“I wonder if that Jewish girl Grandma and her parents saved from the Nazis survived the war?”
This is a story of the Holocaust, survival, resistance and terror beyond the language and perhaps most importantly about the people who Yad Vashem and the State of Israel term the Righteous Among the Nations ( חסידי אומות העולם, khassidey umot ha-olam “righteous (plural) of the world’s nations”).
It is a story that is only now being told and never before in English. It is also a story of the power of the internet and may well be the most important piece I have ever posted.
I have the privilege of knowing for decades Rosa Segal, a lovely lady, one of life’s treasures. As she has been married to my first cousin Gerald since 1971 this will not surprise. Recently Rosa and Gerald were visiting from Melbourne and over lunch the conversation turned to an experience of Rosa and her sister Sara just before Passover (and Easter) this year. A lot of work has been done since but this is Rosa’s Story from that family lunch.
Rosa’s mother was born Estera (Esther) Bordowicz in 1917 and died in Melbourne in 2001. In the summer of 1939 she was a twenty one year old Jewish girl in the Polish town of Kalisz. Kalisz was a border town with Germany. It had a thriving population of about 89 000 including perhaps 25 000 or 30 000 Jews. The family was well educated and prosperous.
We now know that Esther was engaged to a young doctor or medical student and in the prime of life.
On 1 September 1939 Hitler invaded Poland.The town was taken by surprise and occupied by the Wehrmacht on the first day with barely a chance to put up a fight. By the summer of 1942 the Jewish population had been destroyed. By the end of the war the town’s population was half what it was in 1939.
Esther and her older brother Ignatz and his family, survived the war. They were in Tashkent in the far east Soviet Union, now Uzbekistan, when the war ended, almost exactly four thousand kilometres from Kalisz.
Ignatz travelled to Kalisz as soon as he could get permits in a search for any surviving family. There was no one. Not a soul. There were hardly any Jews. Soon he, Stella his wife and their children went to Israel. Esther returned to Kalisz where she fell pregnant and married who has been described as “the only Jewish man in Kalisz”. Rosa was born in 1949 and the family moved to Israel in 1950. They migrated to Melbourne in 1959 where a brother had lived since 1933.
That’s about all that was known about her life in the years between 1939 and 1945. Pretty much nothing. Esther never spoke about the war in her lifetime. Nor did her brother in Israel and his son who was eleven years old in 1941 still refuses and the family have stopped asking.
Then in March 2013 Rosa’s sister Sara and then Rosa received emails from this beautiful young lady.
This is Monika Leonczyk who lives in the city of Słupsk in the north of Poland. Monika and her family know where Esther was for four of those dreadful years. They have always known. This is because Monika’s family kept Esther hidden in their home, at times in a large bedroom cupboard and when the risk of detection was most acute in a specially built compartment under the floor boards. For two years from 1941 when the town came under Nazi occupation the family and Esther lived this way.
When she was a young high school student Monika entered an essay in a national competition on the subject of “Poles and Jews during the Second World War”. Monika had a particular story to tell and researched her material carefully. She sought and obtained assistance from Anna Przybyszewska Drozd of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, who responded to her letters.
Her essay won second prize. I can not imagine what won first prize.
Monika’s grandmother is Joanna Kocięcka who in 1939 lived in the town of Stolin with her parents Veronica and Vladislav Koźlakowskich. Stolin too was a border town but in the east. Now in Belarus, the town was on the border with the Soviet Union about as far from the German invasion as you could get without leaving Poland. The Poles term this region “the Borderlands”. Poignant.
In early September Esther and her family managed to escape from Kalisz to Stolin where the family had relatives. On 17 September 1939 the Poles, both Catholics and Jews, were still fiercely resisting the Nazi onslaught on their own and with incredible courage but the back of the military was already broken. Then Stalin invaded from the east under a secret pact with Germany. Taken by surprise Stolin was taken by the Red Army on the first day. By 8 October it was all over. Germany annexed the west and centre and the Soviet Union annexed the east and Poland ceased to exist.
Other than it did not specifically target the Jews for genocide, in many ways Stalin’s occupation of Poland was as brutal as Hitler’s. The hideous massacre of Katyn Forest is now well documented. Stalin had thousands murdered, including thousands of Polish officers the Soviets held prisoner. Anyone with advanced education or wealth, both Catholics and Jews, were rounded up and murdered or deported in a process that was carried out over all of Soviet occupied Poland. However Esther and her family managed to live without harassment under the Soviet occupation in the home of their relatives until 22 June 1941. Then the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and soon Stolin, and the rest of Soviet occupied Poland, came under Nazi occupation.
Soon the Jews of Stolin were forced into a ghetto and that is where Esther and all her surviving family were herded. At some point the Nazis moved to liquidate the ghetto. The whole town soon knew that they were killing the Jews. Many people were shot in the streets. The survivors were forced to nearby woods and slaughtered. Monika’s grandfather was among the Polish men the Germans sent to bury the corpses in the trenches.
It is not known if or how many Jews other than Esther, Ignatz and his family survived the massacre. They may have been the only ones.
Ignatz had been a soldier in the Polish army. He, Stella and their children escaped to a group of partisans and helped wage a guerrilla war against the Nazis. Esther avoided the round up by the dumb luck of not being home when the soldiers came. Her parents were arrested and she never saw them again. There is some speculation she may have seen them murdered. She ran in the streets to a home she picked at random, terrified and in tears, and knocked frantically on the door pleading for help.
This is when fifteen year old Joanna and her family first met Esther.
They took her in and hid her for about two years. During that time Esther was never to be seen by anyone outside the family. No one could know. She could not leave the home except to take occasional short walks with Joanna in the garden after dusk.
Esther and Joanna had become close friends. They shared a bed. It was in Joanna’s cupboard that Esther hid when the family received visitors.
They talked about many things and Joanna was to come to know much about Esther’s earlier life. She learnt about Esther’s fiance and how much she missed him. She was never to see him again.
One day Joanna recalls watching as a fifteen year old from the window of her home a man she recognised named Szklar; a wealthy man who owned a department store in the town before the war. She could look out but of course Esther would dare not.
Szklar was stripped to the waist and bare foot and being marched to the woods by ‘peasants” armed with pitchforks in the company of two SS men. He was holding the hand of a terrified young girl. It was his daughter Masha. Later Joanna was to learn they were soon murdered. They had been betrayed by the “peasants” who Szklar had paid to shelter them and who may have murdered them as well.
Szklar and Masha were relatives of Esther, well known to her. They were the family that sheltered her and her family after they fled Kalisz. Rosa never knew that she had cousins in Stolin let alone what happened to them. Esther never breathed a word of it. It is best that these truths come out eventually.
During all that time each of the Koźlakowskich family could not by some slip draw any suspicion from anyone about what they were doing. The family had to get on with the business of their lives as best they could in this Polish community under Nazi occupation.
This is an act of courage and resolution that requires some perspective. The family of Anne Frank and the others were hidden and supplied by a courageous man who shared their fate after they were betrayed. Miraculously he and Anne’s father survived the war and so Anne’s story could be told.
In Nazi occupied Poland there were different rules. Only there did the Nazis feel the need to issue a proclamation that any Pole caught harbouring a Jew would be summarily executed along with all of his or her family. The Koźlakowskich family was living with the Jew they were harbouring. Joanna shared a bed with her.
Then something happened. After two years Joanna was suddenly arrested by the Germans.
She and her family were lucky. She was caught only for supplying drugs and medicines to the partisans. Not for harbouring a Jew and therefore only Joanna was deported. Initially it was to be to a concentration camp but her father managed to bribe a German officer to have the sentence “commuted” to deportation to a slave labour detachment in Germany where it was calculated she had some chance of survival. She was seventeen and she did survive. So did her parents.
Esther was never to know that.
It was time to leave.
Joanna had been caught aiding the partisans and her parents could be arrested and the home searched at any moment. They fled Stolin after getting permits to travel to Pinsk where Vladislav Koźlakowskich had family. But first Vladislav arranged a fake birth certificate for Esther from a friendly priest and walked with her to the village of Struga where in the surrounding forests there was stationed a large partisan unit. It was either the unit of Major Stephen Kaplun or Major John Burzynski. Joanna is uncertain which.
Esther linked up with the partisans and the Koźlakowskich family never saw or heard from her again.
There is evidence that Esther lived in Struga or elsewhere as a Catholic although in contact with the partisans in the forests and perhaps as an agent for them. It is not hard to deduce that her brother with the partisans and with whom she ended up in Tashkent and ultimately Israel had much to do with this. She had the fake birth certificate and Rosa reports she said that she went to Church at some stage and learned the religion. It could only have been during this period. For the rest of her life she retained the habit of crossing herself, to make the Sign of the Cross, whenever she was stressed or had heard bad or distressing news. As if it was some sort of spell to ward off the evil eye.
I’m not sure how that would have gone down in Israel.
No one knows how Esther and her brother got to Tashkent, or why, thousand of kilometres to the east, at some point after 1943 and likely towards the end of the war after the tide had turned. Monika has wisely speculated it could have been to make contact with Anders Army. and that would certainly explain how they came to be in Tashkent. It is difficult to imagine they made the trip across the whole of wartime Soviet Union without Soviet partisan and Red Army support. There was an enormous traffic from all over the Soviet Union to and from Tashkent as the USSR moved much of its industry and manufacturing capacity to the region out of reach of the Germans. To get through the German lines to the Red Army front would have needed the help of the partisans. From there, with all the traffic to and from Tashkent it would have been easy to hitch a ride or take trains despite the enormous distance, provided they had the necessary permits.
But there is a pattern here. Tashkent is now the capital of Uzbekistan but in 1943 it was about as far as you could get from the Germans without leaving the Soviet Union. Esther could not settle in either Israel or Poland after the war but eventually she settled in Melbourne which of course is about as far as you can get from the Germans without leaving the planet.
In those years Anne Frank, Joanna and Szklar’s young daughter Masha were all about the same age and Esther was not much older. Also about the same age as Monika when she researched her prize winning essay at school and discovered the Jewish girl that Grandma and her parents saved from the Nazis did in fact survive the war and a few years later with further research was able to track down her descendants in distant Melbourne.
Esther has twelve descendants. Gerald and Rosa have two sons and a daughter and four grand children. Their daughter Sarah was married last month in Melbourne. She is 27 and Monika’s family who have seen photos say she is very like Esther from when they knew her. The same beautiful thick dark hair. There are no photos of Esther from that period of course. An image of Sarah now the same age as her grandmother then appears at the end of this post.
There is no evidence that Esther made any attempt to contact Joanna and her parents after the war. Who knows what nightmares she bore for the rest of her life. Perhaps she was just too fearful to hear that Johanna or her parents had not survived. She knew Johanna was in the hands of the Nazis. Perhaps she just could not cope with any memory of those years. We know that to be the subject of a racist attack can be the most humiliating experience you can endure. Besides anger or even rage it can induce deep feelings of shame and guilt. I can only imagine what Esther felt. Perhaps she did not try to contact the Koźlakowskich family because she was simply too ashamed to face the people who had risked so much to save her.
When Stella died in Israel in 1971 Ignatz very quickly followed. They had been through it all together since Kalisz. He could not bear to be without her after all that. He could not bear her death. He took his own life.
It is well documented what happened to Anne Frank and her sister after they were betrayed in 1944. The story could not be more dispiriting. Anne’s suffering and death nine months later could not have been more sordid. On 13 October 2013 the New York Times had this to say on the opening of a permanent exhibition in Los Angeles.
LOS ANGELES — What lessons do we learn from Anne Frank? Since her diary is the chronicle of an education, we learn what she learns: the lessons of daily life and early adolescence, acquired during a horrific time. We watch a meticulously observant girl, age 13, evolve into a self-consciously observant young woman, age 15. We watch — as one of Philip Roth’s characters pungently remarked — a fetus growing a face.
What we don’t learn from the diary is what happened after the last entry, on Aug. 1, 1944. We don’t learn how this self-described “chatterbox,” whose most-quoted pronouncement is “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart,” must have come to doubt that sentiment; nor do we learn that by that winter, she was a typhus-ridden, starving, naked, weeping, walking corpse in Bergen-Belsen, where the Germans had shipped her from Auschwitz along with other condemned souls in the waning months of the war.
Anne died on March 21 in 1945. Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the British on 15 April. Had Anne survived you can be certain she would not have been quiet about her experiences. She would have written essays and books about it and about many other subjects as well. Esther not so much. She spoke not a word about her experiences to anyone in her lifetime. Not even to her own children.
Monika reports that her great-grandfather knew that he would qualify for the honour “Righteous Among the World Nations” but declined to have his name put forward. Joanne makes the point that her grandfather did what he did not because he sort fame and reward but because he was a good person who did what he had to do. Hence he declined to apply for the award.
But this is no reason why he could not be nominated now. Vladislav did not know that Esther had in fact been rescued and it would be understandable if he had grave doubts. Moreover an application for a posthumous award can hardly be attributed to a motive for fame and reward. In any event rescuing Jews from the Holocaust without reward is a criterion for the honour.
Besides Vladislav is not the only unrecognised “Righteous” in this story.
There are many reasons why it is important these heroes should be recognised with this award and the history recorded forever. These stories bring hope and meaning to many in a dangerous and savage world. They provide a centre point and inspiration.
There are many accounts of Poles behaving indifferently, callously and viciously during the war and its immediate aftermath. Too many. However it is also true that many Poles saved many Jews at terrible risk. More than any other nationality it seems. It is good for the Polish people to know that. It is also good for the Jews. Many Poles were executed specifically for the crime of harbouring Jews. The ledger should be balanced for accuracy lest we lose faith in the human spirit.
Antisemites and other enemies of the West, life and humanity are fond of taunting the Jews with the Goebbels lies, big, bold and spitting, about Israelis acting like Nazis and the genocide of the Palestinians. This is especially common in Europe.
They should look to the experiences of the people in this story to know how the Nazis behaved. They should look to the experiences of these people to know what genocide is.
This rescue is already well documented. I believe these names should be added to the Wall of Honour in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and we should get an application rolling as soon as we can. I suggest this is a project for the Australian Jewish community.
Vladislav and Veronica rescued Esther from certain death knowing that by doing so they risked the life of their only daughter. And Joanna gave Esther the only warmth and friendship Esther had during those two years knowing that what she was doing could have her and her parents summarily hanged.
If the rules were up to me I would add another name.
Monika answered the question about the ‘Jewish girl” and in doing so has provided a history that her descendants and the world had no inkling at all. How many stories from those years have been lost? How many memories? As many as there were people I suppose. People whose lives we never knew even happened.
It is impossible to return and rescue an innocent life from the Nazis. Someone like Masha, Rosa’s previously unknown terrified young cousin who was marched off with her father by thugs to be butchered in the woods. But Monika has done the next best thing. Monika has rescued from oblivion the memory of this young girl and the lives of others as surely as her grandmother and her parents rescued Esther. By doing this she has done something very important.
She did this to write an essay when she was no older than Anne Frank.
cross posted Israel Thrives