoszewski and Lewin, Righteous Among Nations, pp.277–80.) (At the beginning of March 1941 the landlady of the flat found out that the Jews were to be deported the following day.) She was afraid to share this news with anybody, but she simply had to tell us, her lodgers. … Unfortunately, I have no illusions. We began nervously to pack our suitcases, but that of course was no answer. What were we to do with ourselves?
My mother and I were invited for lunch on the same day by a priest (Father Dziubiński), our former neighbour, who throughout had been taking a genuine interest in our welfare and assisted us whenever he could and as much as he could.
Mother was very upset and told him about our new trouble. He said not to worry at all for we could simply stay with him and wait until the deportation was over—if it really did happen—and we would see later what could be done. He said this in a matter-of-fact voice, as if it were quite obvious and needed no comment, though sheltering a Jew was punishable by death then. We stayed at his parsonage.
Our fellow lodger was promised a new place. Should her new flat prove too big for her, we could move in. But only my mother went to live with her, since I, following the priest’s advice, got out my hidden ‘Aryan’ documents and from 15 March 1941 began the life of a new person. The priest recommended me to Sisters [of the Family of Bethany] from a convent (in Mełgiew, near Lublin).
Winter passed. The spring of 1942 began grimly. One of the Sisters returned one day from Lublin with hair-raising news. Piles of bodies lay in the streets following several days’ massacres of Jews in that town. Blood was flowing in the gutters. Ukrainian soldiers of the SS were breaking into homes, killing whole families, throwing children out of windows, ordering sons to hang their parents, husbands their wives. Terrible manhunts were taking place in the streets. ‘Your mother is probably no longer alive,’ the Sister concluded her story. It was quite probable. I prepared myself for the worst, and in the evening held council with Marysia (a clerk the author got to know in the Village Council, where she was working). She kept vital statistics records and promised to help me should anything happen. She already knew about the massacre in Lublin. They had talked about it in the Council. Marysia promised to search the archives for the necessary documents: somebody’s birth and marriage certificates and to issue a provisional identity card in that name. I was to give it to my mother and perhaps with the help of friends she would be able to find a hiding place somewhere. But there was a great deal of work in the office the next day and Marysia could not spare the time. The next day was Sunday. Thus it was Monday by the time we set off for Lublin. Marysia did not want me to walk about the town in those terrible days all by myself. She dressed me in a big country-style scarf, and I took a basket and we went by train to Lublin.
In Lublin, I went first to the priest who was in touch with my mother but he said he knew nothing about her. In the Jewish quarter terrible things were happening; it was impossible to go there. The four of us: the priests, Sister Pelagia (his housekeeper and at the same time Mother Superior of a convent), Marysia and I held council as to what should be done.
The bell suddenly rang and my mother entered. She had come to say good-bye to the priest and ask him to take care of me.
She brought a letter for me and her wedding ring. She was to report to Majdanek the same day at noon. All Jews with names beginning with the letter M were to go there. The priest ripped off the band from her arm.
‘You’ll stay here,’ he said quietly. And mother stayed at the parsonage. She was rapidly coached on how to be an ‘Aryan’. Sister Pelagia taught her to pray and after a few days sent her in the company of another Sister to Międzylesie near Warsaw, where the nuns had a small place. It was really of no importance, just two attached houses in a garden, looked after by one Sister. There was peace and genuine, literal poverty. Mother went to live there as an elderly lonely woman, a resettled widow. For the time being I could stop worrying about her. But I was filled by apprehension, by a nagging fear. … I escaped again to my village but, afraid to appear with my suitcases, went first to Marysia. She was really glad to see me and told me at once that the head of the village was sorry that I had left, that they were about to offer me a permanent position, and that I should not be afraid, everything would be all right! She would defend me if I were suspected, but I should keep up a bold front and on no condition admit who I was. Naturally! I went to the Sisters after I had arranged for a job at the Village Council, and though they were not particularly enthusiastic, they took me back—as a Village Council 189 employee—into their uninviting home. There followed long days of dull office work. Marysia stood guard over my life, she constantly watched everything and everybody. When she saw through the window that strangers were approaching the office, she prudently hid me in the archives. Later she would come to inform me: ‘It’s all right. You can go back to the office, it’s a local girl dressed in town clothes.’ Or sometimes: ‘Stay here. It’s some woman from Lublin. I’ll come again when she’s gone.’ Several times I had to hide with a beating heart among dusty volumes of old documents waiting for some ‘suspicious’ person to go.
I meet with remnants of the survivors of our nation. … I speak with a few sisters that wandered in the forests and the priest of the village provided them in secret food and clothing; he consoled them and foresaw for them “God tells me that you’ll remain among the living.” Everyone has the miracle of their staying alive and their experience: A Jew in mid-life, hidden in an attic in a house outside the city by a priest. On the day of liberation when the Russian forces entered the city, he wanted to greet the liberators, full of happiness and enthusiasm. To his misfortune, the priest removed the ladder from which he would descend on the same day. The Jew fell and broke his spine and limbs. … The kitchen manager of the Jewish town representatives in the branch where I got my meals, was a Jewish woman with Aryan features. Her husband, a well-known surgeon, was cremated with all the Jews. She wandered as a Christian; they said that only recently she left a cloister but still wears a crucifix on her neck It’s impossible to convince her that there is no reason to fear that as a Jew nothing bad will happen to her. But no reason would help. She has a fear complex and cannot escape it.
Assistance was provided by the pastor of Wąwolnica parish near Lublin. Rev. Józef Gorajek extended protection to Danuta Winnik and her seven-year-old son, Eugeniusz, who escaped from the Warsaw ghetto in 1942. Rev.
Gorajek was awarded by Yad Vashem. At a Holocaust remembrance ceremony in Los Angeles on April 14, 1988,
Rev. Gorajek stated:
In Wąwolnica, where I am living, before the war the Jews constituted fifty percent of the entire population. … From the very beginning of the occupation, the Polish residents, being motivated by feelings of compassion and love of their fellow man, helped the Jews, even though helping Jews was punished with death without judicial process. At the beginning of the occupation, an organization called Ruch Oporu or the Opposition Movement, consisting of partisans to oppose the enemy, was created. I belonged to this organization as a chaplain. I did not use arms. At the organizational meetings, we decided on the type of warfare and assistance for the persecuted and this included the Jews. In order to save Jews, I issued [baptismal] certificates at the parish attesting they were Catholics, and thus enabling them to secure identity documents.
Many of the Jews were placed with religious communities, for others we found jobs with a certain amount of security. … There was real solidarity, solidarity and mutual aid between the Jews and the Poles … I recall from those days a rescued Jewish girl who, as a child, was found on the property of the Polkowski family. I advised them to help save this child since her parents had been killed. At night I baptized the child, recording another name for her in order to safeguard these good people who together with me, were risking their lives in the performance of this good deed. The Jewish girl now lives in London, England, under the name of Barbara Tennis. I am in contact with the Polkowski family, for whom a tree was planted in Jerusalem.
One of those assisted by Rev. Gorajek was Eugene Winnik, who gave the following testimony:
I was born in 1933 into an affluent Jewish family in Warsaw. My father was a dentist and my early years were spent in a large home with servants and a nanny. When we were relocated to the Warsaw Ghetto, it was apparent to my father, David Winnik, that the only chance my mother and I had for survival was to escape. My mother was an elegant, beautiful woman who spoke perfect Polish without any identifiable accent and whose face revealed no specific nationality. … A Christian family from Warsaw had friends in a town called Niezabitów. They did not inform these friends that my mother and I were 190 Jews, and, one night we escaped from the Ghetto and went to live with this family. I never saw my father again.
I was expected to attend the small church in Wąwolnica. Father Józef Gorajek was the priest and he was aware that my mother and I were Jews. I attended church daily. When it came time to receive my First Communion, it was given to me by Father Gorajek. A group of villagers had begun to suspect that we were Jews and they went to the priest and said that he must not under any circumstances give me Communion because I was a Jew. The priest was very angry with the villagers.
He told them that I was a Catholic, that I would continue to receive Communion and that they were never again to say such a thing. The villagers, having respect for the word of the Father, were silent throughout the years.
During the entire war, Józef Gorajek continued to protect me. My mother was deeply involved in the Polish underground and had formed a strong friendship with Stanisław Witek, the leader of the partisans in the village area. Together they spent much time away from the village and I was alone, under the protection of Father Gorajek. [Father Gorajek arranged for the young boy to care for the village’s herd of cattle.] At no time did this courageous priest, who risked so much, ever encourage me to leave my faith or my people.
A further account appeared in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner on April 15, 1988, under the heading “Priest’s ‘deed of love’ remembered.” “The entire village could have been destroyed were it known he offered us protection.” Gorajek said he quieted the local townspeople after hearing rumblings that protecting was dangerous.
He said he took in other Jews during the war, placing them in convents and religious orders, and issued Christian birth certificates to Jewish babies he had never seen.
“I knew I could be executed, along with the entire village, without any question,” Gorajek said. “I only meditated for a moment: Did I have a right to affect so many people?” (See also Gutman and Bender, The Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations, volume 4: Poland, Part 1, p.246.) A Polish priest in Sobieszyn, in the Lublin region, sheltered a Jewish girl. The story is related by Zofia S. Kubar, who passed as a Catholic Pole, in Double Identity: A Memoir (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989), at pages 154– 58.
To be safe and inconspicuous, we decided to teach not in the school building in Ryki but in a nearby hamlet, Sobieszyn. … The first Sunday after our course began, all the teachers were invited to the parish priest’s house for afternoon tea.
Although most of us were atheists, we accepted the invitation; it was customary for newcomers in small parishes to visit the local priest. For myself, the visit had a special meaning. For the first time in my life, I was going to meet a priest socially.
The Reverend Alexander [Aleksander] Żalski was a tall, somewhat bulky man in his forties. Although he was kind, goodhumored, and hospitable, my fellow teachers—young intellectuals— immediately attacked his theological beliefs, taking full advantage of his lack of argumentative skills. … Suddenly we heard a child crying, “Father! Father!” A girl, about four or five years old, ran into the room. I had rarely seen a child of such beauty and natural grace. Her curly hair and eyes were raven-black. Her complexion was dark. There could be no doubt that she was Jewish. I was startled by her presence in the priest’s home.
The next moment she was in his arms. Still sobbing and out of breath, she reminded him to tell the story he always told her at mealtimes. “Father” is the term by which people usually address a priest, but I felt that this child actually considered him her protector, as she would have looked on her own father. Later I would see how he fed her, comforted her, and stayed by her bedside until she fell asleep.
During our first visit, Father Żalski seemed slightly embarrassed by the little intruder, but he did not reprove her.
Solemnly he promised to tell the story later, and Marianna, happy and reassured, left the room. Afterward, he mumbled a few words of apology. Although as a priest he had no experience in raising children, he said, he had undertaken to care for this child because her parents, both dead, had been distantly related to him. … I deeply admired Father Żalski’s devotion to the Jewish child and his courage in harboring her. His risk was great, for the punishment meted out by the Nazis was merciless. I personally knew of seven Sisters of Charity at the orphanage of St.
Stanisław in Warsaw who were executed for hiding Jewish children. … The Polish priests were widely engaged in helping Jews. This was but a part of their activities in the Resistance for which they were subsequently persecuted by the Nazis.