Decades later, Israeli seeks family's killers

Rony Lerner tracks down 92-year-old Pole - the last surviving suspect.

holocaust survivor 298.8 (photo credit: Associated Press)
holocaust survivor 298.8
(photo credit: Associated Press)
It was a crime that unfolded on the sidelines of the Holocaust: Farmers in German-occupied Poland murdered six members of a well-to-do Jewish family for their possessions. And there the story might have ended, swallowed up in the enormity of the Nazi genocide, had not an Israeli biotech company owner decided at age 57 to find out what happened to his grandmother, Gitl, and her five children who would have been his aunts and uncles had they lived. As Rony Lerner would discover, the wounds are still raw more than 60 years later. His search led him to a Polish village where he confronted a 92-year-old man thought to be the last surviving suspect. "Apparently trying to reconcile, he opened his arms as if to hug me," Lerner recalled. "I shoved him aside out of disgust and revulsion." The story began in 1942 at the height of the Nazis' persecution of Jews in Poland, when the Lerners were forced into a ghetto. A Nazi officer shot Gitl's husband, her sister and one of her sons. Another son, Yitzhak Lerner, was hiding in Warsaw, posing as a gentile. He persuaded Polish farmers in the eastern village of Przegaliny to save most of the family from the ghetto, apparently after bribing the Nazi authorities. After World War II he submitted a complaint to Polish authorities in which he said the farmers had taken "a large payment" for hiding the family and then started pressuring Gitl Lerner to hand over her other belongings, knowing the family owned a bakery and sold sewing machines. When the 45-year-old mother had nothing left to give, the complaint said, the farmers raped her two daughters, aged 22 and 20. Eventually, it said, they stabbed one of the daughters to death and shot the rest of the family as well as two unrelated boys who had come with them from the ghetto. The murders were committed at a time when Poland's German occupiers were rapidly annihilating its 3.5 million Jews. Although Poles were not directly involved in the Nazi death machine, "The cases of murders of Jews by their Polish neighbors was quite widespread," said Jan Gross, an expert on Polish history at Princeton University who has written extensively on the subject. "It was a unique phenomenon that was taking place in the countryside" and was particularly common in the Lublin district, where the Lerners' hometown of Komarowka Podlaska is located, Gross said in a telephone interview. After the war there were several hundred court cases over the murder of Jews, but often the evidence was insufficient, he said. On the other hand, he noted, there were many Poles who saved Jews, as evidenced by the large number honored as "Righteous Among the Gentiles" by Yad Vashem. After the war, and after filing his complaint, Yitzhak Lerner immigrated to Palestine. In 1948 Israel won statehood and he had a son, Rony. Like many children of Holocaust survivors, Rony Lerner didn't like dwelling on the family history and didn't ask his father many questions. His curiosity was only aroused after his father died three years ago and he visited Warsaw. There he discovered the complaint his father had filed. It contained villagers' testimony and named five suspects, of whom only one, Jozef Radczuk, turned out to still be alive. Lerner hired investigators who posed as Polish historians to interview and film Radczuk and other villagers in Przegaliny, near the Lerners' hometown, and made a documentary, parts of which were shown on Israeli TV in April. He said that in his presence, Radczuk told of being present at the rapes and murders on the property of a farmer named Franciszek Uzdowski. In the film, Radczuk condemned the murders and showed the cameras where the bodies had been buried near a pig sty and then reinterred at the edge of the village cemetery. When Radczuk was told that Rony Lerner was sitting next to him, Radczuk tried to hug him. "Don't you do it," Lerner said in English, angry tears in his eyes. He pushed Radczuk's hand away. "You killed my grandmother and you killed five of my uncles and aunts." Off-camera, things turned even nastier, with Lerner alleging that Radczuk had showed him and the investigators the second burial site and spoke of the "Jewish dogs" buried there. Since Polish media reported the story in April, following its publication in Israel, Radczuk's family has refused to let him be interviewed. An Associated Press reporter who approached his home was barred by his daughter from seeing him. The daughter, who would not give her name, confirmed she had heard of Jews being murdered at Uzdowski's place but said: "My father did not take part in it." Uzdowski was arrested for the crime but apparently not convicted, and died a long time ago. His nephew, Kazimierz Uzdowski, who still lives in Przegaliny, said that after the war people did not discuss the killing because they were ashamed of it. "It was unnecessary, but it happened," said Uzdowski. "The truth should see daylight, should be revealed." He did not say whether his uncle was involved. Lerner said Polish prosecutors told him that after the war Radczuk was accused of involvement in the murders, and was also a suspect in killing or turning over to the Nazis three other Jews, but most charges were dropped for lack of evidence and some files were missing. Polish prosecutor Jacek Nowakowski of the National Remembrance Institute, which oversees the prosecution of Nazi-era crimes, said a new investigation had been opened and suggested that Radczuk would be questioned. However, Nazi-hunter Efraim Zuroff, head of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said Polish authorities have been reluctant in the past to pursue such cases. As part of Lerner's investigation, attempts were made to dig up graves thought to be his relatives' but no remains were found. Lerner plans to return to pursue the search. Even if nothing turns up, Zuroff said, Gitl Lerner's grandson has found out more about the family's fate than most descendants of Holocaust victims can hope for. "This is extremely rare," he said. "Here we are putting faces and names on the murders." In Israel, one child of Gitl Lerner is left - Rony's uncle, Yosef, who escaped the Holocaust by moving to Palestine in 1939. He took a Hebrew surname, Yanai, and lives in Hibat Zion. Now 89, he hopes his family will some day be reburied in a nearby cemetery, among Mediterranean orange groves. As for Radczuk, he said, "Maybe they will put him in jail, but what is it worth to us now? This would give me some satisfaction. But it's too late."