Finding a Righteous Gentile, 60 years later

A Holocaust survivor finally tracks down the Czech womn who saved him.

It was a cold wintry evening in January 1945 when someone knocked on Jana Sudova's door. The Czech woman, who was home alone with her three-year-old daughter, asked who it was. "A partisan," came the reply. Sudova opened the door, and the man asked if he could spend the night. After she answered in the affirmative, the man said he had a friend who wanted to spend the night as well. When the second man appeared at the doorstep, he too said he had a friend. The third man said the same thing. "How many are you?" Sudova asked. "Four, and that's final," they replied. "If I take one of you in, I might as well take you all," she said. The four men pretending to be partisans were actually Jews who had escaped a Nazi "Death March" and had made their way to the woman's home in a small Czech village, near the border with Poland. Risking her own life, and that of her only child, Sudova agreed to hide the four in her attic, and provided them with food. A one night's stay turned into six weeks. Sudova, whose own husband was serving in the army, ignored warnings from her brother that she was endangering the whole family, telling him that she hoped someone would care for her husband the same way she was helping the four men. Word soon spread in the village that Sudova was sheltering partisans, and sure enough an informer reported her to the Germans. One day, the Gestapo showed up at their door. "We know that you have partisans here," they said. "I don't have any partisans, I have a child here," she replied. "Let's go see," they said, climbing to the attic. The four Jews were nowhere to be seen. Sudova herself was dumbfounded, without a clue as to where they were hiding, her daughter Anna Gerlova, now 64, recalled in an interview Thursday. The Germans left, and the whole household was saved. After hiding there for six weeks, three of the four men decided to make their way to the Red Army's lines, even though the fourth man and Sudova urged them to stay. The three men were caught and were apparently killed by the Nazis. The fourth man, Polish-born Jakob Silberstein, stayed on, hiding inside a hollow tree - which he found on the property thanks to a hare - whenever Germans soldiers arrived. He remained at the house for three and a half months, until he was liberated by the Russians. When the war ended, Silberstein discovered that Sudova knew all along that they were Jews, and had nevertheless saved them despite the danger to her family. Silberstein settled in Germany, where he married. All his children and grandchildren live in Israel. Over the years, he has constantly thought of the kindly Czech woman who took him and his friends in to her home, and he searched for her in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic more than half a dozen times, he said. But he didn't know her name or the exact name of her village. Silberstein, now 82, always came back empty handed. All he had was a picture he drew of the house as he remembered it, and memories of the woman's three-year old daughter. During those years Sudova, who had left the village, often wondered what had become of the four men she had saved, her daughter recalled, unaware that one of her house guests had been searching for her. In 1993, Sudova died at the age of 88. Last year, after years of searching, Silberstein was finally able to locate Sudova's daughter, who was living 120 kilometers away from their old village home. On Thursday, Sudova was posthumously recognized by Yad Vashem as a "Righteous Among the Nations" at a ceremony in Jerusalem. The Holocaust institute's highest honor was presented to her daughter on her late mother's behalf. "I feel like I am walking in my mother's shoes," Gerlova said after the ceremony. "I am really speechless." Then, as she walked through the Garden of the Righteous on a brilliant spring day, a memory of her mother suddenly emerged. "Every year she would think back to the story, and she always said that she was never afraid."