Chapter 5. The good souls that saved my life
After escape from the ghetto, while I was posing as a Polish-Christian, many Poles helped me to hide or to conceal my true identity, and saved my life while risking their own. Some did it for profit. Others did not expect, and never received, any reward. A few became well engraved in my memory and are the subject of this chapter. There were others, whose names I never knew, or had met them for such brief periods of time that only a vague memory remained, impossible to translate into concrete recollections and statements. To all these, I express my thanks and deep appreciation of their characters and deeds.
* * *The first is the controversial figure of “engineer” Stawowski. I never knew what his real occupation was, and he probably did not have a steady one. The title “engineer” was most likely an honorary one, bestowed upon him by his friends. His wife was a schoolteacher.
They lived on Nowe Miasto Street in the oldest section of Warsaw, in a ground-floor apartment of a centuries old building. This was supposed to be my shelter, hopefully to last until the end of war. The financial arrangements were made by my uncle Lorenc. I was not told anything.
I lived at the Stawowski’s apartment for about two weeks, when around 20 January 1943 uncle Józek (my mother’s youngest brother) came to see me. He asked to talk to me in private. He told me that Lorenc (his older brother and the factual head of the family) had been arrested by the Gestapo and was imprisoned in the dreadful Pawiak jail. Political prisoners, particularly those suspected of underground activity, were investigated and routinely tortured, often until death. Few left Pawiak alive. Lorenc was arrested as Stanisław Nowak, accused of his involvement with the underground Home Army (Armia Krajowa), and was not suspected of being a Jew.
In addition, Józek told me that by previous arrangement with Lorenc, Stella’s older son Marek, 9 years old, had just arrived in Warsaw. For the time being Józek was hiding him at his home, without his landlords knowledge.
This sudden onslaught of problems was overwhelming. Józek had to do something about his brother’s imprisonment, had to try to get him out of the Pawiak – a nearly impossible task. He was responsible for me. And in addition to all that, he had to look for a shelter for Marek, and very quickly. This alone was extremely stressful and risky. My situation seemed at the moment to be safest of us all: Stawowski had been paid a month or two in advance, so there was no reason for Józek to visit me frequently. He made it clear that his visits will become infrequent for a while, only when time permits. At the end he warned me not to tell Stawowski anything about the latest developements, and left.
Short time after Józek left, there was a knock at the door. Two men in German military uniforms entered the apartment and started questioning me. Their Polish was fluent, with no trace of a German accent. They were not interested in taking me with them. They wanted to meet the relative who was in charge of me. It was quite obvious that they wanted money. They said they would return the next evening, and made it clear that my relative must be present when they return. Stawowski was made responsible for this arrangement. During the entire event I suspected that the men were Poles posing as Germans. Stawowski did not seem to be scared at all.
In retrospect it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that Stawowski was the accomplice and initiator of the event and the ransom would be shared later by all the participants. Is this an unjust suspicion of the man who helped me hide from the Nazis? Perhaps. The occurrences of the following six weeks indebted me greatly to Mr. Stawowski. He took good care of me and saved my life. Still, this event may have been initiated by him; his behavior and that of the “officers” favored this assumption.
The “officers” left. Stawowski demanded immediately that I give him Lorenc’s address, so he can arrange next evening’s meeting. This I could not do. However, in spite of Józek’s prohibition, I told him that Lorenc had been arrested and was imprisoned in Pawiak. As for the address of “the other gentleman” (Józek), despite the gravity of the situation, I could not disclose his address either. I chose the only remaining possibility and denied knowing his address. Whether Stawowski believed my denial was irrelevant. He had to make a decision what to do with me at the moment. The chances that Lorenc would leave Pawiak alive, were slim at best. Stawowski could have just thrown me out and shed all responsibility. Instead, he decided on the spot to take care of me and protect me until one of my uncles contacts him again. During the following six weeks he cared for me with a devotion that normally could be expected only from a relative or a close friend. He maneuvered me through eight different shelters, some of which were only for one night, others for several days.
Immediately after making his decision, Stawowski contacted a lady with good conspiratorial connections, and together they took me to a nearby church, where I stayed overnight in the minuscule living quarters of the church organist. The single room was under the tin roof, with no ceiling, and contained a kitchen stove, kitchen utensils, several large containers with liquid, a broken old bed, two straw mattresses spread on the floor, and a strange and complex machine in one corner, with a fire burning in it. Throughout the night, two men worked on the machine, conversing in subdued voices and sipping vodka from time to time. In the morning one of them explained to me that they were distilling “bimber” (illicit vodka). Now I understood the meaning of the containers. There seemed to be a mass production of liquor in that little room.
The next night was spent in the apartment of a poor tailor in the Wola section of Warsaw. Besides the tailor, there was a gentle and quiet girl, about my age, probably his daughter. I slept on the floor in the kitchen.
Then, a basement room with a family of three: a couple in their twenties, and the husband’s mother. The young woman seemed to fear her mother-in-law, and called her “Madam”, to which the mother-in-law did not object. Of the two beds in the room, the mother occupied one and the couple occupied the other, which they shared with me. I slept the wrong way around, with my head near their feet. That served for three nights. Stawowski paid.
After three days he came with good news: he had found a safe shelter, in which I could stay for as long as necessary, certainly until my uncle returned, and possibly beyond that, should my uncle wish. It was an apartment of a widow who used to rent rooms to occasional tenants. At that time she had only one. In the evening she took me to the kitchen, for supper. There she introduced me to the tenant as her nephew, saying: “The last time I saw him, he was a little baby.” “Really?” answered the tenant with a snicker, “where did you see him, in the ghetto?” The widow almost fainted. He continued: “It will cost 500 złoty, and the boy can stay here.” Next day, when Stawowski came and heard the story, he paid the ransom promptly, and took me away.
For a few days I stayed at the home of a very poor family, of which I remember clearly just two details. One was the extreme cold. It was February. There was a small iron stove in one of the rooms, but it was used only for a couple of hours at night. Most of the time I was shivering from cold, and hungry. More important, there were several Roman-Catholic books: the New Testament, a book on Catholic dogma, a manual of catechism, and a book describing the lives of Catholic saints. I understood immediately the importance of this knowledge for my survival. In spite of the cold and the hunger, I studied those books voraciously. During the following months, in other shelters, I looked for similar books, and read them thoroughly.
Following this, I spent a week in the Shelter for the Blind (Dom Ślepców) in the oldest section of Warsaw, not far from where the Stawowskis lived. The blind man who was entitled to live there had died long time ago, but his widow was permitted to keep the apartment, and stayed in it together with her nephew Franciszek. She was a palm-and-card-reader. Her business was flourishing. When clients came, she received them in the kitchen, with the door to the room closed. Franciszek, permanently drunk, was a professional smuggler. Once every few days, he would load his bags with illicit liquor, meat and other merchandise worth smuggling to the Reich (Germany proper) and return to the Generalgouvernament (occupied Poland) with cigarettes and other goods and with plenty of money. When he returned, he told stories about his adventures. His audience was quite sizeable. Besides myself, there were six other Jews hiding in that place. They all arrived a day after me straight from the Warsaw ghetto. With so many people in one bedroom there were some logistic problems, but we all were experienced in the hardships of life, and everybody found a place for himself. I slept on three wooden chairs placed in a row and lined with a blanket to make them a little softer. Our landlady slept in the kitchen, and so did Franciszek, when he was not away on an “assignment”. The toilet was in the corridor, outside the apartment, and was shared by the many families living on the same floor. This created a safety problem: the sudden appearance of so many new faces, most with Semitic features could easily arise suspicion. For safety reasons, Stawowski took me out of that home after one week.
There was one more short-lasting hideaway, and then Stawowski brought me to a family of a railroad worker. The family lived near one of the suburban railway stations, which could be seen from a window. The parents and their two teenage daughters hated Jews with all their hearts, and did not hide their feelings. They kept me because they needed the money, but they blamed Jews for every economic, political and social trouble, that ever descended upon Poland, even the present war with Germany. They were convinced that the Jews’ present misfortune was a well-deserved punishment. I did not argue. I was constantly hungry, nearly starving. They had a few books, which I was permitted to read, and from time to time a newspaper. It was the end of February 1943. The German Sixth Army had been defeated at Stalingrad, with 70,000 German casualties and over 90,000 prisoners of war taken by the Russians. It was the major turning point of the war.
One day Stawowski and Lorenc, free at last, walked in together, and Lorenc took over again. Parting from Stawowski was quite emotional. He had taken care of me as if he were my father. We had become friends, and I retain great respect for him. I regret of not having been able to locate him after the war. However, the Old City with the Nowe Miasto Street was completely destroyed during and after the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Besides, I never learned his first name, nor that of his wife, or whether they had any children. So our contact has been lost forever.
* * *In early May 1943, after some dreadful experience at a former hideout near the Warsaw ghetto (Chapter 3), I had to leave that place. I came to the home of a family found through uncle Lorenc’s connections, Marian and Katarzyna Bajer. They lived at 41 Marszałkowska Street, corner Savior’s Square (Plac Zbawiciela) (Fig. 18). Lorenc brought me in the evening, when the streets were dark, a little before the curfew hour. Four people were hiding at the Bajers’. Besides me, there was my uncle Gabriel (Stella’s husband), and another Jewish couple, Leszek and Tosia. We all lived in the same room, using folding beds, which disappeared for the daytime. By then I had been in Warsaw a little over four months, and this was already my eighteenth hiding place. It was supposed to last “until the end of war”. From the recent frequent exchanges of shelters, I had learned that such predictions were pure fantasy. In reality, a refuge would last until the next blackmail, discovery by the Nazis, or some other mishap. With luck, it could last a few weeks, but certainly not until the end of the war, which might be years away. Could anyone have imagined on that May evening, that I would not leave that apartment, not even as far as the staircase, for the next 17 months, until October 1944?
Aunt Stella, like my mother, was a great believer in omens, lucky and unlucky numbers, lucky days, and other similar “signs from heaven”. Eighteen was her lucky number. For the next 50 years, until her death, she insisted that this place, being my eighteenth shelter, saved my life. I suspect that it may have had more to do with the Bajer family than with that magic number, but who knows?
Fig 18. My eighteenth hideout at the Savior’s Square (our balcony marked by circle).
The Bajers were in permanent financial straits. Mr. Bajer was a great consumer of vodka, and his drinking problem was most likely their reason for keeping us. Every złoty earned, he immediately converted to liquor, returning home drunk. Thus we were the main, if not the only, source of their available income. On many occasions he returned home supported by friends on both sides. They put him down outside the entrance door, rang the bell, and quickly departed, to avoid Mrs. Bajer’s rage. Not being able to vent her rage on them, she beat her husband. After her anger was appeased, she undressed him, and placed him gently in bed. Next morning his amnesia was complete. From her stern expression he deduced the events of the previous night, and was truly sorry, promising her, and himself, never to drink again. But what drunkard can ever keep such a promise?
Didn’t his drinking create a security problem for us? Of course, it did. But we had no choice.
Naturally, we had to be very careful. The rooms at the front of the apartment faced the Savior’s Square, with the Savior’s Church (Kościół Zbawiciela) just in front of us. The balcony off the living room was extremely tempting, but entering it was forbidden. Being spotted by someone from the street could cost us our lives. We were virtual prisoners in our small room at the back. We could leave the room from time to time for meals in the kitchen or for the toilet, but most of the time a movable cabinet blocked the door, hiding it.
Staying in jail for a year and a half can be very boring, and we had nothing to do. There were a few books to read, and lots of political arguments between Gabriel and Leszek, who tried to extrapolate their experiences in World War I and to make various, not always reasonable predictions. The progress of war occupied us a lot and was widely discussed with Mrs. Bajer. Time was passing.
In July 1944 the Soviet Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw. At the end of July the Bajers went to the country for a few days rest, and left us food, just enough for their holiday. On 1 August the Warsaw Uprising started, and the Bajers could not return home. Further events and our survival are described in Chapter 1 of this book and in the book “I Remember…”14.
June, 1950. Just before leaving Poland on our way to Israel, Stella, Gabriel and I visited the Bajers at their home, thanked them, and parted. The Korean War had just started. Mr. Bajer saw it as the beginning of World War III, and expressed hope that the Americans would come soon to free Poland from the communist rule. Things turned out differently.
Further developments in Poland and in Israel prevented us from keeping any close contact with the family that saved us. Our letters remained unanswered. When I visited Warsaw in 1989, they both were not living.
In all probability, if not the Bajers and their shelter, Gabriel and I would not have survived the war.
* * *Following the Warsaw Uprising, I was sent in a transport of Warsaw evacuees to a refugee camp in Częstochowa. After two months of near-death starvation, with severe bloody diarrhea, and exhausted from the all night trip on a cattle train, I spent the first several days recovering in a hospital. When that was over, I arrived in the camp. Its function was to provide food and shelter to those homeless arrivals, who had no other means to take care of themselves. Responsibility for the camp’s functioning was shared by the Polish Red Cross and the Principal Protective Council (Rada Główna Opiekuńcza).
The establishment consisted of a row of wooden barracks, each one accommodating several hundred people. Each person received a place on a wooden bunk, and one thin blanket. The bunks were arranged in long rows, three levels high. I got a place on the upper level (“the third floor”). It was October and the nights were cold. There were no facilities for bathing. The sight of parents cleaning their children’s heads of lice was common. Near-starvation meals were distributed three times a day. Doctors came at regular intervals to see the ill, and a Roman Catholic priest visited us daily for prayers, confessions, and occasional last rites. The poverty was overwhelming.
Under those living conditions, anyone who could afford it, moved to a rented apartment, or to relatives or friends, if such could be found. Those who stayed were the poorest of the poor: people who could afford neither decent living quarters, nor food. Among them were probably some from well-to-do homes, who had lost everything during the destruction of Warsaw, and had no relatives in this part of the country. Into these depths of misery, the good residents of Częstochowa came daily and brought food, clothing and blankets.
As I arrived in Częstochowa without any means, my situation seemed hopeless, unless a miracle happens. And indeed, a miracle did happen. A company of three women came with food for the needy. One was Mrs. Placek. She and her husband owned a pharmacy in Częstochowa. She was accompanied by her mother and her maid Jasia Wieczorek. They spotted me immediately: a lonely boy of less than 15, lost to his parents in the Uprising, with no family and no friends. Every day one of the three came to visit me, and brought special hot lunch just for me. After several days, Mrs. Placek invited me to her home for lunch, daily. Jasia, the maid, told her parents about me, and a few days later they offered me a place at their home. I accepted gratefully, and joined Jasia’s family.
The Wieczoreks lived in a small house without running water and without toilet. There was a well in the yard, in front of the house, with a bucket on a chain, for collecting water (Fig. 19).
Fig. 19. The well at Wieczorek’s yard.
Instead of a flushing toilet there was a small outhouse with a pit behind the house. The living quarters consisted of a kitchen and one room, in which the entire family lived. I was offered a sleeping place in the kitchen.
Fig. 20. Józef and Stanisława Wieczorek.
The head of the family, Józef Wieczorek, was about 50 years old (Fig. 20). He worked in a gas factory as a stoker, and supported the family. The family supplemented their income by plaiting baskets from cane, in which everybody participated, and I too became actively involved. There were three children: Jasia – Mrs. Placek’s maid, was 25 years old, hard working and kind. Antek, the son, was 20 years old, and wild. I did not like him and his friends, and was afraid of them. The youngest daughter, Stasia, was 17 years old, worked hard at home and was always very sad.
The central figure of this story is the lady of the house – Mrs. Stanisława Wieczorek. She was Józef’s second wife, and had one daughter from her first marriage, whom I had never met. She was an intelligent woman, and understood that one of her main functions was to provide a good upbringing for her husband’s children. Therefore, she tried to be close to them, to help and educate, and frequently offered criticism and advice. But the children never accepted her as their mother, and her attempts were met with resistance, creating tension. In particular Antek was arrogant and offensive to her.
Stanisława Wieczorek read books. She had clear-cut political views, which were conservative. She, as everybody in the Wieczorek family, did not like Jews. Antisemitic jokes were common.
Religion was very much at the center of family life. Every Sunday the Wieczoreks attended Mass. I often accompanied them, but sometimes went alone, to a different church. Everybody prayed before meals, before sleep, and upon rising. Living at their home, I was treated as a member of the family. This meant participating in various religious activities, such as attending church and praying before sleep. I tried to imitate the others as best I could. Before sleep, everybody prayed on their knees, and so did I. One evening, when I had just finished my prayers, Mrs. Wieczorek quietly told me, “When you pray, you are supposed to kneel in front of a cross or a holy picture, not someone’s photograph.” I realized that I had committed a cardinal error. It should have been clear to me that it was not the kneeling itself that counted; kneeling was an expression of honoring God and was supposed to be done in front of God. I was alarmed. In an instant it became clear to me that Mrs. Wieczorek was warning me. She had seen me several times before, kneeling and praying in front of some family photograph or a landscape picture, but did not want to draw the children’s attention to my mistake. Therefore, she had waited until the two of us were alone, and then pointed out my blunder. She was very kind and tactful. The word Jew was not uttered and she did not mention her suspicion. A suspicion? She must have known for a long time that I was a Jew and protected me from the rest of her family. Did her husband also know? He may have been an accomplice, but no one ever talked to me about it. I was very grateful that she did not ask me directly about my origins, because, if confronted, I would have found it most difficult to lie to her. For a long time I avoided looking into her eyes.
Another related episode occurred a short time later. On entering the role of Józef Balicki, a Roman Catholic, I conditioned myself not to admit that my father was a businessman – an occupation common among Jews in pre-war Poland. The father of Józef Balicki was a police officer, a thoroughly Catholic occupation in Poland. This, for Antek, was very impressive, and one Sunday, while we ate lunch, he asked me about my father’s rank in the police. Without hesitation, I answered “captain”. This surprised him very much. According to my documents, we had lived in Zborów, a little town in eastern Galicia. “Was there a captain in the police force of Zborów?” asked Antek. I answered, this time hesitatingly: “Well, may be he was a lieutenant…” Stanisława Wieczorek, realizing that I was getting into trouble, interfered: “Antek, why won’t you leave Józek alone; how can he remember what was his father’s rank years ago?” Antek shut his mouth and stopped bothering me. Stanisława’s intervention saved me in an instant. Can there be any doubt that she knew who I was, and protected me15?
Until today, any mention of Częstochowa immediately brings this remarkable woman to my mind. I am unable to think about that period of my life without thinking of her. Was she an anti-Semite? As other members of her family, and almost everybody in Częstochowa, she disliked Jews, and blamed them for all the troubles that Poland had ever had. She even disliked that great Polish national leader, Józef Piłsudski, because “he protected Jews.” Indeed, I remember my mother crying when Piłsudski died in 1935, for the same reason that Stanisława Wieczorek opposed him and rejected his ideas. But at the same time se hid a Jewish boy at her home.
She protected me not only from the outsiders, the Nazis, the hostile world, but also from her own family. Apparently, her dislike of Jews was one thing, but the thought of sending a Jewish boy she knew out into the street in the cold of winter, perhaps into the hands of the Nazis, was quite another. Perhaps she recalled some Jews whom she had known, and who were not quite as bad as her image of Jews in general. Perhaps this was her reaction to the rejection and antagonism that she suffered from her adopted children. While realizing that I was a Jew, she preferred not to talk about it and not to confront me. In case of disclosure by the Nazis, sheltering a Jew knowingly could mean death to the entire family. Playing ignorant seemed less dangerous, but if the Gestapo came, could she prove that sheltering me was an “honest mistake”? For the sake of one Jewish stranger she was endangering her life and the lives of her family in a most serious way. I did not pay her anything and she could not expect any reward, at least not in this world. “Piłsudski protected Jews…” Didn’t she? Blessed be her memory.
14 See Bibliography, ref. 1.
15 In my earlier book “I Remember…” I referred to Stanisława Wieczorek as Maria. This had been my mistake for 64 years. Only in 2008, when I managed to locate the youngest daughter Stasia, did the mistake become clear to me.