«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
After examining Pela, the professor said that she should be operated on without further delay. … From the professor’s words I realized that we could no longer put off the operation. But I also knew that the Hospital of the Holy Infant Jesus was not a charity clinic. Patients at this hospital were expected to pay for their beds and for their treatment. How was I to raise the money? I threw myself at Prof. Czyzewicz’s mercy. I explained to him that I was at present without funds worth mentioning because I was a former officer of the Polish army in hiding from the Germans.
The professor looked at me, and then at Pela. He seemed to understand. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll operate on your wife myself, and I’ll collect the money from you whenever you’ll have it.” I think he suspected immediately that we were Jewish. Later, I learned that he had given a room in his apartment to Professor Beck, a well-known Jewish specialist who had been the hospital’s chief of surgery before the Germans came. Thanks to Professor Czyzewicz, Professor Beck survived the war.
A date was set for Pela’s operation. Meanwhile, I was told to take her home. She was going to be admitted to the hospital only two days before the operation.
I took Pela back with me to Sadowne. Our security problem had been solved. Pela and I now had a legitimate reason for leaving Sadowne and staying away for some time. But what were we to do about Jasia?
We decided to do now what we had so firmly refused to consider doing after Jasia’s discharge from the children’s hospital: We were going to put Jasia into the convalescent home in Swider [Świder, a Warsaw suburb] which Dr.
Stankiewicz, the pediatrician, had recommended to us at the time. I told the nuns who managed the sanatorium that I was a former officer of the Polish army, that I was a devout Catholic working for the Polish underground and that I had no money to pay for Jasia’s care. But now my wife would have to go to the hospital for a serious operation and I was desperately in need of a place where our little girl, who was not quite three years old, could be cared for until her mother 244 was well again. If I could not find such a place for Jasia, I would not be able to continue my resistance activities, I said.
The nuns were wonderful. I do not know whether they suspected that Pela and I were Jewish, but they immediately agreed to accept Jasia free of charge. Once again Pela and I had to go through the ordeal of putting our little girl into the care of strangers. We left her in the ward crying bitterly but we knew there was nothing we could have done and we tried to persuade ourselves that Jasia would be in good hands. … Pela entered the hospital in the middle of January 1944. She was placed into a women’s ward with five or six other patients. In order to bolster Pela’s credibility as a good Catholic, our friend Edward Galewski gave her a little breviary to keep with her in the hospital, along with a religious tract entitled The Life of Saint Theresa. Pela placed both books on full view atop her little bedside table. Before the operation a priest came to her bedside to hear her confession. This was something for which Pela had not been prepared. She did not know the responses used in this sacrament of the Church and she was afraid that her ignorance would betray that she was not the devout Catholic she had made herself out to be.
So, when the priest asked her whether she was ready to confess her sins she told him that she was in too much pain to be able to perform the act with the full concentration it required. The priest gave her a sad but understanding smile, made the sign of the cross over her and left. I only hoped that when Pela came out of her anaesthesia after the operation she would not say anything that would betray her as a Jewess.
The operation took almost four hours. … Almost as soon as Pela was awake again the priest made a return appearance. He inquired whether she was now ready to make her confession. Once again Pela protested; she said she was still too weak and tried to concentrate on repentance.
Very well, the priest said, he would take her deadly sins upon his conscience, but he would suggest that she at least attempt to confess her lesser sins. When Pela still refused, he shook his head, smiled and walked away. Pela thought he suspected that she was Jewish, because he stopped pressing her about making her confession but gave her a friendly smile whenever he passed through her ward on his daily rounds.,,, Because her operation had been a difficult one, Pela had to remain in the hospital for seven weeks. … Every Sunday I visited Jasia at the sanatorium in Swider. I was happy to see that she, at least, was getting good food, that she had good color and had not only grown but also gained some weight. … Pela and I worried whether we had been right to leave Jasia in the sanatorium. The Soviets had begun to bomb Warsaw and its railroad communications. What if we could no longer go to Warsaw to visit our daughter? What if the sanatorium itself got hit? Perhaps Jasia was now in no less danger at the sanatorium than she would be in Sadowne? So, just before Easter, we went to Warsaw to pick her up and bring her home again.
After the liberation, Jasia continued to suffer poor health and needed to regain her strength. The Starkopfs again turned to nuns for assistance. (Ibid., p.229.) But what were we to do? The payment I was receiving for my work with the “Jewish Committee” consisted of nothing more than room and board at the shelter. But the doctor had an idea. She suggested that we place Jasia into a children’s convalescent home which was housed in a convent near Lublin. She explained to us that, unlike the sanatorium in Swider, this institution accepted every child free of charge. “Of course, the generosity of the sisters creates a problem,” the doctor added with a sigh. “Usually, every bed is taken. But I’ll try and see whether they can make room for one more little girl.” We were lucky; Jasia was accepted by the sisters and remained there for the next four months.
Sandra (Roma) Brand, originally from Niemirów near Lwów, passed as a Polish Catholic in Warsaw. Under the assumed identity of Cecylia Szarek, she had a love affair with Rolf Peschel, a German officer at the Criminal Police Headquaters in Warsaw who helped Jews and the Polish underground. Shortly before the August 1944 uprising, the Germans discovered Rolf’s double life and murdered him and made it look like a crime committed by the Polish underground. During the uprising, Brand befriended Rev. Teodor Bensch, a Polish priest who taught canon law at an underground university in Warsaw. Her conversations with Rev. Bensch, who suspected her of being Jewish, proved to be a great comfort to her. (That relationship is described in Sandra Brand’s memoir I Dared To Live [New York: Shengold, 1978], pp.144–55.) Unknown to her at the time, Rev. Bensch was hiding several Jews, among them a woman and her teenage niece, in a chapel of an old-age home run by the Franciscans in suburban Konstancin. His kindness towards her continued after the liberation, and she has spoken of him many times as a volunteer speaker about the Holocaust in American high schools and colleges. After the war Rev.
Bensch returned to his teaching position at the Catholic University of Lublin, but was soon elevated to the rank of bishop of Warmia. (Sandra Brand, Good People, Bad People [Rockville, Maryland: Schreiber, 2003], pp.69–73, 78.) 245 Father Teodor Bensch who became my friend while I was attending the prayer sessions for the Polish Freedom Fighters during the uprising in Warsaw, passed everyday at the same time by the gardener’s house, which now was my so-called home. Although sick, I waited eagerly near the fence of the garden to hear some news.
He came to my rescue. He heard me coughing and said, “You are sick my child and you seem hungry too. You need help.
Why don’t you move into the Home for Retired Actors in Skolimov [Skolimów]. The home receives food coupons. It isn’t much, but enough to feed the inmates, and enough to feed one more person. I will speak to the Reverend Mother. I think the best place for you will be right here. … I moved into the old age home. … There was, in contrast to all other inmates, a young woman occupying the room next to mine. She shared it with a twelve-year-old girl. They also, like myself, preferred to take their meals in their room.
She had access to underground news sheets and she knew that all of those deported died in gas chambers. She spoke authoritatively, leaving no room for arguments. But I did not want to believe her because I wanted to find my child alive.
In my room I pressed my forehead against the cool glass of the window. I did not hear the knock at the door. Father Bensch came in.
I senses at once that he had something important to say. I pulled another chair to the window and motioned my guest to sit down.
“I have been recalled to Lublin Catholic University to resume teaching Canon Law.” … “What are your plans?” Father Bensch asked. “You can stay here as long as you like but you’re too young a woman to remain in an old age home indefinitely.” … “What do you think of resuming your education?” Father Bensch asked.
“Am I not too old for that?” “No one is ever too old to learn. Come to Lublin and register at Lublin University. If I remember correctly you wanted to become a journalist.” … I talk about my unforgettable friend Father Teodor Bensch who hid several Jews in his chapel and saved them from deportation to death camps.
Not all rescue efforts in convents and institutions run by nuns ended so fortunately. Helena Szereszewska describes her experiences in a nursing home in Warsaw, St. Roch’s Shelter for invalids and the incurably sick, operated by the Felician Sisters. The institution was moved to a former Jewish students’ hostel on the corner of Leszno and Żelazna Streets after the Germans liquidated the ghetto and requisitioned the Sisters’ own building for a hospital. Luckily, the author eventually had to leave the institution during the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944, soon after her daughter and grandson, who did not fit the resident profile, came to join her, and thus avoided the tragedy that befell its residents. (Helena Szereszewska, Memoirs from Occupied Warsaw, 1940– 1945 [London and Portland, Oregon: Vallentine Mitchell, 1997], pp.292–377.) I lived at Lwowska Street until the beginning of June 1943, until the day I received my identity card.
Mrs Grabowska had a confessor in the church [Church of the Holy Saviour] on Zbawiciela Square. She went there once a week and sought his advice in everything.
‘There are two women living with me, a mother and daughter. They’re Jewish. I want to get the mother taken in somewhere.’ ‘Nuns are the best,’ advised the priest. ‘The Ursulines or the Felicians. The Felicians have got a place on Leszno Street now.’ ‘Shall I tell the Reverend Mother the truth?’ ‘Don’t say anything. I’ll take the lie on my own conscience. Give the woman these books to contemplate from me.’ … The Reverend Mother was sitting at a desk.
‘I’ve come on behalf of my tenant, Maria Majewska [Szereszewska’s daughter’s assumed name],’ said Mrs Grabowska.
‘Her mother has a bad heart because of her terrible wartime experiences. She’d like the sisters to look after her.’ ‘Tell her to come with her mother,’ said the nun. ‘We’ve always got room.’ … I went there with Marysia [her daughter].
‘You’re not Jewish or a convert, are you?’ asked the Reverend Mother in her office.
‘God forbid! I’m a good Catholic.’ … ‘In principle we only accept people over the age of sixty-five,’ said the nun looking at me inquiringly. ‘You’re too young 246 for us. But sometimes we make exceptions.’ I was accepted and paid her the amount required, 500 złotys.
Gradually, Helena Szereszewska realized how many Jews actually lived in the institution, and that there was an immense silent conspiracy among the nuns and the elderly chaplain about that topic. The residents were expected to attend chapel and Szereszewska recalled the priests that she encountered during her stay.
In the middle sat an old woman in a black coat and a worn black felt hat on her head. She had a Jewish nose and looked like a town Jewess. She sat huddled up and slept all through the mass. She immediately attracted my attention. … Then an old priest in a golden chasuble celebrated the mass. There were two small altar boys, eight years old perhaps. … I watched the altar boys and thought about [my grandson] Maciuś. He had served at mass too [at St. Anne’s church in Warsaw] thanks to Father [Zygmunt] Kozubski, [a theologian]. The priest knew Maciuś was Jewish and wanted to protect him. So he gave him a white surplice and a bell. The young curate also knew about Maciuś but he found it worrying and one day he said, ‘He’s a Jewish child so what’s he doing serving at Holy Mass.’ ‘What about it?’ All children are the same before God,’ replied Father Kozubski. … Every Sunday I listened to the priest’s sermon. He often referred to the events which had so recently and so tragically taken place. He talked about the annihilation of the Jews. ‘Everything that has happened to the Jews is atonement for the terrible sins they committed. It was God’s punishment. The Germans are only the instruments of God’s punishment.’ … I walked to the church of St Charles Boromese [Borromeo] on Chłodna Street. I sat down on a pew and thought about my daughters … I got up and approached the altar and knelt down. … So I knelt in front of the altar with the huge cross all alone in the church, sensing the priest’s questioning look on my back. He must have known who I was. … I knew the story of a relation of ours, an old woman who was hiding in the country with the family of a Polish friend of her son’s. She became very ill so they called the priest. She was on the verge of dying. When she caught her breath she called out, ‘Shema, Israel.’ He gave her the holy oils. She died. He closed her eyes. ‘I think,’ he said as he was leaving, deeply moved, ‘that Catholic wasn’t completely Catholic.’ Helena Szereszewska maintained the pretence that she was a Catholic throughout her stay.