While antisemitism undoubtedly exists in some Polish circles, it is not official Polish policy, and in some cities and towns, Christians go out of their way to preserve the heritage of Jewish communities that no longer exist. In Warsaw, last Friday, on the Gregorian calendar anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, thousands of non-Jews, by wearing yellow daffodils on their lapels, indicated their empathy with the suffering and heroism of the Jews of the ghetto. Moreover, Magda Lucyan, a reporter for the Polish television channel TVN, ran a series of interviews with elderly survivors of the ghetto who are still living in Poland. The interviews were aired this week on a program called Fact.
Following the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, which ignited the outbreak of World War II, many Jews from smaller towns and cities fled to Warsaw, which had the largest and most diverse Jewish population of all the cities in Europe. A month after the German invasion, Poland was annexed and divided between Germany and Russia. The Polish government went into exile and operated out of London. The Warsaw Ghetto was established in November 1940. Here are some of the descriptions the survivors gave on the Polish program:
Krystyna Budnicka was eight years old when she was taken there in 1940. She is the sole survivor of her 10-member family. She spent three and a half years in the ghetto, which was constantly changing before her eyes. As her family was Orthodox, it made no attempt to escape to the Aryan side, because if not betrayed by its appearance, any attempt to speak Polish would be an instant giveaway. Budnicka was saved by hiding in the sewers.
Hanna Wehr came from a small town to Warsaw. “They squeezed a lot of people from small towns and villages into a very limited area,” she said. “These people had absolutely no way to make a living. They were dying of hunger. There was huge congestion. The Germans packed the district to the hilt with relocated families. The hunger was terrible. There were many beggars. People often stole food from each other.”
Wehr shared memories of witnessing deportations to the death camps. She does not recollect the details of how she and her mother escaped, but once on the other side of the wall, they were able to purchase false documents, which helped them to evade capture.
Marian Kalwary, like Budnicka, came to the ghetto in 1940. In the beginning the ghetto didn’t look that bad, he said. People still had resources and were able to maintain their dignity. But as the ghetto became increasingly congested, the situation deteriorated. He has two specific memories that haunt him. The worst was the sight of dead bodies, some reduced to skeletal proportions, that were placed in the street and covered with newspaper.
The other memory that has never left him is that of riding in a train after escaping from the ghetto. The conductor looked at him, and instantly realized that he was Jewish. “You’re a kike aren’t you?” bellowed the conductor. When the train stopped at Jedrzejow Station, the conductor grabbed Kalwary and propelled him onto the platform shouting “I caught a Jew! Call an officer!” Miraculously there was no one at the station to hear him, and the conductor had to board the train again to continue his journey to Kielce. He had no choice but to let the boy go, telling him he was lucky.
After her parents were killed, nine-year-old Katarzyna Meloch was placed in an orphanage in the Bialystok Ghetto. Her mother had drummed into her head that if anything should happen to her parents, she should get in touch with her Uncle Jacek in Warsaw. She duly wrote to him, and he paid a female courier who frequently transported Jewish children to bring Meloch to where he was living.
When she was caught near the umschlagplatz from where people were deported to the Treblinka death camp, she began to cry. Her grandmother heard her, came out of her hiding place and persuaded the policeman on guard to allow her to take the child’s place while she went to fetch her shoes. Meloch did not return, but her grandmother also managed to escape and died a natural death not long afterwards. With the help of Zegota, (the Polish Council to Aid Jews), Meloch escaped to the Aryan side, but was shocked by the German propaganda posters featuring stereotyped images of Jews and stating that they breed lice and typhus.
Agata Boldok was seven when she entered the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940 together with her parents and older sister. When the ghetto was sealed off, she didn’t want to be Jewish because being Jewish was associated with misfortune. One day her father and sister simply disappeared. She never learned what happened to then. She cannot shake the memory of what hunger did to people, such as grabbing the flesh of a dead horse.
She escaped to the Aryan side when her mother pushed her through a hole in the wall. Someone else pulled her from the other side. Her mother also managed to get out and they boarded a train, which was a terrible risk. But her mother was fluent in German and when she heard German spoken in one of the carriages, she asked if she could sit there. The reply was affirmative, and they stayed there till the conductor came and evicted them. Boldok later found herself in another ghetto from where she was put on a transport to Treblinka.
By that time, it was no longer a secret as to what would happen at the end of the journey, and people around her were committing suicide, preferring to take charge of their own destiny rather than give the Germans the satisfaction of murdering them. Her uncle pulled her out of the crowd and told her to run. In the jostling she was pushed in the direction of the door of the train. A railroad worker saw her and exclaimed, “You’ve got blue eyes, just like my daughter.” They were in the last carriage, and he told her to wait for his signal and then jump and run. She obeyed and the train left the station.
She had no place to sleep and nothing to eat. And all of a sudden, she found herself outside a church. She spent the night there, but was picked up the following day by the military police. There is a hazy void about what happened next, but what she does remember is that she found herself sleeping under a bed in a home for senior citizens. One day she ventured outside, and a woman who noticed her in the street screamed: “Look, there’s one left! Police!” This time other women came to her rescue her and pulled her back into the basement.
While Yad Vashem honors non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust, the B’nai B’rith World Center in conjunction with Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund honors Jews who saved Jews and will be doing so for the 17th consecutive year at a morning ceremony at the B’nai B’rith Martyrs’ Forest together with Jewish rescuers and survivors, specifically members of the Belgian Jewish Defense Committee, which was founded in September 1942, in reaction to the deportations of Jews by the Nazis.
CDJ, as it was known, operated clandestinely in Brussels and Antwerp and brought together Jews of every stripe who were committed to a common cause. There were even some non-Jews who joined them, such as the teacher Andrée Geulen. At its peak, the number of CDJ members reached 300. During the ceremony, which is expected to be attended by Belgian Ambassador Olivier Belle, and Michel Werber, the son of CDJ founding members Abusz and Shifra Werber, a Jewish Rescuers Citation is to be conferred on 11 leading members of the CDJ and four other rescuers who were active in Poland: David Ferdman, Hertz Jospa, Hava Jospa, Abraham Manaster, Chaim Pinkus Perelman, Fela Perelman, David Trocki-Muscnicki, Paulina Avstritski Trocki-Muscnicki, Josef Sterngold, Abusz Werber, Shifra Werber, Shraga Dgani, Miriam-Mania Zeidman, Yaacov Segalchik and Bela Yaari-Hazan.
About 66,000 Jews lived in Belgium in mid-1940. Of these only 10% were Belgian citizens. Some 24,906 Jews were deported in 28 transports to Auschwitz beginning in the summer of 1942. Of these, only 1,337 survived. CDJ was, however, able to rescue more than 3,000 Jewish children.