As is well known, the Germans threatened the death penalty for anyone in occupied Poland apprehended in the act of helping Jews, in most cases by sheltering them in their homes. And indeed, some Polish rescuers lost their lives, or were sent to concentration camps for the offense of helping Jews survive.
Such as in the story of Jakub and Zofia Gargasz, who owned a farm in the village of Brzozów, Krosno district, and were arrested for sheltering Henia Katz, an elderly Jewish woman who they knew from before the war. Denounced by a neighbor, Henia Katz was shot, whereas her protectors were charged with the offense of Judenbegunstigung – extending help to Jews. On April 26, 1944, the court pronounced its verdict: death sentences for both. In this instance, the Gargasz couple were a bit more fortunate, for Hans Frank, the Nazi governor of occupied Poland, commuted the death sentences to years of incarceration in a concentration camp.
Jesuit Father Adam Sztark was also victimized by the Germans. As a priest in Zyrowice, near Slonim, he denounced from the pulpit the German atrocities against the Jews. When the Germans demanded a huge ransom payment from local Jews, Sztark collected valuables and money from his congregation to help pay it off by the deadline. He also provided false papers to Jews in hiding and sent Jewish children to hide with Christian families. In December 1942, when the last of the Slonim Jews were exterminated, the Germans, who had found out of Sztark’s extensive help to Jews, also murdered him.
At the same time, we also have stories of Polish rescuers who faced retribution, not from the Germans, but from fellow Poles, when their help to Jews on the run came to light, as in the three stories that follow.
• In the autumn of 1942, Abraham Einspruch and Benjamin Dereszewicz arrived at the home of Szczepan Bradlo, a peasant who lived in the village of Lubcza, near Tarnów, asking for shelter to themselves and their relatives, a total of 13 persons. The 13 fugitive Jews stayed in an underground hideout in the hayloft until the area’s liberation on January 17, 1945, a total of 26 months.
When the rescue of the Jews by the Bradlo family became known, they were threatened by a radical nationalist group, accusing Bradlo in a letter of “committing a crime against the homeland; in that during the German occupation, during the actions of the cleansing of our homeland from Jewish partisans, you clearly and willingly resisted by hiding with you many Jews... you well know that we Poles were determined to eliminate the Jews once and for all. We therefore felt necessary to punish you by destroying your farm after the end of the war and expel you as a political criminal.”
They added if he wanted to avoid further punishment, he had to remit to them 20,000 zloty, as a contribution in the struggle against the Russian communist occupiers. “In the event, this will not be carried out, all of you will be punished.” The Bradlos decided to leave and move to another location in Poland.
• In another story, Eli Ashenberg was among the few Jews who escaped from the Frampol Ghetto, Lublin district. Moving from one hiding place to another, an encounter with Polish policemen, he was shot but managed to escape. Wounded and bleeding, in November 1942, he dragged himself to a granary of a farm in the village of Komodzianka, where the next morning Jan and Stefania Sosnowy found him. They invited him into their cottage, bandaged his wounds, fed him, and hid him in a shelter under the floor. In March 1943, a local Polish partisan unit invaded the Sosnowy home, accusing them of hiding a Jew.
In Ashenberg’s words, who overheard from his hiding place, they “began to physically assault Jan, saying they knew he was hiding a Jew. As he insisted this was not so, they ordered him out of the house in order to be shot, and told him to say goodbye to his wife. Stefania responded that she wanted to be beside her husband at this last moment of life.” The underground men loaded their guns and were about to shoot the two. But after 15 minutes, Jan and Stefania returned. The underground men apparently were satisfied that no Jew was to be found in their home.
• In the final story, Stefan Sawa from the village of Zagórze, south of Kielce, sheltered a group of Jews in his home in 1943. When a local unit of the Polish underground ordered him to get rid of the Jewish fugitives, Sawa refused. As punishment, the underground unit, members of the Home Army led by Marian Soltysiak (“Barabasz”), returned on February 24, 1944. They killed Sawa and two Jews in the kitchen, including 12-year-old Danuta Zelinger.
Opening a closed door, they found three Jewish women and a five-year-old child, all of whom they shot and killed. After ransacking the house looking for Jewish property, they set it on fire. In the post-war trial against them, the former underground militants received light sentences. Marian Soltysiak, for instance, was sentenced to seven years in prison, but was released after only two years “due to poor health.”
The five rescuer families above were all honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations; Gargasz and Sztark as victims of German retribution for aiding Jews; and Bradlo, Sosnowy and Sawa as victims of vengeance by fellow Poles for the same “offense.” These five rescuers represent a mere handful of the 6,863 Polish men and women so far honored by Yad Vashem, and more Polish names will surely be added to the list. But this should not be done at the price of overlooking the many Poles who participated in threatening and harassing fellow Polish rescuers of Jews, and even took part in the killing of Jews.
The writer is former director of the Righteous Among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem, and currently teaches at Stern and Touro colleges in New York.