A precarious sanctuary for Jews in Poland

Warsaw, Poland, 1943, Jews and German soldiers behind a fence.  The numbers remaining  in the Warsaw ghetto were much now diminished , and the people becoming increasingly desperate.

Warsaw, Poland, 1943, Jews and German soldiers behind a fence. The numbers remaining in the Warsaw ghetto were much now diminished , and the people becoming increasingly desperate.

In Poland the Jews who had been imprisoned in the ghettos were now under no illusion about their ultimate fate. Thousands had been shipped out of the ghettoes for ‘relocation to the east’. None had ever been heard from again. Desperate measure were taken to escape from the ghettoes by whatever route.

Once outside they faced many challenges simply to survive. Forged papers were hard to come by and often would not pass the scrutiny of the Germans. It was difficult to know who to trust. The Poles knew that if they were discovered sheltering Jews then the Germans would shoot not just them but their entire family. There were rewards for turning Jews in. Despite these dangers many Poles chose to help Jews on the run, either out of compassion or because of religious conviction.

Michael Zylberberg and his wife were amongst those who had escaped from the Warsaw ghetto. It was a life of constant danger. Easter brought a new and unexpected challenge because of the religious convictions of their Polish host:

We had been recommended to a religious Catholic family. They were very poor but kind and anxious to help. The members of the family were an eighty-year-old grandmother, her daughter Klima in her fifties, and a grandson, aged about twenty-five.

Their home, one room and a kitchen, was in a small house in the middle of a common, not far from the main street in the district. The rear of the house was occupied by a woman and her two daughters who often held wild parties. They entertained very dubious people, including uniformed Germans.

Our poor family were keen to have us without rent at a time when people were taking enormous sums to hide Jews. They had no previous knowledge of us but felt they had a sacred duty to shelter anyone in need. Of course, our existence had to be a closely-guarded secret.

During the daytime we crept on all fours so that no one should see us through the window of the little home. During the two months we were there, my wife and I scarcely spoke to each other, so that strange voices might not be overheard by the neighbours.

Mrs. Klima had to buy food for us in a different shop from the one she normally used. Her own grocer and milkman would have guessed that she was buying for more than the usual three people. Both the grandmother and her daughter prayed frequently that God would help them and us. When we were worried that something might happen, they always assured us that they would stand by us and protect us. Their compassion was outstanding.

Easter was getting closer and a new problem arose for us. Mrs. Klima said she had to go to confession and that she had to tell the whole truth. That included telling about us. She was afraid that the priest might not approve and regard this procedure as dangerous; she was at a loss what to do, and asked me for advice.

I begged her let us know what day she was going to confession, so that we could stay out of the house all day. Thus she would not need to mention us and would have a clear conscience.

We kept out of the house that day, as promised, but Mrs. Klima confessed everything to the priest! Happily for us and for her, however, the priest assured her that she was performing a noble service in helping those in danger. She returned home overjoyed.

Yet circumstances were so hard, and got so much harder as the days lengthened, that we decided that I would leave and my wife would stay. I went to Skolimow near Warsaw to work with friends, taking a job as a gardener. Nevertheless, my wife’s stay was also short-lived, for the following reason.

One day, when only the grandmother and my wife were in the house, sitting as quiet as mice, Henrietta heard a conversation through the wall. The neighbour, Mrs. Kaminska, and a relative of hers were talking. Mrs. Kaminska said she had a feeling that a jewess was hiding next door. The relative said she should inform the Germans at once, and they would soon find out if it were true.

When my wife heard this she ran out ofthe house in terror and never went back. The grandmother, old and deaf; had not heard the conversation and, seeing Henrietta jump up, signalled to her not to go outside. Henrietta quietened her by whispering in her ear that she would soon return. This was their only farewell. The next day the house was searched and nothing found.

See Michael Zylberberg: A Warsaw Diary

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