Chapter 2. My two heroes
Saving the family
During the August 1942 annihilation action in Lwów (the infamous "Akcja Sierpniowa”) many of my closest relatives were taken to the gas chambers in the Bełżec extermination camp. Among them were my mother, my grandparents, and aunt Erna (uncle Józek’s wife) with Emil, their one-year old son.
My mother’s brothers, Józek and Lorenc were imprisoned in the Janowska concentration camp3. They escaped from Janowska in the late September of 1942 and were determined to save from the Nazis what little remained of our family. They obtained forged documents with Polish names, and went to Warsaw. In that far-away city no one knew them, and they could pose as Polish-Christians.
In order to keep contact with his sister Stella who lived with her family in Zbaraż, and with my father in the Lwów ghetto, Lorenc established a system of communication, using carefully chosen messengers. Thus, within several months he managed to bring me, and later on Stella and her family, to Warsaw. As long as he was alive and free, he succeeded to keep all of us hidden with Polish families. Lorenc kept us safe, but in his attempts to protect all of us, he took immeasurable risks, exposing himself and incessantly endangering his own life (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4. Stella, Lorenc and Józek Klinger in the 1920s.
Lorenc wears a bow-tie, Józek – a dark jacket.
In December 1942 Lorenc sent a messenger who brought me to Warsaw. During the following two years I hid in 18 different places, each move forced by denunciations, extortions, and encounters with the police. He found the hideaways and, whenever necessary, paid the necessary bribes and extortion fees in order to save me. Twice he kept me in his own room, when no other hideout was available. He even took me to the famous plastic surgeon, Dr. Michałek-Grodzki to see if anything could be done regarding my obviously Semitic face.
It was Lorenc who took me to the Stawowski family, then to the Gronckis and finally to the Bajers, each time hoping that this refuge would last till the end of war. But none would last that long4.
Soon after their arrival in Warsaw, Lorenc and Józek joined the main Polish underground movement, The Home Army (Armia Krajowa). On two separate occasions Lorenc was arrested because of suspicions that he served in the underground. His first arrest was in January 1943. He remained in the Pawiak prison for two months. Against all odds, he managed to persuade his captors that he was innocent of all such accusations and also, based on the documents in his possession, that he was Polish-Christian. He had a medical certificate indicating that he had been circumcised in his youth for medical indications. He was released in March.
His second arrest was in early 1944. It was a tragic event. While free, he was incessantly busy forging documents for the Armia Krajowa, and for Jews passing as Aryans. His associate in this illegal work was Kazik, another member of the Home Army. The work was usually done at Kazik’s home. Somehow, information about this activity got to the Germans. One day the Gestapo entered Kazik’s home and caught him red-handed. While they were conducting their search, Kazik’s phone rang and he was ordered to answer it. It was uncle Lorenc, asking whether he could come to work. With a handgun aimed at his head, Kazik answered yes. Within minutes Lorenc entered the Nazi trap.
He was again imprisoned in the Pawiak jail, from which he had been released nearly a year earlier. His investigation and torture went on for several months. Lorenc was in possession of incredible amount of information. He knew hundreds of names, addresses, telephone numbers and hidden identities. Disclosure of that information would have resulted in an avalanche of arrests and deaths. He said nothing, even under torture. Stella, his sister, used to bring food parcels for him, as often as the jail regulations permitted. In June 1944 her parcels were rejected. She was informed that "Stanisław Nowak” was no longer among the living. His body was never released5.
More than anybody else, it was Lorenc who saved my life, and the lives of my aunt Stella and her family, paying for it with his own. There is no question in my mind, that without Lorenc, none of us would have survived the Holocaust (Fig. 5).
Lorenc’s protection, however, ended on the day of his second imprisonment in the Pawiak jail. From then on we were on our own.
Fig. 5. Lorenc Klinger, 1904-1944.
The story of one physician6
My mother’s youngest brother, Dr. Józef Klinger was the first surgeon in our family. He influenced me greatly during my childhood and youth. His memory continued to influence me for many years after his death, and played a major role when I chose medicine and surgery as my profession and mission in life.
Józef Klinger was born in 1906 in Husiatyn, Poland. Because of the numerus clausus6, he could not study medicine in Poland. He studied in Bologna, Italy. Also in Bologna he wrote his M.D. thesis on the subject Tuberculous meningitis8. He was well-read and widely educated. He spoke six languages fluently, played the violin and the guitar, could paint and sing. During his studies in Italy he supported himself as a synagogue cantor during the Jewish high holidays (Fig. 6).
Fig. 6. Dr. Józef Klinger, 1906-1944.
After his return to Poland Józek specialized in surgery and in orthopedics at the Lwów University Clinics. He got married and on 20 June 1941, his son Emil was born. Nine days later, the Nazis occupied Lwów.
Under the Nazi occupation Józek worked as a surgeon in the ghetto Jewish Hospital, until the major extermination operation of August 1942. During that infamous "Action” 50,000 people (40% of all the Jews in the Lwów ghetto) were taken to their deaths. During the first week of that operation most of Józek’s closest relatives were taken to the gas chambers at Bełżec9. Among them were his wife Erna, his baby son Emil, his parents Salem and Frieda, and his sister – my mother Dora.
During that same week Józek and his brother Lorenc were imprisoned in the Janowska concentration camp. After several weeks, in September, they managed to escape the camp and went to Warsaw, where they posed as Polish Christians. Soon they contacted and joined the Polish national underground movement Armia Krajowa.
Within the ranks of Armia Krajowa, Józek, under his assumed underground name Dr. Józef Przyżycki served as surgeon. He operated and gave medical care to the Armia Krajowa soldiers, usually at the place of their injury on the street or within house gates and, when possible, at his living quarters.
During the Warsaw Uprising in August and September 1944 Dr. Klinger was assigned to the No. 1 Field Hospital (popularly known as "Blaszanka”) in the Powiśle Czerniakowskie section of Warsaw, under the command of Dr. Piotr Załęski (Fig. 7)10.
According to the Geneva Convention and other international agreements, the Blaszanka Hospital was marked with Red Cross flags. The Germans, however, bombed the building, completely disregarding all legal niceties, causing severe damages. During one such attack on 22 August, Dr. Załęski was severely wounded. Józek operated on him and saved his life. Because of his injuries, Dr. Załęski was temporarily suspended of his duties and Klinger was named the hospital commander. At the end of August, because of the damages sustained by the German bombings, the hospital was transferred to another building – a former Citroen car factory. This transfer was already under Dr. Klinger’s command.
On 17 September the Germans captured the hospital, and again caused severe damages. In particular, they intentionally destroyed the operating rooms. As a result, any organized work, including the evacuation of 162 wounded became impossible. Trying to solve this problem and to enable continuous functioning of the hospital, Klinger initiated negotiations with the occupying Germans.
Fig. 7. Dr. Piotr Załęski, cardiologist and pulmonologist, commander of the "Blaszanka” Field Hospital.
The Germans agreed to reactivate the hospital under the condition that the Polish medical team will take care of the wounded Germans11. Consequently, the operating rooms were renovated and, within 2 days restored to function. However, on 26 September, the Germans changed their minds and liquidated the hospital. On the same day, one of the hospital nurses who knew that Dr. Przyżycki was actually a Jew, denounced him to the Germans. Although Klinger-Przyżycki was a prisoner of war, as a Jew he was murdered immediately. He was shot to death in the yard of the Students’ Dormitory (Dom Akademicki) at Narutowicz Square in Warsaw. He was 38 years old12. After the war, in 1946, the Polish government posthumously awarded him the Polish Cross of Valor (Krzyż Walecznych) (Fig. 8).
Dr. Załęski, the hospital original commander recovered from his wounds. In 1945 and 1946 Stella contacted and met him. It was he who told her about Józek’s activity in the Armia Krajowa before the Uprising, his work in the hospital during the Uprising, and the treacherous deed of that nurse who denounced him to the Germans (Fig. 9). Despite Stella’s great efforts, that nurse was never captured. In addition, Stella participated in dozens of exhumations of fallen soldiers of Armia Krajowa, trying to identify her brother’s body, but she did not succeed.
Fig. 8. Dr. Klinger’s Cross of Valor (Krzyż Walecznych)
In an effort to obtain a copy of Dr. Klinger’s M.D. diploma, I contacted the University of Bologna rector’s office in 1988. There were bureaucratic difficulties, and my correspondence with the University of Bologna lasted 13 years. Eventually, in 2001, a copy of the diploma was printed out for me and sent to the Israeli Embassy in Rome. From there, by diplomatic mail, it reached the Israeli Foreign Office in Jerusalem, where I picked it (Fig. 10). This diploma, the Cross of Valor, some photographs and remembrance are all that remains of my uncle and hero.
Fig. 9. Dr. Załęski’s letter to Stella Seidenwerg, Klinger’s sister.
Fig. 10. The diploma of Dr. Giuseppe Klinger
#3 Józek, Józef – Polish variants of Joseph. Lorenc – Polish variant of Lawrence, pronounced the same way.
#4 See Bibliography, ref. 1.
#5 See Bibliography, ref. 8.
#6 Presented at 7th Nahariya Conference on Morbidity and Medicine During the Holocaust, Nahariya, Israel, 8 May 2007.
#7 Limitation on the number of Jews who would be admitted at universities.
#8 Inflammation of brain membranes caused by tuberculosis.
#9 Pronounced Belzhetz.
#10 See Bibliography, refs. 1-8.
#11 See Bibliography, refs. 2-4.
#12 See Bibliography, refs. 1-8.