Polish couple posthumous ‘Righteous Gentiles’

Ludwika and Zygmunt Szostak hid Jewish mother and daughter from Nazis for nearly three years.

(photo credit: DANIEL K. EISENBUD)
Ludwika and Zygmunt Szostak, an elderly Polish couple who hid and protected a Jewish mother and her young daughter from the Nazis during World War II, were posthumously honored as Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem on Monday.
During the ceremony – which was attended by Karolina Eisen, the thenseven- year-old daughter saved by the Szostaks – the couple’s names were unveiled on a stone monument honoring other Polish “Righteous Gentiles” who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
Elzbieta Stradowska, a great-niece of the Szostaks, flew to Israel from Ludz, Poland to accept the award on the couple’s behalf at the unveiling in the museum’s Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations.
“Here you have a young girl who survived the Holocaust with her mother and now you can see three generations of her family,” said Irena Steinfeldt, director of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations department, as Eisen’s family and Stradowska posed for photographs.
“But imagine if her relatives, who were murdered, had been here today,” she continued. “Then you can begin to see the enormity of the loss. This is why the medal [presented to Righteous Gentiles] says ‘Whoever saves one life saves the entire universe’ – and this is a very visual representation of this saying.”
In 1942, while living in a suburb of Warsaw, the Szostaks rented out a room in their home to Dora Agatstein and her only child, Karolina, who escaped the Lvov Ghetto one month before the Great Deportation.
Despite the dangers involved in housing the Jewish mother and daughter, the Szostaks quickly became attached to the pair and kept them in hiding – even when Dora could no longer pay rent.
To assist the couple, Dora and Karolina wrapped homemade confections inside the home for extra income.
Later on, to lessen suspicions among neighbors, Dora, a teacher, was given an instructing position by a nun at a nearby school, and Karolina was enrolled in a local kindergarten.
However, during the onslaught of the Polish Uprising in 1944, the Szostaks, Dora and Karolina, were forced to leave their hometown and were sent to southern Poland, where they lived as refugees.
The four remained together there, living with a poor farming family and picking potatoes until being liberated by the Soviet army in April 1945.
Dora and Karolina subsequently immigrated to Israel in 1950, and lived in Jerusalem. Ludwika died in Poland in 1970; her husband died there two years later.
On November 13, the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations officially recognized Ludwika and Zygmunt as Righteous Among the Nations.
Following the ceremony honoring the Szostaks, Eisen – a retired Jerusalem highschool history teacher living in the capital – said she often thinks about the couple, whom she described as being “like family.”
“They did more than save me, they became my family,” she said. “I have a very warm place in my heart for them in my life, even when I try to forget everything [about the war].”
Stradowska said there was never any question in her family, all of whom were against the Nazis, that protecting Eisen and her mother was necessary and just.
“To them, and to me, it was a very obvious situation,” she said. “In my family it wasn’t an act of bravery or heroism, it was normal. Someone needed help, that’s all.”
Asked if her family spoke of Eisen years after she was free and living in Israel, Stradowska smiled.
“She was like a member of our family, especially when my aunt talked about her,” she said. “[Ludwika] talked about her warmly – about a little girl who was wise, beautiful, and the clever things she said. But they never talked of ‘sacrificing’ for her. My aunt and uncle loved her and were happy to help her.”
While Eisen said her late mother kept in contact with the Szostaks for many years before her death, Eisen only regained contact with the family’s descendants in the past year, after her grandson asked her about her experiences during the Holocaust.
“He was going on a trip to Poland and wanted to know what happened to me there,” said Eisen. “That was when I reconnected with them.”
Surrounded by her family and loved ones following the ceremony, Eisen said she had mixed feelings about the day.
“I was very excited today and I tried not to cry all the time,” said Eisen. “I told myself to be strong.”