genwefa ben ezra 248.88.
(photo credit: Amir Wolff/Yad Vashem)
One brother was an angel of life. The other was an emissary of death.
The two opposing faces of Poland during the Holocaust were on stark display Tuesday at a Yad Vashem ceremony in Jerusalem posthumously honoring a Polish couple for saving a young Jewish girl during World War II.
The dramatic story of two siblings whose value systems were worlds apart began in 1942, in a forced labor camp northeast of Nazi-occupied Warsaw.
Aided by a local priest, a Jewish couple, Rachel and Moshe Tyrangiel, smuggled their two young daughters - two-year-old Guta and one-year-old Esther - out of the Kopernikus camp and entrusted them to different Polish families.
The two sisters were among a group of 10 Jewish children smuggled out of the camp with the help of Polish resistance fighters and put under the care of Christian families.
Guta was taken in by Jozef and Bronislawa Jaszczuk, a couple with no children of their own, from the village of Minsk-Mazowiecki, some 30 km. northeast of Warsaw. They gave the Jewish child a new name, Genowefa, to hide her true identity, and presented her as their niece.
Soon after the couple had taken the girl in, however, Jozef Jaszczuk's older brother, who lived in the same house, informed the Gestapo that his brother and sister-in-law were concealing a Jewish child.
Just before the Germans raided the house following the tip-off, Bronislawa Jaszczuk hid the girl, and was then arrested.
Her husband, who was at work at the time, managed to collect money from the resistance and bribed the police chief to secure his wife's release three weeks later.
The couple subsequently gathered their belongings and the girl and went to live in a rural area out of sight until the end of the war.
After the war was over, the couple adopted the Jewish girl, who was by then six years old.
"My adoptive father never forgave his brother for what he did," recounted Genowefa (Genia) Ben-Ezra, 68, at the ceremony honoring her adoptive parents. "We could have all been killed because of him."
However, the saga of the hidden Jewish child did not end there.
"Mine is a complicated story, not an easy one," she said.
Like many other child survivors, her own parents perished in the Holocaust, while the fate of her sister remains unknown to this day.
After the war, Ben-Ezra's blood uncle located her and wanted to take her with him to Palestine. Her adoptive parents refused, and a custody case ensued.
"They wanted me to be with them," she related. "Like other Polish Christians, they wanted the kids to become Christians and not go back to their Jewish roots."
She described her adoptive parents as "normal people - simple people - who [during the war] did not want to give the Germans a little girl."
The traumatized six-year-old told the court that she was happy with her adoptive parents and wanted to stay with them.
"I said that I didn't want to move, I didn't want to be Jewish," she recalled six decades later.
Ben-Ezra would remain in Poland with the couple who adopted her until 1961 when, at age 20, she moved to France.
Despite being raised a Christian from the age of two, Ben-Ezra never forgot her roots ("I knew all the time I was Jewish") and was reconnected to Judaism with the help of the Jewish community in Strasbourg.
Over the years, her uncle remained in contact from Israel, sending trademark Jaffa oranges in the mail, she said.
While in France, the recurring recollection of her biological parents from her earliest years posed "the greatest crisis" for her as she began a new life.
In the meantime, her Polish mother died in 1957, and her adoptive father joined her in France, where he was assisted by the Jewish community until his death in 1971.
She later moved on to Canada, and in 2000, she immigrated to Israel with her two daughters.
The grandmother of five is the only one of the 10 children smuggled out of the camp who is known to have survived the war. Some of the children were handed over to the Germans, while others were possibly never told of their Jewish roots.
Ben-Ezra said she did not want the children of her adoptive father's brother - two of whom are alive - to be at the Jerusalem ceremony.
"My [adoptive] father, until his death, was so hurt by what his brother did, I couldn't give them this medal, even though they were the children," she said. "It was against his wishes."
In all, more than 22,000 non-Jews have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.
Speaking of one of her young grandchildren at the ceremony, she said, "He does not know just how much of a miracle it is that he is here."