(photo credit: the jewish foundation)
In a symbolic closing of a circle, a 94-year-old Holocaust survivor was reunited on Friday with the elderly Polish woman who sheltered her during the Holocaust, more than six decades after the two parted ways.
The special Thanksgiving weekend reunion, which took place at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, brought together Golda Bushkanietz, 94, of Tel Aviv with her Polish rescuer, Irena Walulewicz, 82, of Olsztyn, Poland.
Walulewicz and her late mother Zofia, who have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem for their selfless heroism, hid Bushkanietz in their home for several months during the summer of 1943, as the Nazi killing machine marched on, even after a neighbor denounced them to the Germans.
The two women, who had not seen each other for 62 years, were reunited by the New York-based Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, a group formed two decades ago that provides financial assistance to 1,200 non-Jews in 26 countries around the world who risked their lives to rescue Jews from the Holocaust.
"Don't cry, don't cry," Bushkanietz said in Polish, as she hugged Walulewicz in a tearful reunion.
This story of heroism and bravery in the face of evil began in September 1941, after all the Jews from Swieciany, Poland, which is today in Lithuania, and the neighboring villages were rounded up by the Germans, and divided into two groups: some, like Bushkanietz and her husband Szymon, were sent to a slave labor camp after being deemed "useful," while others were immediately murdered by the Nazis and buried in a mass grave.
In early 1943, when the Germans decided to liquidate the camp, the young Jewish couple managed to flee, with Szymon Bushkanietz heading for the woods to join the partisans and his wife fleeing to her home town to search for a hiding place.
It was 2:00 in the morning when Bushkanietz knocked on the window of the home of the daughter of the town's pre-war mayor, whom her father had known slightly, in the hopes of finding refuge inside.
"I really wanted to live," Bushkanietz recalled Thursday in an interview before leaving Israel for the reunion.
Zofia Walulewicz, the daughter of the mayor, who was home alone with her 17-year-old daughter Irena, who was deaf and mute, opened the window.
"Who are you?" the Polish woman asked.
"I am Fiegel's daughter," she answered.
"Come in," she responded.
For the next several months, Bushkanietz found refuge in their house, hiding in the mice-infested attic, or even in the pigsty, to avoid capture.
On cold winter nights, she was sometimes allowed to sleep in the kitchen when no neighbors were around, and once quickly hid under a bed in the house for hours when neighbors came by unannounced during the day.
Every Sunday, when the devout Catholic family went to church, she was able to sneak out and head to the woods to meet up with her husband, she recounted.
The Polish mother and daughter who were hiding the young Jewish woman were facing their own difficulties.
Irena Walulewicz's older brother had himself been killed by the Nazis while her father, the one-time mayor of the town, was among 50 Polish intelligentsia killed by the Germans in revenge for the killing of a German officer by the partisans.
Then one day, a Polish neighbor denounced the Walulewiczs for hiding a Jew, but Bushkanietz, who was alerted by Zofia Walulewicz, managed to escape through a window, returning only after the Germans had left empty-handed.
She remained in the Polish home until November 1943, when she joined her husband with the partisans in the forest.
After the war, the couple moved to Israel and went on to have two children, seven grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
Before they left Poland, Bushkanietz parted ways with the Walulewiczs, though for years she would receive letters and birthday and holiday cards from the daughter of the Polish lady who had saved her life.
"In the many years we have worked with survivors and their rescuers, I remain awestruck by the heroism of the thousands of rescuers who risked their lives to save others," said Stanlee Stahl, executive vice president of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.
Meanwhile, as Bushkanietz prepared to make the 11-hour flight across the Atlantic on Thursday for the reunion, the active nonagenarian said that she was very excited to be reunited with the Polish woman who helped save her life, and was carrying with her the letters and cards she had received from her rescuer over the years.
"I am alive and want to live," she said, her voice filled with emotion as the memories of the wartime years came back to her along with her strong will to survive.
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