«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
Being visited by people whose appearance was faultless could strengthen my position. It was very important. So [my daughter] Marysia asked Mrs Grabowska to visit me one day. … So a few days later Marysia asked the very aristocraticlooking Mr. Sztark with the walrus moustache to visit me. … He went to see the Reverend Mother in her office, kissed her hand, introduced himself and asked her to take special care of me as I was the wife of a colleague of his.
Szereszewska also encountered a Jewish woman who assumed the role of an anti-Semite during her stay at the institution.
Anna Białkowska moved into our room … In the second year of the war she was taken to Ravensbrück concentration camp and cleaned the latrines there. The cold and terrible damp affected her legs. Thanks to her distant relatives she got out after a while and spent a year in the Red Cross hospital unable to use her legs. … She was a Calvinist. In principle, the institution only took in Roman Catholics, but they made an exception for her. … She supported the National Democrats and had ultra right-wing views. I realized that the very first evening when she mentioned politics while talking to Zofia Łoziewicz. That evening Zofia was playing the part of an anti-Semite who was nevertheless a supporter of Józef Piłsudski. … A few days after Anna Białkowska moved into our room a bombshell burst. Zofia Łoziewicz was summoned to the office.
‘Mrs Łoziewicz,’ said the Reverend Mother, ‘you concealed the fact that you’re Jewish. Your papers are in order and noone knew, but your secret has come out and now we can’t keep you here any longer.’ … ‘Mrs Majewska,’ said Mrs Kowalska … ‘Someone rang from town and informed on her. They can’t keep her any longer.
But they’re taking her to Otwock, to another place they’ve got. Sister Franciszka is going with her’ ‘Mrs Majewska,’ said Mrs Mech, the one who dozed during mass, ‘… Do you know who set her up like this? Her husband. She had a Polish husband who wanted to get his own back on her. Did you guess that Zofia is my daughter?’ … That day, immediately after mass, as [Maria Zawadzka] was going round the rooms where the bedridden women lived, she came across someone who had just come to the institution. The woman looked at Maria Zawadzka and shouted, ‘I know her! She’s Jewish! She comes from a Jewish house! I did their washing and I know her!’ Maria Zawadzka turned as white as a sheet, ran out of the room, looked for the Reverend Mother, Sister Bogumiła, and threw herself at her feet. Crying, choking and nearly unconscious, she told her what had happened. The Sister Bogumiła 247 rushed into the room like a fury, her habit flapping and her cross and rosary beads jingling. ‘Listen you, you hell-raiser.’ Perhaps she wanted to call her a bitch, but could she of all people say that? ‘You monster. If you open your mouth once more and say one more word about Mrs Zawadzka you’ll die and perish and you’ll be damned and swallowed up by hell.
And you won’t receive absolution in this world or in the next either. You’re nearly dead already, you viper.’ That’s how she spoke to her in her fury, completely ignoring the other invalids lying next to her and half dead with fright.
Later the nuns tried to cover up the whole business. ‘It’s completely untrue,’ they told everyone. ‘That old Mrs Pikulska has gone mad. She doesn’t know what she’s saying. She was very ill when she came here and she’ll go to Jesus soon.’ … One day when our old priest was celebrating mass a woman I’d never seen before entered the chapel. … I could tell that she was terribly confused. She didn’t know whether to kneel or sit. She could see that nearly all the women were wearing a hat while she was bareheaded. She didn’t have a missal. … Her name was Mrs. Makowska and she’d just arrived that day. … I could immediately tell that she was Jewish. It wasn’t because of her face … but her manner and behaviour. … There was one thing I often thought about. I knew I wasn’t the only Jew in the place. How did Mrs Makowska, old Mrs Kosińska, Mrs Mech and Mrs Kowalska get into the institution? Mrs Makowska could have got in the same way as I did.
We both had neutral faces and our identity cards were in order. … But Mrs Kosińska’s and Mrs Mech’s Jewish faces were absolutely obvious and so how could Reverend Mother possibly ask them that ritual question about whether they were Jews or converts? … By now I was sure that the nuns knew they had Jews in hiding in the institution. [Others included Mr and Mrs Binder and Mrs Kozubowska. Mr Binder’s accent gave him away, as did his looks, so he hardly spoke.] I became fully aware of it when a tall, thin woman with a typically Jewish face entered the chapel for morning mass one day. She sat down on a pew and was so terrified that she didn’t make the sign of the cross when she came in or during mass. … I was sure that the nuns had accepted the woman knowing very well who she was.
But what about Zofia Łoziewicz? Why had she been expelled? Because someone had rung from outside. No-one outside should ever know that the nuns were hiding Jews.
When the uprising broke out in August 1, 1944, the residents of the institution took shelter in nearby cellars.
At midnight one of the nuns came and brought some soup in a watering can. … Suddenly a strong blast of air from a nearby explosion hit the window. A column of dust and lime poured over the cellar. Maciuś jumped off the table and shook the dust and pieces of lime off. The priest stretched out his hand. ‘Did it frighten you, Maciuś?’ he asked. He drew him close. ‘Are you scared?’ … The priest took the child’s head in his hands and brought it towards himself, smiling kindly.
The boy leaned against the priest’s knees … I looked at the two of them and wondered whether the priest knew or didn’t.
Didn’t he suspect anything? He lived in the institution, so could he really not know about the Jewish women in hiding there, and the Jewish men too? … The priest repeated the child’s name tenderly. He put one hand lightly on his head in a gesture of benediction. His hand hung for a moment in the air and then descended as lightly as a caress. He didn’t ask if he was obedient and loved Jesus, like priests often do. The two of them hugged each other and listened to the shots and the noises of exploding buildings, and at every louder explosion they shuddered simultaneously.
Just then we heard a loud stamping of feet somewhere deep underground and suddenly a unit of insurgents appeared out of the darkness of the tunnel. … There were a few dozen of them. Some had rifles, some had revolvers and some had Molotov cocktails. They also carried machine-guns and grenades tied to their belts. They were very young. There was one Jew among them. … At eight o’clock we attended mass in the cellar on the other side of the courtyard. The altar, pews and confessional had been moved there. About a dozen soldiers went to confession before the battle. The shelter was down there. The chapel was in the shelter and next to it, in the wide, dark space which used to be a store-room, about a hundred sick people lying in bed. The midget came out of the open door of this huge shelter and knelt on the concrete floor by the altar. She was followed by the girl with the paralysed hand and the girl with the ecstatic face. They both knelt by the altar. Then the monstrous woman dragged herself in and crouched down beside them. Finally one of the nuns came in holding the girl with chorea. The girl was nodding her head and walking strangely. Every muscle on her face twitched when, rolling her eyes and waving her hands, she sat down at last and made the sign of the cross with a disobedient hand.
The soldiers on the pews watched this human debris. They saw the terror on their faces and the way their bodies shook at every shot, they saw their terrified eyes looking through the small window at the sky with its billows of dark smoke. It was a pathetic sight, this fear of death on the part of creatures so very disabled by fate. They didn’t leave the shelter for a single second and hid under the thickest walls when they heard the buzzing of a plane. … There was a group of about fifty people. They were surrounded by gendarmes and ordered to march through the gate to 248 Leszno Street, which was on fire. That was the first selection. A moment later the whistle could be heard again. Now they summoned the nuns, the priest, the organist, the lay servants and everyone not connected with the institution who had found themselves in the place on the first day of the Rising. … The courtyard paved with small, yellow bricks. In the middle a walled circle and in the circle grey earth where grass or even flowers should have grown. Now it contained graves, six crosses on six mounds. Five old women from our institution, and the sixth grave belonged to the insurgent. In the courtyard 16 nuns, the priest, the organist and the lay servants, all in a row. … I started saying goodbye to the priest and the nuns. I thanked them warmly for looking after me and everything good they had done for me while I was in the institution. Maciuś stood lost next to the priest and nuns. He turned pale and shivered when the priest placed both his hands on his head and blessed him for the journey into the unknown. … ‘Schnell! Schnell!’ shouted one of the Germans … I wanted to prolong the moment. Marysia took the child by the hand and they both went quickly towards the gate. One of the Germans hit me on the back with a whip and pushed me in their direction with his fist. … Then we went out onto Leszno Street and it was one sea of flames. It was 14 August 1944 at eleven in the morning.
At the beginning of May 1945, when we returned from the camp and were staying in Kraków, I met a nun on the street wearing the habit of the Felician Sisters. I went up to her and asked, ‘Sister, what happened to the Felician Sisters in Warsaw? They had an institution on Leszno Street. I lived there for a while.’ ‘The nuns and the priest were allowed to go to Kraków. The lay servants were taken to Germany.’ ‘What about the rest? The 180 old and sick people.’ ‘They shot them all and set fire to the house. The house bunt down with all of them in it.’ … ‘When did it happen, Sister?’ ‘It happened on 14 August, at twelve o’clock, at noon exactly.’ The Ursuline Sisters of the Roman Union ran schools and boarding schools and engaged in clandestine teaching during the German occupation. They are known to have sheltered many Jews, both children and adults, in their convents throughout Poland including Warsaw, Kraków, Lwów, Kołomyja, Tarnów, and Lublin. The following account is by Sister Maria Stella Trzecieska, who was involved in the rescue activities. (Bartoszewski and Lewin, Righteous Among Nations, pp.352–59.) Faced by the whole magnitude of peril that threatened for various ‘crimes’ during World War II, many nuns assumed personal responsibility for various deeds and kept their superiors and mates wholly uninformed. Mothers Superior behaved in a like manner. That fact today, after the lapse of many years, is a serious limitation on our ability to recreate the true scale of the aid which we gave, to the extent our capabilities allowed, to our Jewish brethern.
Accordingly, what follows is just a handful of reminiscences based on authentic reports of Sisters who were, for one reason or another, involved in those matters. This was not an organized action (our principal tasks were clandestine instruction and running of canteens, especially for the working intelligentsia). But daily situations created a need for assisting people, and that we did.
In Warsaw we ran a boarding house for 60 female students on behalf of the Central Relief Council (RGO). The house was at 5, Przejazd St. There were several Jewish girls among our charges and not one of them perished despite the Warsaw Uprising and the summary deportation of the entire boarding house, together with the Sisters, to the camp at Bietigheim and later to Heilbronn. They all had ‘Aryan’ identity documents. The outbuildings of our compound at Przejazd St. formed part of the Warsaw Ghetto, so both the Sisters and their young charges lived through the infernal experience of the Ghetto Uprising and the ensuing massacre of the Jews. They were eye-witnesses of the most tragic scenes imaginable. Among others, they saw how Jews, intent on saving their children, hurled them from ghetto windows down to their acquaintances or relatives who were standing outside. Many a time, the children were smashed against the pavement.
We stored our modest supplies of food in the basement of the boarding house. Many a time the provisions would vanish and Sisters would hear a patter of feet in the basement. Soon they discovered that there was an aperture in the cellar wall through which Jews pushed forward to the basement. Thenceforth, Sisters left food in front of that passage and the food disappeared. In connection with that hole and the venturing of Jews beyond the ghetto precincts, the Sisters lived through a harsh experience when an armed Nazi ordered Sister Izabela S. to lead him into the basement. She was to be shot if Jews were found there. Luckily, they were not, nor was the aperture discovered. The Sister survived but she was immediately moved to another house. Nor was that the end of the affair. One day, a Jew pierced through the ghetto wall right into our dormitory. He begged us to fetch him somebody with whom he had an agreement about the escape. It was a dramatic moment—he standing in the breach and guards nearby. The house on Przejazd St. was encircled by guards who kept watching that Jews did not run away from the ghetto. The Jews escaping through the hole dug in our basement were 249 helped courageously by Sister Teodozja Hoffman who directed them in disguise to a home for the aged in the same outbuilding. There was another incident. A certain young Jewess insisted by all means to get into the ghetto in order to join her family there. Sister Lia P., though she realized the extent of the danger, led her through the chain of guards and saw that the Jewess found her way, by covert tracks of course, to her family.