«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
In the summer of 1940, the Germans expelled the Jews from the town of Konin, in western Poland, an area incorporated into the Reich, to the surrounding villages. Soon after, they were deported to the General Government. Francesca Bram (née Grochowska) records the following testimony in the Konin Memorial Book, published in Israel in 1968 and reproduced in Theo Richmond, Konin: A Quest (London: Jonathan Cape, 1995), at page 163.
One ought to emphasize the help we received from the priest of Grodziec [Rev. Władysław Jankowski], who occupied himself with handing out coffee and tea to us, and distributing milk to the children. Until late into the night there were warm kettles in the square. Bread was also given out. Besides that, the priest went around appealing to the peasants to give accommodation to the deportees, and help to the homeless. … The Germans sought an opportunity to arrest him and this happened after he helped the Jews in Grodziec. Soon afterwards came news of his death.
On “Bloody Wednesday,” July 31, 1940, the Germans staged a massive assault on the civilian population of Olkusz, in retaliation for the shooting of a German police officer earlier that month. (Twenty Poles were executed immediately after that incident.) Hundreds of men between the ages of 15 and 55, both Poles and Jews, were forced to assemble in public places and were abused and mistreated. When Rev. Piotr Mączka, the pastor of the Church of St. Andrew the Apostle, tried to intervene, he was beaten savagely, and died ten days later. Jacob Schwarzfitter, a Jew from Olkusz, recalled those events which he had lived through, in an interview given in 1946.
(Voices of the Holocaust, A Documentary Project by Illinois Institute of Technology, Internet:
http://voices.iit.edu/portal2.html.) I had come to my (little) town Olkusz. That’s my place of birth. There I remained until the evacuation (depopulation) of the town. Before speaking about the depopulation, I shall narrate, report one incident. On the 31st of July 1940, there took place a punitive expedition against my town. On an early morning at four o'clock, at daybreak, on a Wednesday, the whole town was aroused from sleep and put on its feet. And all men without distinction, Jews, from sixteen to fifty years of age, were taken out to various squares. They were taken out by the Gestapo. A few thousand Gestapo men arrived, in a town which had a population of only about fifteen thousand, and they started punitive expedition.
The punitive expedition took place because sixty kilometers from the city were murdered by bandits two gendarmes. But they felt it useful to make of it a political incident. And it was ordered to make responsible for it the peaceful (civilian) population. We were led out at daybreak, with our hands up, they jabbed us with bayonets and we were compelled to run.
When we arrived at the square, we had to pass a cordon. On both sides stood SS men, with (metal) rods, belts, rubber truncheons, clubs, and they beat us. Every one had to go through. People went through the cordon, and emerged covered with blood. … Women were not taken, that time, only men. Then afterwards each had to show his fingerprint. After giving his fingerprint (it is possible that they had to surrender their identification cards which bore a single fingerprint) each one was tripped from the front over a leg and thrown down to the ground. We were made to lie on the stomach, the face deeply pressed to the earth, with the hands on the back. So we remained lying until twelve o’clock. And the SS men were passing back and fro, and when it pleased him he trampeled (the person). I personally was hit several times with the boot on the head. At twelve o'clock they came … 27 Twelve o'clock noon, after lying for eight hours we were ordered to get up. Everyone was pale and black. We all looked like dead men. So there spoke to us a Gestapo man, while another explained (interpreted) in the Polish language. That we are being treated most humanely, because they are still able to prove who is against God and against humanity. I and those others present, could of course, not understand that people could be treated still, worse, but that we have learned in the future.
Afterwards he explained to us the reason for the event. It was because two gendarmes were murdered. Among those present was a Polish ‘prister’ (the word was not clear, and caused a question).
No ‘Prister' is a priest, a clergyman.
Yes. He explained among other things, that those here present are not criminals, that they are simply peaceful citizens.
For that he was murderously beaten… Throughout German-occupied Poland the Jews were gradually being confined in ghettos, located in cities and towns, which were walled or fenced off from the remainder of the population. The creation of the largest ghetto, in
Warsaw, was described by British historian Martin Gilbert in The Holocaust: A Jewish Tragedy (Glasgow:
William Collins, 1986), at pages 127–28:
Of the 400,000 Jews of Warsaw, more than 250,000 lived in the predominantly Jewish district. The remaining 150,000 lived throughout the city, some Jews in almost every street and suburb. On 3 October 1940, at the start of the Jewish New Year, the German Governor of Warsaw, Ludwig Fischer, announced that all Jews living outside the predominasntly Jewish district would have to leave their homes and to move to the Jewish area. … Warsaw was to be divided into three ‘quarters’: one for Germans, one for Poles, and one for Jews. … More than a hundred thousand Poles, living in the area designated for the Jews, were likewise ordered to move, to the ‘Polish quarter’.
They too would lose their houses and their livelihoods. On October 12, the second Day of Atonement of the war, a day of fasting and of prayer, German loudspeakers announced that the move of Poles and Jews into their special quarters must be completed by the end of the month.
A traditional Jewish upbringing could give rise to insurmountable psychological obstacles on the part of Jews who sought refuge in Catholic institutions, as was the case of a young yeshiva student from Zduńska Wola who was welcomed into a local monastery. (Isaac Neuman with Michael Palencia-Roth, The Narrow Bridge: Beyond the Holocaust [Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000], pp.56–64.) On my way home that cold December morning [of 1940]… I wandered into a relatively unfamiliar neighborhood. When I realized where I was, the yellow star on my jacket began to feel very large. … Then I saw something I had not noticed before: a small monastery, its courtyard slightly ajar. I had never been inside either a church or a monastery; as a yeshiva student, I did not enter churches and didn’t know much about Christian rituals. Yet the half-open gate beckoned. “Just for a minute,” I said to myself, “until I thaw out. And then I can continue home.” I slipped through the gate, crossed the courtyard, and entered a dimly lit chapel. It was empty. … On the altar stood a triptych of scenes that, I concluded, depicted the life of Jesus. The woman with the infant at her breast must be Mary, I thought. I also noticed a picture of the Crucifixion. After wondering how Reb Mendel would describe these representations, I sat down in a forward pew and took off my jacket so that the yellow star was hidden. Long before, I had cut off my earlocks, hoping thereby to look more like a Pole or at least to draw less attention to myself. I must have sat there, alone and in silence, for twenty minutes. … Gradually my limbs thawed.
I was about to stand up when I felt a hand descend on my left shoulder. I had heard nothing, no footsteps, no breathing, nothing. He was just there. He kept his hand on my shoulder as I turned to look at him. I knew that I shouldn’t move, get up, or try to flee. “And now the Gestapo,” I said to myself, “for being in a forbidden place.” But the monk’s face was kind.
“My son,” he asked softly, “are you hungry?” I nodded. He gestured for me to follow him. I walked behind his billowing, thick, dark robe, out of the chapel and down a long, bare corridor.
The silence seemed to intensify as we went further into the monastery. We crossed a small courtyard and came to a low pig shed. He led me inside and asked me to sit and wait for him. I sat and looked at the pigs in the shed with me. They appeared content and well fed. They were obviously indifferent to the German soldiers occupying Zdunska Wola. For a moment, just for a moment, I wanted to be one of those pigs. … The monk returned with a bowl of potato soup. “I am brother John,” he said, handing me the bowl and a spoon. “Eat in peace.” He watched as I squatted on the floor and ate until my spoon scraped bottom. Then, from somewhere in the vastness of his robe he took out a piece of bread and gave it to me. I wiped the bowl with that bread until the entire surface 28 shone. Watching my eyes and moving slowly, Brother John reached for my jacket, which still was inside-out on the floor beside me. His finger traced the outline of the yellow star. It was barely visible to the eye, although its six points were unmistakable to the touch. … “I see you are a Jew,” Brother John said.
I nodded, not trusting my voice. At any moment I expected either to be tied up and handed over to the Gestapo or booted down the corridor through the chapel and out the courtyard gate. At least, I thought to myself, I had eaten a meal.
Then, only half intending to say what I said, I blurted out, “Perhaps these pigs need looking after. I could also help around the monastery. I could sweep and clean and light the stoves in the mornings. I am used to getting up early.” “Oh?” said Brother John, “and why does a young boy like you get up so early?” I told him about my duties at the stiebel, about lighting the stove every morning at five, and about Reb Mendel and my months of study with him. After recounting how Reb Mendel had died, I fell silent again, thinking that I had said too much.
The silence between us grew.
Finally Brother John said, “We could use a boy like you, but you must promise me two things. First, while you work for us you must not leave the monastery. Second, you must tell no one else here that you are a Jew. And, of course, you must not mind sleeping out here with the pigs.” I told him that I would agree to those conditions after I had spoken with my mother and father, for I did not want them to worry about my sudden disappearance. Brother John asked me not to tell my parents where I would be or even that I would be working in a monastery, any monastery. I agreed to that, too, and with some relief, for I was sure that my father would have been upset to know that I was working in a Christian house of worship.
That very afternoon, after assuring my parents I would be safe, I came back to the monastery. Before entering through the same half-open gate, I carefully looked around to make sure no one had seen me. In a small satchel I had packed a toothbrush and one change of clothing as well as my phylacteries and a prayer book. As dangerous a it was to bring the very things that would betray my origins, I did not consider leaving them behind. Brother John was waiting for me in the chapel. Together we walked down the same long corridor as that morning. The silence now felt inviting and safe.
In the pig shed, I noticed that Brother John had brought in some new straw and heaped it in a corner, along with two thick blankets. After bringing me another bowl of soup, this time with some kind of meat in it, and a piece of bread and cheese, he said goodnight and left me alone. Despite the cold, the blankets were sufficient protection, because I slept buried in the straw rather than on top of it. In the morning I hid my satchel under the straw and began my duties. I scrubbed floor, cleaned the kitchen, and lit the stoves every morning at five. I fed the pigs and cleaned the shed once a day.
Every morning also, as soon as it was light enough for me to see my hand and I knew that I was alone, I would say my morning prayers.
None of the other ten or twelve monks spoke to me. I don’t know what Brother John told them, but it must have satisfied them, for none paid attention to me—none, that is, except Brother Peter. His dark and sad eyes, set close in a thin face, narrowed when he saw me, and soon I began to fear that he would report me to the Gestapo. But aside from staring at me at odd moments during the day, Brother Peter said and did nothing, and within three days I felt relatively secure in the monastery. Although I missed my family, I was glad to live without daily fear and grateful to have enough to eat. Every day the soup had meat in it, and some of it tasted unfamiliar, I decided not to worry about that. I felt increasingly at ease until I remembered that in two evenings it would be Hanukkah.
The burden of that thought coincided with a request that the monks made, and the confluence of the two disturbed me.
One morning, Brother John asked me to take the place of a regular altar boy who was ill. Of course, I could not refuse, and I trembled as I put on the clothes of the absent altar boy, wondering what I would be asked to do. Immediately I regretted not having paid more attention to the boys. Although they were my size, they were somewhat younger, and I had not spoken to them since entering the monastery. I had not even watched them as they went about their duties. They regarded me, I hoped, as some sort of peasant boy brought in to do the heavy work of the monastery. At any rate, they paid me as little attention as I paid them.