«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
Over time, as I learned later, the bishop of Łomża, Stanisław Łukomski, had been taken into confidence; also, when the time came, in the spring of 1943, he had also granted permission to Father Falkowski to baptize me. When I took ill with jaundice, Father Modzelewski took me by sleighs to another village where a well-known homeopathist-priest cured me with herbs.
Another young vicar [Father Janiecki], a friend of Father Falkowski, had also visited us several times; he’d brought over a violin which he and I both played. He, too, was taken into confidence. However, active assistance was rendered to me mainly by Father Falkowski and Father Modzelewski including the subsequent placements with several peasants, as a Catholic, and later even with the head of a cluster of villages (wójt).
Father Falkowski suggested a new last name for me—Kutrzeba (the first name remained as at my birth)—and that for two reasons: 1) it had a very “Polish” ring to it, and 2) to honor Gen. Kutrzeba who resisted the German invasion to the last moment.
When, during a particular stay with a peasant, things began to get “uncomfortable”—either owing to very hard work … or due to gradually emerging suspicions which I’d promptly report to Father Falkowski, the priests would move me to yet another peasant—usually located at an isolated homestead, away from the main village where I would not be regarded with suspicion by passers-by or by visitors.
Over time, steeped in prayers, I began to cling to them, as they became my only inner refuge and a spiritual nourishment, especially while co-existing with simple people with whom I shared very little, nor could I share anything about myself or about my past in order to alleviate some of my inner torment. Owing to much hard work and security reasons, I was allowed to visit Father Falkowski and Father Modzelewski solely after church on Sundays or holidays where I wouldn’t attract much attention among throngs of people. (After the war I learned that the housekeeper of Father Modzelewski whom I got to know well, was also a Jewess, and that Father Falkowski also helped to shelter several other Jews.) These visits meant spiritual rescue for me. As time went by, Father Falkowski became my only source of survival and hope, spiritually and otherwise. When, at one point, he proposed baptism to me, I agreed. Now, recalling my mental state of the time, I believe that: 1) I came to believe in Christ in whose name Father Falkowski had extended to me an unequivocal love of one’s neighbor, constantly risking his life in the name of his ideals; 2) to a certain extent, I felt neither could I disappoint my benefactor whom I came to love; and 3) it seemed to offer a better chance for survival. In addition, I recall as how Father Falkowski expressing it with some levity perhaps, added the conversion of souls was not only a priest’s mission, but that it would also put him “in good stead” with his bishop (I remember also that I had to write a formal letter to Bishop Łukomski stating my reason for my desire to be baptized, in order to receive his permission therefor.) I felt that I could not disappoint him, although he’d assured me that even if I should eschew baptism, he would still care for me.
When, toward the end of summer, things started to get “hot” (as I was almost found out by a certain mason—a 202 “wiseguy” from Warsaw who worked there), Father Falkowski took me in again and, together with the parish priests, put
together the following scenario:
The plan was for me to report to the general population registration, then in progress in the German-occupied Białystok voivodship, where new identity cards were being issued; with the partial cooperation of the village elder (who had to verify my identity, based on the priest’s assurance—not being aware of my true origin), I was granted a new identity card (Polish Catholic).
With it in hand, I “volunteered” for civilian labor in East Prussia, as the Germans, in addition to forcibly deporting young people for labor, were also conducting a broad propaganda campaign to recruit volunteers.
With tears in my eyes, I took leave of Father Falkowski who felt that my only chance to survive would be “in the lion’s den,” since the Germans embarked on a wild hunt for Jewish escapees, and a death penalty—often on the spot—was meted out to those assisting them.
I was received by the German Amtskomissar in Szepietowo who dispatched me by train for labor in a factory in Insterburg, in East Prussia.
From September 1943 to January 1945 I worked there, all along corresponding with Father Falkowski. Because nourishment was very scarce, Father Falkowski would continuously provide me with packages containing bread loaves;
inside the bread, in a hollowed-out cavity, I usually found a ring of kiełbasa [sausage], which, by the way, was strictly against the law (the remittance of meat products during the war-time food rationing). In the event that I would be found out (as four other Poles were employed in that same factory), without doubt it would have caused a tragic end for my friend.
Moved to Germany proper where I was liberated by the American Army (in the city of Erfurt), I reestablished contact with Father Falkowski. Since then, allowing for some interruptions, we’ve been in constant touch for over 50 years: twice I brought him to the United States for visits, and to Israel (where he received the highest honors); I visited him in Poland a number of times. Currently he is retired, following two heart surgeries, at age 78, residing in the village of Klukowo, district Łomża. … Throughout his entire life he displayed great dedication in restoring churches, in furthering education, especially among children (he was imprisoned for two years in Białystok under Stalin), and always leaving parishes behind in an improved state. … (As far as I know, he also assisted, and possibly sheltered, the well known deceased writer, Paweł Jasienica.) Leaving him, en route to East Prussia, I had been asking him how I would ever repay him (taught by my parents that one should not take from others without intending to give). He replied, I remember, “don’t even try, only pass it on to others.” … Fifty years later, from a present perspective, I asked him, among others, whether he’d received any instructions from his Church superiors with regard to aiding or sheltering escapees or Jews. He answered: “I didn’t need any, for I had my instructions from Christ—‘Love thy neighbor’ or ‘I am my brother’s keeper.’” In the course of our long conversations when I was under the care of Father Falkowski (1942–43), I was asking him, among others—as a 15-year-old boy, why were we being persecuted and murdered. His answer then, apparently the product of his state of mind at the time, or else his scope of “knowledge” acquired in the seminary, or in the environment, expressed itself thusly: “The Lord Christ told the Jews: ‘My blood will fall upon you and your offsprings.’ (I am not able to quote directly but such was the contents.) And this has to be fulfilled.” When I questioned that—“but why upon us, the innocent?” “Father, you have imbued me with the love of one’s neighbor as the foundation of Christianity, and the Germans are a Christian nation …” He would reply: “Certainly, every Christian has the duty to realize these principles of faith, but apparently, in order to fulfill the prophecy of Christ, the Lord, in ways incomprehensible to us, is using Hitler as His Attila’s whip.” In addition, he told me that one could attain salvation solely through Christ and through a belief in Him.
These days he does not recall having said the former, and as for the latter, he maintains that such an approach is undergoing changes in the philosophy of the modern-day Church—many roads can, apparently, lead to salvation.
In addition to helping Joseph Kutrzeba, Rev. Józef Perkowski, the aforementioned pastor of Hodyszewo, is known to have helped other Jews survive the war including Zofia Kamieniecka and her young son, Unk. He sheltered Teresa, the 5-year-old daughter of Josl Tykocki, a merchant from Brańsk, in the parish rectory.
(Bartoszewski and Lewinówna, Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej, 2nd ed., p.829; Waldemar Monkiewicz and Józef Kowalczyk, “Pomoc Żydom w regionie białostockim podczas II wojny światowej,” Studia Podlaskie, volume 2 (1989): p.372.) Together with Maria Kuzin and some nuns, Rev. Perkowski provided shelter to Mina Charin, whom he baptized as Maria Jadwiga. (Testimony of Fania Charin, dated August 6, 1948, Archives of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, no. 301/3950.) The following account is from Gutman and Bender, The Encyclopedia of the Righteous, volume 4: Poland, Part 1, at page 433.
203 Mina Charin, later called Omer, was 16 in 1942, when she escaped from the Warsaw ghetto and arrived in the town of Lapy [Łapy], in the Bialystok [Białystok] district, where her brother [Józef or Julian Charin] worked as a doctor in the local hospital. After meeting with her brother, Mina began working in one of the estates close to the town, until one day all the Jews of the vicinity were ordered to report to the nearby police station. The owner of the estate, considering it her lawful duty to obey the German order, decided to drive the [registered] Jewish worker to the Gestapo and hand her over.
When they were on their way, Mina asked her employer to stop near the home of Maria Kuzin, a practical nurse who worked with her brother, so she could say goodbye to her. Kuzin, who knew very well what fate awaited Mina, asked the owner of the estate to continue on her way and promised she herself would accompany the Jewish woman to the Gestapo.
Mina was hidden in a hiding place arranged for her in the yard of Kuzin’s home, where she remained for a few months.
When the German searches of the houses in the vicinity became more frequent, Kuzin transferred the Jewish refugee to a nearby village, where she found shelter in the home of the local priest [Rev. Józef Perkowski], who looked after her with devotion and generosity. She remained there until her liberation in July 1944. Even while Mina was in the priest’s home, Kuzin continued to visit her, to provide her with her needs and to boost her morale.
Mina Charin’s brother, Dr. Józef (Julian) Charin, was assisted and sheltered by Rev. Henryk Bagiński, the pastor of Łapy, and Rev. Feliks Zalewski, the pastor of Topczewo. (Bartoszewski and Lewinówna, Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej, 2nd ed., p.829.) Rev. Józef Perkowski also took in a young Jewish girl from Białystok who had been thrown out of a train headed for the Treblinka death camp. The girl survived the occupation and moved to Israel. (Luba Wrobel Goldberg, A Sparkle of Hope: An Autobiography [Melbourne: n.p., 1998], p.98.) In a separate bunker near the village Hodiszewo [Hodyszewo] was hiding Chaim Wrobel, they called him kewlaker with a nine year old girl, Stella Szcrecranska [sic]. This is her story how she came to the Bransker [Brańsk] group. Stella was born in Bialystok [Białystok] at the polish [sic] end of town. Her father was a chemist and they talked only polish. She was on a train with her parents on the way to Treblinka gas chambers when her mother wrapped her in a towel and threw her out of a train window. Polish people were walking alongside the train where dead bodies of Jews were laying shot while jumping from ther [sic] trains. … In between the dead they found Stella alive. The people picked her up and took her to the priest in Hoduszewo [Hodyszewo]. Haim Kewlaker came to the priest for food, so the priest gave him lettle [sic] Stela [sic] and told him to take care of her. The priest helped Chaim with food and Chaim took Stella to his bunker.
Zalman Sukman of the village and parish of Pietkowo near Łapy (just north of Brańsk) also turned to priests when he hid in the countryside moving from place to place. (Zalman Sukman, “In the Village of Pietkowo,” Sokoly: In the Fight for Life, Internet: http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/sokoly/sokoly.html, translation of Shmuel Kalisher, ed., Sokoly: B’maavak l’hayim [Tel Aviv: Organization of Sokoly Emigrés in Israel, 1975], pp.221–23.) Sometimes I would go to Christian friends, even priests who were among my friends, and [from them] I received bread and other food. Without this, we would have died of hunger.
Assistance from various priests in and around Brańsk, in the Podlasie region, is recorded in Eva Hoffman’s Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), at pages 205–208, 224, 232, and 235.
One night early that month [i.e., November 1942], someone jumped over the ghetto fence and ran into the pharmacy. It was Lejb Shapiro [Leon Szapiro], the pharmacy’s prewar owner. He told [Janina] Woińska that the ghetto was surrounded, and nobody knew what was going to happen. He wanted to hide with his wife, his two sons, and his brother’s fiancée in the basement of the pharmacy. Woińska, and the two other women living in the building, decided that this was a suicidal plan: the pharmacy was right in the ghetto, and frequented by Germans and Poles. Instead, it was agreed that the Shapiros should go to another building, close by but outside the ghetto area. There, Woińska made a hiding place behind the piles of lumber. Together with the two other women, she brought the fugitives food for the next few days. … Her sense of danger was sharpened, however, after a close call with the Gestapo, who came to the pharmacy a few days later and ordered a search. By that time, with the help of a young priest [Rev. Józef Chwalko], the Shapiros had gone on to another, safer place outside Brańsk. The Gestapo found their suitcases, left behind in the pharmacy’s attic. … … As it happened, the whole “aristocracy” of Brańsk had gathered in the pharmacy, including a doctor, a priest, and a 204 teacher. They all knew about the hiding place. No one said a word.
During the search, another Gestapo man started hitting a peasant quite viciously. … He ordered the pharmacy cordoned off more securely from the ghetto.