«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
The girls were cold and tired, and Leah was not happy to be running in the dark. So eventually they located the brick kiln where Father Jan found them and from which he took them to the Benedictine convent. When Father Jan drove up to the convent with the girls in his buggy, nuns quickly emerged and rushed them inside. They were fed, bathed, and given a warm bed. In a few days they were into a routine, rising early in the morning, attending Mass, then having breakfast, after which came quiet time. Nuns began to teach them basic reading and math, and the girls had some housekeeping chores to do, too. … 215 But rarely did they have anyone to talk with except themselves. The nuns generally spoke little, except when leading the girls in their lessons. None of them, for instance, ever asked the girls if they were Jewish. Rather, they simply taught them as if they were Catholic, instructing them in traditional practices. Barbara and Leah neither saw nor heard any other children at this convent, so it was a lonely existence, but not an unhappy one—especially for Barbara, who enjoyed the peace, the security, the rhythm of life, the tender care of the nuns, and the chance to draw pictures, read, and write poetry.
Barbara, in effect, created her own tightly ordered world and became attached to the convent’s structured pattern of life.
She was baptized, took Communion, and learned to be an obedient Catholic. She believed the theology she was learning “very, very much,” she told us.
There were, of course, special rules for the children—who the nuns knew were Jewish. “We were told not to venture from the house by ourselves. I usually was a very good girl and listened.” Usually. But not always. One day Barbara wandered into the forest adjacent to the convent. As she did so, she began to hear what she described as popping sounds in the woods. Curious, she moved toward them. “I stayed behind a tree,” she said. “Then I saw a group of people undressed by a huge ditch. I began to hear voices. I saw a group of women undressed. Some were holding babies in their arms. The Germans [actually, Lithuanians—Ed.] were shooting randomly and the women and babies were falling. I was so stunned I couldn’t move. I was like hypnotized. Very soon afterward, somebody grabbed me and carried me from there. It was one of the older nuns.” Barbara later learned that she had inadvertently wandered into the Ponary killing fields and watched Germans [Lithuanians] murdering Jews. The memory never left her, even though she “was told not to mention that. Forget about it.
Erase it from my mind.” The nuns decided Barbara and Leah could not stay there any more. So they fetched Father Jan again, and that same day he took them to the main convent in Vilna. Again they hid under hay in his buggy. When they got there, nuns quickly took the girls inside, fed them, bathed them, and gave them their list of rules, including an important prohibition against going beyond the small area to which they were assigned inside the building. This time, Barbara listened and obeyed. While at this convent, she occasionally heard the voices of other children but almost never saw them. It was, she decided later, a way of making sure children did not give away other hidden children if pressured by the German authorities.
At this convent, Barbara and Leah fell into the rhythm of cloistered life. Nuns continued to teach them school subjects as well as prayers and other religious practices. But the girls’ contact with the outside world was so limited that news of the end of the war did not reach them until 1947, two years after the fighting stopped. That was when their mother, who had been searching for them the whole time, finally found them. She had gone door-to-door, asking people if they had seen her two girls, one blonde, one with dark hair. Finally, a woman told her that she may have seen at least the blonde girl singing in the choir at a worship service at the convent.
Mina went to Mass to see for herself. And there she saw two girls she was sure were her own. She asked to speak to the priest who celebrated Mass there, Father Jan, to tell him of her search and to ask to meet with the girls.
“He came to me,” Barbara told us, “and said there is a woman who lost her children—he didn’t tell me that she was Jewish or anything—and is looking for them. She thinks that maybe you might be one of her children. Right away I was on guard. Everything in my background I had put away, far, far, away. I never forgot my parents. I never forgot my grandmother. But I though that being a Jew must be something really, really bad if people are killing them and doing all those awful things. And I was scared to think about it.” So Barbara did not want to see the woman who might be her own mother.. She had found comfort and security in a Catholic convent and was loathe to lose it. “But then Father Jan came again and again. I think what an angel he was. He told me the lady is crying and looking for her children, so ‘would you please reassure her that you’ll help her to look for them?’ So that’s how I said OK.” But the woman Barbara then met with did not match the image of her mother in her memory. That image was of a tall, strikingly beautiful woman with black shiny hair and shiny eyes. By contrast, this woman was “bent down,” wore glasses, and had a babushka over her gray hair. “I did not recognize her. But I started to talk to her and I said, ‘Don’t cry. You will find your children.’ And she said, ‘My daughter, Basha. I’m your mother.’ And I recognized the voice. But then I ran away. Isn’t that something? I was so scared. I just ran to the door. And they let me run.” A few days later Father Jan came again and asked Barbara if she was ready to see her again. “I said yes. She was sitting there smiling. I remembered her smile. And she said, ‘My daughter, my daughter.’” Leah reunited with her mother first. Somehow she was more ready than Barbara to reconnect. “She probably forgot my mom. But by their second or third meeting she just went to her like you wouldn’t believe. My mother hugged her and kissed her and Leah was sitting on her lap. I thought to myself, how could she do that and I could not? I had so many questions I wanted to ask her. I was angry with her. Why did she leave us? Why did we separate? There was so much emotion. Where was our father? There was anger about that. But she didn’t want to tell us everything.”
The following account describes the fate of a Jewish family from Wilno who took refuge in an area located between the towns of Gródek or Horodek and Radoszkowice near the prewar Polish-Soviet border. A number of Poles, among them Home Army members, and the local priest came to their assistance. (“The Righteous Among Nations: Poland. Tadeusz and Wladyslawa Korsak; Jan and Maria Michalowski,” http://www1.yadvashem.org/righteous/bycountry/poland/Michalowski_Korsak.html.) In June 1941 the Germans entered Vilna [Wilno], and the Perewoski family was sent to live inside the ghetto. The father, Shmuel Perewoski, who had been assigned to forced labor in the HKP camp, feared for his family’s safety, and decided to act. He contacted Tadeusz Korsak, a Pole with whom he had once worked, and managed to bring his family to him, with the help of a Polish nanny who had lived with them before the war. The first to be smuggled out was Shmuel’s 6-year-old son Eliyahu [Eli Levin Parovsky], followed by his wife, Dora, and their baby girl, Tzelina. The three of them hid in a basement in the city. Tadeusz then hid Dora and the children in a wagon filled with hay and brought them to the family farm in the village of Balcer [Balcery], near Minsk (today Belarus). Shmuel came to Balcer later on. The Perewoskis hid in the Korsak’s home for close to a year, during which time Eliyahu became the local priest’s assistant [i.e., altar boy, probably to Rev. Edward Murończyk, the pastor of Dubrowy, who was killed by Soviet partisans in October 1942], and sang in the church choir. In early 1943, Shmuel, Dora and Eliyahu left the Korsaks and moved to the neighboring village, where they continued to receive assistance from the Korsak family, who helped them to obtain false papers and food, and to find hiding places. In mid 1943, Shmuel was brutally murdered by Communist partisans. Dora and Eliyahu fled and joined the Polish partisans, where Dora helped out with different jobs, and Eliyahu was a shepherd. Tzelina stayed at the Korsaks until Tadeusz [a member of the Home Army] and his two daughters were murdered [by Soviet partisans]. Tadeusz’s wife Wladyslawa [Władysława] escaped with Tzelina, and they found refuge with relatives—Jan and Maria Michalowski [Michałowski] from the village of Jerozolimka [near Wilno]. Jan and Maria had 5 children of their own, but they took Tzelina in, and gave her a place to stay until the end of the war. The Michalowskis looked after Tzelina with love and devotion, and after the war gave her back to her mother, who came looking for her.
After his escape from Wilno, Oswald Rufeisen ventured to the town of Nowa Wilejka where he was sheltered for a brief period by the local pastor, Rev. Stanisław Miłkowski, who also provided refuge to a 15-year-old Jewish girl. (Zieliński, Życie religijne w Polsce pod okupacją 1939–1945, p.54.) Afterwards, Rufeisen made his way eastward to Mir, where at first he passed as a German, employed as an interpreter for the German authrities.
Eventually, he took shelter in a convent of the Sisters of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ for 16 long months. To avoid detection by the Germans he occasionally dressed as a nun. After leaving Mir he joined the Soviet partisans. Euzenia Bartkowiak, the mother superior of the convent, was recognized by Yad Vashem.
(Nechama Tec, In the Lion’s Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen [New York: Oxford University Press, 1990], pp.72–73, 76, 98–99, 163–66, 172, 173–76.) At the very beginning, disregarding their own safety, the cantor and the rabbi’s son-in-law ran through the streets calling in suppressed, yet weeping voices, “Jews come out to your slaughter!” This was their way of warning about the imminent danger. They wanted to alert the people to the threat, hoping that somehow some will succeed in eluding the enemy. Some did. A few escaped by hiding with or without help from the Christian neighbors. Among those protected by Christian neighbors was the rabbi’s wife.
Mir had a convent of the Order of the Sisters of the Resurrection where four Polish nuns lived. During the day of destruction a number of Jews found shelter there. The frantic soldiers overlooked the place, as they did all other nonJewish quarters.
During the Russian occupation, because of the spaciousness of the convent and the Soviet persecution of Poles, the Catholic priest, the Dean Antoni Mackiewicz, and his sister had decided to move in with the nuns. On November 9,  some Jewish families came to the door of the convent. Mackiewicz let them in. Inside they pleaded: “Please have mercy on us, hide us!” “Because of my position I am not allowed to lie. If the Germans will ask me if there are Jews in my house, I will not be able to deny it. But in the yard there is a stable, a pig sty, a barn. All these places are open. I am not 217 responsible for what is in the yard. Go out there. I don’t want to know about it.” The fugitives understood, they scattered and hid in all those places. They were spared. A few managed to survive the war.
For the rest of the onslaught Mackiewicz stood close to the window that faced the main road. Bewildered, helpless, unable to move, he watched. His eyes had a faraway strange look. As if transfixed, he seemed unaware of the silent tears that kept running down his cheeks. … On the balance, however, most contacts between the Jewish and Christian neighbors were good. This was particularly true for the exchange of goods. And so, local peasants supplied the Jews with farm products, while the Jews offered the peasants used clothes, furniture, and all kinds of other personal belongings. Both partners to these exchanges were poor.
Both were eager to receive the goods the other had. These transactions continued. Even though they reduced starvation among the Jews, they could not eliminate hunger. … Since in Mir most Poles were removed from the official Nazi machinery, and because Oswald had more in common with the Poles than with the Belorussians, he decided to cultivate his relationships with Poles. … He also made a point of staying away from the Polish priest, Mackiewicz. … He explains, “I did not trust the priest. I did not know him. Nor did I know that he had a positive attitude toward the Jews. This I discovered much later …” For the same reasons that he avoided the priest, he kept his contacts with the nuns to a bare minimum. … Only much later the nuns served as intermediaries between Oswald and the Jews. This happened when Oswald supplied the Jews with blank document forms. Oswald had stolen these forms from his office. Such papers facilitated a move to the forbidden Christian world. He was told by his contacts that the nuns would deliver these items to the ghetto. … It is ironic that when the Russian occupation of Mir ended and the Nazis took over, the Polish priest, Mackiewicz, conducted a special mass thanking God for the termination of the Soviet occupation and the arrival of the Germans.
The night after Oswald saw the parked trucks, in the Mir region alone twenty-five Polish men and women, all defined by the Nazis as the intelligentsia, as leaders of their communities, were arrested. Balicki and the priest Mackiewicz were among them. In Mir only one Polish man was spared, the one who listened to Oswald’s warning and ran away. In the vicinity of Nieśwież scores of other members of the Polish intelligentsia were rounded up.
Of the arrested all were taken to the prison in Stołpce, where they remained for about two months. From there they were transferred to the concentration camp in Kołdyczewo. … In fact, these Polish arrests fit well into the overall Nazi policies that aimed at the elimination of the Polish elite. … This policy was put in effect for the entire country. In the [north]eastern part of Poland the Nazis tried to give the impression that moves against the Poles were not only initiated and executed by Belorussians but also motivated by Belorussian nationalists.