«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
People were peeking through windows and quickly hiding behind the curtains. My mother ran to the local priest, whose name was Father Pakalnis. We knocked at the door. His housekeeper opened the door and told us to leave immediately, but Father Pakalnis overheard our voices and asked us to come in. He was happy to see us alive. He told my mother he owed his life to her because my mother had protected him from being sent to Siberia by the Russians. He told his housekeeper to take us to the cellar and keep us there until things quieted down.
We stayed in the cellar for about ten days. … It was time for us to leave. Father Pakalnis gave my mother his old boots. We had to find other clothes for me to wear, since it was a small town and people could easily recognize me just from my clothing. My mother always dressed me in the finest clothes she could get. At that time my coat and hat were of a blue color, and my mother wanted me to be less conspicuous.
And so we left. We walked in the snow, and once in a while villagers gave us rides. Most of the villagers knew my family because they had worked for my father, transporting wood from the forest to the processing place at the railroad station.
When we asked for shelter, they refused, saying they could not keep us, but they said they would not report us to the police because my parents had treated them well.
With no place to hide, my mother decided to go to the Svenciany [Święciany] ghetto. I do not remember much about life there. We had a corner of the floor in a very crowded room. There was no food. Our former housekeeper Amelia, who lived in Svenciany with her sister, found out we were in the ghetto. She started bringing bread whenever she could and passing it to us through barbed wire. … When we saw the first Red Army unit, we felt free. In Pabradzie [Podbrodzie], we met some Jewish families. We did not stay long, because we were anxious to get to Lyntupy. … We went to see Father Pakalinis, the priest who helped us at the moment of extreme danger. My mother did not coach me, she did not have to. I understood quite well I owed my life to him and many other kind people. I buried my face in his kind hands and cried.
Pola Wawer, who escaped from the ghetto in Wilno with her parents, also recalled a Catholic priest in Łyntupy who worked closely with a local rabbi to provide material assistance to refugees from other towns, including her family. (Pola Wawer, Poza gettem i obozem [Warsaw: Volumen, 1993], p.36.) Rev. Witold Szymczukiewicz, the vicar of Rukojnie near Wilno, was instrumental in saving the lives of several Jews for whom he provided false documents and found shelters. He was recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile. (Gutman and Bender, The Encyclopedia of the Righteous, volume 5: Poland, Part 2, p.807.) Witold Szymczukiewicz, a priest, lived in Rudomino, near Vilna [Wilno], during the war. One day an old acquaintance of his told him that she had recently been in Lida where she bumped into Faiga Reznik, a high school friend of Witold. Faiga asked her to relay a message to the priest that she needed help in getting Aryan papers for her son. “Obtaining such documents was not a hard task for me. Therefore, I sent the documents that Mrs. Reznik and her son needed via an acquaintance. I was glad that I could help them and save someone from death. I did this not as a priest, but as a human being,” wrote Szymczukiewicz in his testimony to Yad Vashem. Witold “took us out of the Lida ghetto, brought us to his home and later to Vilna, where we stayed under the cover of being ‘Christians’ until the end of the war,” wrote Jonatan Barkai, Faiga’s son. He added that Witold also arranged papers for another friend of the Rezniks, Jadwiga Szejniuk Bergman, and helped other Jews as well.
Rev. Jan Sielewicz, the pastor of Worniany near Wilno, helped Jews find hiding places with his parishioners. He was assisted in this undertaking by the vicar Rev. Hipolit Chruściel. Rev. Sielewicz was nominated for recognition by Yad Vashem by Hirsz Abramowicz (later Tzvi Baranowski, an opera singer in France), who
We wandered in the forests for a long time before we reached the village of Worniany. Here we learned that the Catholic priest Jan Sielewicz helped rescue Jews. The priest placed people like us in distant colonies (hamlets) in the vicinity of Worniany and Świr. They were poor farmers who fed us country bread and soup. It seemed to us then that there was nothing more delicious on earth. And we helped out with their work. And thus, thanks to the truly saintly man Jan Sielewicz, my mother and I survived.
Some of the Jews that Rev. Sielewicz placed with his parishioners hailed from Wilno. They had been sent, and sometimes transported personally, to the countryside by Rev. Michał Sopoćko, professor of theology at the Stefan Batory University in interwar Wilno and spiritual advisor of the recently canonized Sister Faustina (Faustyna Kowalska). Rev. Sopoćko’s rescue activities included providing Jews with baptismal certificates (some of the Jews underwent conversion voluntarily), finding hiding places for them, and sheltering Jews in his residence. A
Jewish couple wrote of their experiences thus:
Rev. Sopoćko was deeply concerned about the fate of the Jews who were already suffering repression, and helped many of them. Some of these persons underwent baptism, which he prepared us for. … At the beginning of September , a ghetto was created in Wilno. Thanks to Rev. Sopoćko, who furnished us with fictitious documents and placed under the care of [Rev. Jan Sielewicz], the dean of Worniany, we were able to get by until the spring of 1942. Afterwards, we managed on our own … Rev. Sopoćko was highly respected in Wilno, and helped many people at the risk of his own safety.
Our salvation and survival in those years is thanks to the help of many people, but at the beginning of that chain stood Rev. Sopoćko.
Among those helped by Rev. Sopoćko were Dr. Aleksander Sztajnberg, who assumed the name Sawicki, and his wife Franciszka Wanda (née Berggrün); Dr. Erdman, who became Benedykt Szymański, his wife and daughter;
and Dr. Juliusz Genzel and his wife. Rev. Sopoćko mentions Rev. Tadeusz Makarewicz, pastor of St. John the Baptist church, and Rev. Jan Kretowicz, pastor of St. Francis Seraphicus church, as priests who agreed to baptize Jews who had expressed a desire to convert. The Gestapo uncovered some tracks of Rev. Sopoćko’s activities and held him under arrest for several days. When he learned that he was again wanted by the Gestapo for helping Jews, Rev. Sopoćko fled to the countryside in March 1942, and hid in the Ursuline Sisters’ convent in Czarny Bór for two years, where he assumed a false identity, working as a gardener and carpenter. The following account attests to Rev. Sopoćko’s dedication to rescuing Jews.73 (Gutman and Bender, The Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations, volume 4: Poland, Part 1, p.182; Yad Vashem archive, no. M.31/8361; Tadeusz Krahel, “Ratowanie Żydów przez bł. ks. Michała Sopoćkę,” W Służbie Miłosierdzia, November 2008.) On the eve of the German occupation, Franciszka-Wanda Sawicka (née Berggruen) lived with her husband, a doctor, in Vilna [Wilno]. After the occupation, before the establishment of the ghetto, the Sawickis decided to go into hiding. Polish acquaintances of theirs referred them to a priest, [Rev. Michał Sopoćko], who agreed to help them. In September 1941, the priest found a separate shelter for each of them with friends of his. Franciszka-Wanda Sawicka was sent to Anna Dolinska [Dolińska], who gave her a warm welcome although she was a stranger and saw to all her needs, without expecting anything in return. After Dolinska, an activist in the Polish underground, obtained Aryan papers for Sawicka and her husband and supplied them with clothing and other necessities, the Sawickis left Vilna for [Worniany, where they were welcomed by Rev. Jan Sielewicz, and then taken by Rev. Hipolit Chruściel to the hamlet of Kuliszki near Worniany. They stayed there for several months before relocating to the hamlet of] Onzadowo [Onżadowo] near Oszmiana, where they lived as Polish refugees until the area was liberated in July 1944. While living in Onzadowo, the Sawickis occasionally went to Vilna to visit Dolinska, whom they considered their guardian angel. After the warm Dolinska was arrested by the NKVD for belonging to the AK [Armia Krajowa or Home Army] and exiled to Siberia for eight years. After her release, she moved to an area within the new Polish borders, where she renewed contact with the Sawickis, who had moved to 73 Zieliński, Życie religijne w Polsce pod okupacją 1939–1945, pp.52–53, 422–23.
Barbara Turkeltaub (née Gurwicz, born in Wilno in 1934) and her younger sister Leah (born in 1936) were smuggled out of the Wilno ghetto and placed in the care of a Polish farmer in Wierszuliszki, a suburban village of Wilno. Since the farmer’s family was going hungry and he feared that his sheltering of the young girls had become too dangerous, Barbara and Leah girls decided to leave his home and hid in nearby brick factory. They heard an approaching wagon and as it drew near, the girls could see that it was being driven by a priest. The priest, Father Jan, had the girls climb into the back of the wagon and covered them up with hay so that they would not be seen. He took them to a nearby convent. They moved to a second convent in the city proper, and with the exception of occasional searches by the Germans, they were safe. The sisters lived in the convent for two years after the war ended, until they were found by their mother, who also survived. (Tammeus and Cukierkorn, They Were Just People, pp.144–48.) After this incident with the buses [where children were seized from the children’s center in the ghetto attended by Barbara and Leah], Barbara’s father sat down and explained as much as he could about the realities of war for her Jewish family.
“My father put me on a little stool and lowered himself to the same level and said, ‘Basha, there is a terrible war going on.
In order for us to survive we need to separate. You will go with your sister to a farmer. Mother is going to stay in the ghetto and there’s a special place where she’s going to hide.’ She was expecting a baby then. My father and two older sisters were going to the partisans. He told me, ‘Never admit that you speak Yiddish and never say your last name. Say a bomb fell on your house and you don’t know where everyone is and you’re lost. And you are always to take care of your sister.’” As Barbara’s father said all this, her mother was standing next to her, crying, and “I was clutching to her dress and she was holding my sister and she was praying.” So Moishe and Mina [Gurwicz] made arrangements with a farmer whom Barbara and Leah were taught to call “Uncle,” but whose last name may have been Switzky [Sawicki?]. The family knew him because he made regular deliveries of milk to them before there was a ghetto. Switzky put them in his wagon, covered them up with hay, and slipped them past bribed ghetto guards. “We were lucky. Sometimes the Nazis would stick bayonets into wagons like this but they didn’t do that this time.” They went to his home in the nearby village of Wierszuliszki. The Gurwiczes gave the farmer and his wife some money or jewelry to cover the costs of extra mouths to feed, and Barbara said the Switzky family probably did this more for the money than for any altruistic reason. [The risk assumed by the farmer and his family was hardly commensurate with any reward the girls’ parents could offer for sheltering them.—Ed.] But, she said, Switzky “wasn’t a bad person.” The Switzky family “had a whole bunch of children, like five or six kids,” Barbara said, though none of them knew that she and her sister were Jews. … Mrs. Switzky was a nervous woman, Barbara said, who was “afraid for her own family.” It was clear to Barbara that the woman was not happy with her husband’s decision to hide Jewish children, and she did not hide her angst well. … Barbara and Leah stayed with the Switzky family for just four or five months, during which time they never saw their own parents. Only later did they learn that their mother, hiding in the sewers of Vilna as the Germans were destroying the ghetto, had given birth to their brother, Henry, who Mina had tried—but failed—to abort. [Henry also survived the war, hidden by a Polish family.—Ed.] Then one evening at the farm Barbara overheard Mrs. Switzky tell her husband that the next day he must go to the German authorities and turn in these Jewish children to receive the award being offered—some sugar. [This was likely done to scare the girls into leaving on their own, as those who turned in Jews whom they had sheltered risked severe punishment.—Ed.] “So I was afraid to wait until the morning,” Barbara said. As her sister slept that night, Barbara sneaked into the pantry and cut off some bread from a large loaf. While in the pantry, she saw some jars of what she took to be honey on the shelf.
So she slathered some on a piece of bread and went to wake up Leah, who always seemed to be hungry. … After Barbara got Leah dressed, they slipped out of the house and took off quickly down the road in the dark. “I didn’t know where to go, just down the road,” Barbara said.