American reconnects with the Polish woman who saved his life during the Holocaust

"You made me a bed, showed me the stars and said that the good spirit would watch over me."

Magdalena Grodzka-Guzkowska  248.88 (photo credit: Yad Vashem)
Magdalena Grodzka-Guzkowska 248.88
(photo credit: Yad Vashem)
Even today, more than 65 years later, 71-year-old William Donat of New York cannot forget the week in the spring of 1943 when as a boy of five he was sheltered from the clutches of the Nazis by a 17-year-old Polish girl. The image of the "sweet, heroic young woman," as he described her Tuesday, never faded from his memory over the years, even though their time together was short. The woman, Magdalena Grodzka-Guzkowska, was active in the Polish underground during World War II. Donat had been smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto, but was in desperate need of shelter after some Polish neighbors had informed on the elderly Polish couple who had been safeguarding him for some weeks. The couple managed to bribe the police into silence but were warned to get rid of the Jewish child lest they all be killed the next time. A short time later, the Polish teen, nicknamed Magda, appeared at the door of the home and took him to another apartment until his adopted "aunt and uncle" - his father's childless Polish coworkers who had agreed to take the child in - could find a safer place for him to hide. "You took two chairs together and made them into a bed for me, and then you showed me the stars and said that the good spirit would watch over me," Donat told his now 84-year-old Polish rescuer at a ceremony Tuesday at Yad Vashem, where she was granted the honor of Righteous Among the Nations. During that fateful week, as the Warsaw Ghetto was being razed, Grodzka-Guzkowska, who had similarly sequestered other Jewish children, brought Donat food every day as well as colors for drawing pictures, and boats made out of paper. She also taught him Christian prayers and customs, to help disguise his Jewish identity. The next week, the child was placed in a Polish orphanage outside of Warsaw, where he remained for the duration of the war. After the war ended, he was reunited with his parents, who had managed to survive the Holocaust even though they had been separated after being sent to the Majdanek concentration camp. The family of three moved to the United States in 1946. Donat's reunion with the Polish woman who rescued him happened by chance. The boy's father, Alexander Donat, who had been a publisher of a Polish-language newspaper before the war, mentioned the story of the angelic Polish teen who had helped save his son's life in his memoir, The Holocaust Kingdom. Then, two years ago, an American filmmaker who had read the book came across Grodzka-Guzkowska in Warsaw, where she was working on a project about the late Polish rescuer Irena Sendler, and he asked the elder Donat if he knew that "Magda" was still alive and living in Warsaw. Donat quickly traveled to Warsaw with his wife to reconnect with the person who had helped save his life and then successfully worked to have her recognized by Yad Vashem. Their second reunion in two years after more than six-and-a-half decades took place at the Jerusalem ceremony on Tuesday. "I never thought that I would see him again," Grodzka-Guzkowska recounted, noting that he now had three children and six grandchildren of his own. "He was the only one of the children that I have been able to reconnect with." Thinking back to those fateful days during the Holocaust, she noted that one of the other Jewish children had been very sick when she got him, and had soon died. "He died in a warm bed and not eaten by worms or killed by the Germans," she said. "I am so happy to have found you again after all these years," Donat concluded. "Unfortunately there were not enough people like you."