«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
“It’s a miracle we survived,” Woińska says. … The young priest who arranged for the Shapiros’ second hiding place, and who escorted them on their short but hazardous journey, was Vicar Józef Chwalko. His superior, Rector Bolesław Czarkowski, reiterated in his sermons that “one must help people” who were in need. A priestly word, a priestly example, carried enormous moral authority in a congregation such as Brańsk’s … … the Nazis announced a hunt for the hidden Jews. The Catholic priest, to his credit, preached a sermon in which he told people to “wash their hands” of such murderous activity, and enjoined them to help those in need. … … in July 1943 a priest named Henryk Opiatowski, who was a member of the Home Army, was executed for helping Jews and Soviet deserters from labor camps. … The forest partisans continued to function and even to grow, adding people who escaped from Białystok after the liquidation of the ghetto and even from the train transports to Treblinka. From 1943 on, there were more than eighty Jews trying to survive in this way. They organized themselves into a unit, consisting of a “family camp,” which sheltered those who could not use weapons, and a defense camp. Their supply of arms was replenished by “intelligent Poles,” who were sympathetic to their plight and who included schoolteachers and a priest.
(See also Gutman and Bender, The Encyclopedia of the Righteous, volume 5: Poland, Part 2, p.880.) Eugenia Wirszubska, the wife of a lawyer from Wysokie Litewskie, obtained Aryan papers for herself and young daughters Regina and Ada from a family friend, Lidia Lichnowska, the daughter of the prewar mayor of Wysokie.
They managed to survive in that area with the help of a number of Poles including a priest from the town of Narew where they took refuge. (Account of Regina Szymańska, “Fear and Dread,” in Gutenbaum and Latała, The Last Eyewitnesses, volume 2, pp.301–302.) Just before the establishment of a ghetto in Wysokie Litewskie (one was created there as well), thanks to the intensified effort by Lidka Lichnowska, we obtained Aryan papers. We could then leave for Narew. It was Lidka Lichnowska, I believe, who brought us the news that a ghetto would be created. Her father, who was the prewar mayor, continued to carry out his duties during the war. His attitude toward us remained very friendly. … I think that people did not treat us any differently as Jews in Wysokie Litewskie, because of our assimilation and the type of life my parents led.
During the war, on two occasions, we managed to escape virtually “from under the knife,” once, from the ghetto in Próżana, the day before its liquidation, and afterward, from Wysokie just before a ghetto was established there. From Wysokie we found our way first to Bielsko [Bielsk Podlaski]. We stayed with friends of Lidka Lichnowska, physicians. We were there for two or three nights. From there, equipped with letters of recommendation, we went to Narew, where we spent the rest of the occupation. We were helped by a Catholic priest to whom we were referred by Mrs. Lichnowska. It is difficult to say whether the townspeople knew we were Jews.
My mama was very likeable, pleasant, hardworking, and very obliging. We did not go to school. We played practically the whole time with the local children. My sister, in spite of having very dark brown hair, had a sub nose and never looked Jewish. Therefore, she could move around freely. With me, it was different; I have a long nose and chestnut-colored hair.
During the entire occupation, Mama kept me hidden and bleached my hair with peroxide. My hair was so damaged by these treatments that I had to wear a white crocheted beret the whole time. Mama told everyone that I had bad sinuses, and that is why I had to be shielded from the sun. I think that people might have suspected the truth; however, they were tolerant.
We lived through the rest of the occupation relatively peacefully. … Later, Mama was offered a tiny room in exchange for her cleaning. We lived there until the end of the occupation. … The landlady was the mother of a priest. She was a very decent old woman, who embraced us warmly. She later arranged for a better job for Mama, cooking dinners for the clerks in the community office. Such a job made it possible to always get something to eat.
Accounts from Białystok speak of priests imploring the faithful to assist and show compassion for the Jews, assisting Jews to escape from the ghetto, and providing them with false birth and baptismal certificates.
(Żbikowski, Archiwum Ringelbluma, volume 3, p.129; Huberband, Kiddush Hashem, pp.417–18; Gustaw Kerszman, Jak ginąć, to razem [Montreal: Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation, 2003], p.51; Halina Grubowska, 205 Haneczko, musisz przeżyć [Montreal: Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation, 2007], pp.37, 44, 75–76.) Father Andrew of Jesus (Andrzej od Jezusa, actually Franciszek Gdowski) was the superior of the Carmelite monastery in Wilno and the pastor of St. Teresa of Avila church, adjacent to the ancient city gate which housed the chapel and revered icon of Our Lady of Ostra Brama. Father Gdowski collaborated closely with Anton Schmid, a sergeant of the German army from Austria who was stationed in Wilno, and who was executed by his superiors in April 1942 for helping a large number of Jews escape from the ghetto. Father Gdowski supplied false baptismal certificates to a number of Jews, including Luisa Emaitis, Hermann Adler, and his wife Anita Distler.
With those documents Anton Schmid obtained passports for the Adlers, which allowed them to escape to Hungary. Father Gdowski also hid some Jews in the monastery and took care of their spiritual needs by setting aside a well-camouflaged room in the church which was used by his “guests” as a synagogue. The Gestapo arrested the Carmelites in March 1942, and Father Gdowski was imprisoned for the duration of the war. Hermann Adler wrote about the heroic deeds of Father Gdowski in his memoir Ostra Brama: Legende aus der Zeit des großen Untergangs (Zürich: Helios, 1945). Although Anton Schmid was recognized by Yad Vashem, Father Andrzej Gdowski was not. (Friedman, Their Brothers’ Keepers, pp.125–26; Manfred Vienna Ingersoll and Christiane M. Pabst, “Feldwebel Anton Schmid,” Gedenkdienst, Ausgabe 3/02.) Father Gdowski is also credited with rescuing Jewish children at the Carmelite boarding school in Wilno. One of the Jewish charges at this institution was Michael Stołowicki (Stolowitzky), who had settled in Wilno at the beginning of the war, after fleeing from Warsaw with his mother Lydia and his Catholic nanny, Getruda Babilińska. His mother died shortly after their arrival in Wilno and the young boy was cared for by his Polish nanny, who passed the child off as her own. After the Germans occupied Wilno in the summer of 1941, Babilińska had to seek protection for young Michael, who was not only circumcised but also did not have proper identity documents. She confided in Father Gdowski, who agreed to take him into the church boarding school without charge. Father Gdowski was known to preach sermons about the importance of helping one’s neighbour.
(Ram Oren, Getruda’s Oath: A Child, a Promise, and a Heroic Escape During World War II [New York:
Doubleday/Random House, 2009], pp.188–93).
She [Gertruda Babilińska] concluded that the church could be their only refuge. Michael remembered the first day he went there with Gertruda. In a blend of fear and embarrassment, he followed her into the big hall of the Ostra Brama Church. The cement arches supporting the ceiling, the paintings of the crucified Jesus, and the gilded altar stirred mixed feelings in him. It didn’t take Gertruda long to make him understand why he had to go with her. He understood very well that, for the outside world, he was the son of a Christian mother, and the pretense he had to adopt was a pledge for his life. … The church was full of local residents and a group of German soldiers and officers who came to Sunday mass. The priest, Andras Gedovsky [Andrzej Gdowski], passed among the worshippers, nodding to people he knew. Michael looked at him with curiosity, examined his kind face and his white robe as he moved like an angel hovering toward the altar and sank down in prayer. … Father Gedovsky mounted the pulpit and preached a sermon about the importance of helping your neighbor, quoting the appropriate passages from the New Testament. … After mass, the priest stood in the door of the church, smiling, shaking hands with the worshippers, and exchanging a few polite words with everyone. … Gertruda waited until everyone had gone and then went to the priest, who looked at her affectionately. Ever since Lydia’s death, Gertruda had come to church with Michael almost every Sunday.
“Father,” she murmured, “can I talk with you in private?” The priest looked at her gently, “Of course, my child.” She asked Michael to wait for her on a bench in the church, and let the priest lead her to the office. Once inside, the priest closed the door. His eyes looked at the woman’s face lined with distress and anxiety. Out the window, the day turned grey and long shadows crept into the room.
Gertruda wanted to speak, but tears choked her voice. Uncontrollable weeping racked her body. The priest put his warm hand on her shoulder.
“How can I help, my child?” His voice soothed her.
“I don’t know what to do, Father,” she said at last. “I don’t know who to turn to.” 206 He waited patiently for her to tell him her distress. … “It’s about my child,” said Gertruda.
“The sweet child with the blue eyes sitting there outside?” “Yes.” Fear of what she was to reveal in this room nailed her to the spot. Her body was shaking, but she knew she had to go on.
The priest was the only person she could pour her heart out to, the only one she could trust.
She told him the truth and he looked at her with eyes opened wide in surprise.
“I didn’t realize that the child was a Jew,” he said.
She called Michael.
“Do you know who Jesus was?” asked the priest.
“The man everybody prays to,” replied the child. He remembered the prayers he had heard in church.
“And what is the Holy Trinity?” Michael frowned and repeated what Gertruda had recited to him: “The Father … the Son … the Holy Spirit.” The priest sprinkled holy water on him and said a prayer.
“From now on, you’re a Christian like all of us,” he said. “Tomorrow morning you’ll start attending the church school.” “But,” she stammered, “I don’t have money to pay.” “I’m not worried,” he said. “God will reward me.” The priest sat Michael on his lap and stroked his hair.
“You want to hear a story?” he asked.
“Yes.” “In chapter two of the book of Daniel, there’s a story of a king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, who woke up one night in panic after a horrible dream. In his dream, the king saw a statue with a head of gold. A big stone suddenly smashed the statue into slivers. The king called the sages of Babylon and asked them to interpret his dream. None of them could. When the prophet Daniel learned of this, he came to the king and interpreted. The statue, he said, is your kingdom. The stone symbolizes the kingdom of Heaven that decided to smash your kingdom to dust.” A slight smile hovered over the priest’s lips.
“You know what is the kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar?” he asked.
Gertruda nodded. The comparison with the Nazis was obvious.
“I promise you,” said the priest, “that the end of the wicked will be as the end of Nebuchadnezzar’s statue.” She left with Michael and hurried home. The child was saved, at least for the time being, and that was what was most important. She wasn’t worried about his Christian baptism. She was sure that, just as Michael was born a Jew, he would go back to being a Jew when the war was over On the morning Michael was about to enter the school of Ostra Brama Church, Getruda dressed him in his best clothes, packed up his belongings in a small suitcase, and went with him to Father Gedovsky’s office, where they were greeted warmly “Leave the boy here and go in peace.” He said. “Here he’ll be protected from every evil.” Gertruda kissed Michael’s sad eyes.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll come to visit you often.” The priest went with Michael to the school building next to the church, showed him his bed in one of the dormitory rooms, and then put him in class. The children looked at him with curiosity and at recess tried to size hum up. He said what Gertruda taught him to say: that his mother was the widow of a Polish officer and that he was her only son. … Despite the strict studies and the fear that accompanied Michael day and night, life in the boarding school was rather comfortable. There was enough food, he had his own bed, and Father Gedovsky kept an eye on him. The children in the boarding school were divided, as always, into better and worse. Some wanted to be his friend. Other looked for his weak points and teased him a lot. He was glad to make friends with children he was fond of, and avoided responding to the teasing from the others.
Michael Stolowitzky recalled that he even beame an altar boy. (“When They Came to Take My Father”: Voices of the Holocaust, Leora Kahn and Rachel Hager, eds. [New York: Arcade Publishing, 1996], p.150.) I grew up as Gertrude’s son. We lived together in an apartment in Vilnius [Wilno] very near the Vilnius ghetto. I used to see how they took Jews from the ghetto. I was outside it thanks to her. There was this very large sign outside our house that said, If you are caught hiding a Jew you will be executed without a trial.
Just outside the ghetto was the main church of Vilnius. Gertrude was Catholic, and she enlisted the priest’s help in 207 hiding me. I became an altar boy. Every Sunday, there I was, dressed in a white gown with a red apron.
This rescue is also described in Paldiel, The Path of the Righteous, at page 227, and in Gay Block and Malka Drucker, Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust [New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1992], at pages 166–69. The following account appears in Gutman and Bender, The Encyclopedia of the Righteous, volume 4: Poland, Part 1, at pages 65–66.