NEW YORK (Oct. 22)
The intricate mystery of what gives some individuals the courage to risk everything to help others came under scrutiny Tuesday when the recently formed Foundation to Sustain Righteous Christians, a project of the International Center for Holocaust Studies of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, honored two Polish women who had each saved a Jewish life during the Holocaust.
“Stanislawa Bardzik and Kazimiera Jezienicki would have been righteous people at any time or place, but because they performed their acts of mercy in Poland during the early 1940s, it makes them a thousand times more righteous,” said Norman Salsitz, a 67-year-old Jewish Holocaust survivor, originally from Poland, who owes his life to Bardzik.
Salsitz’s wife, Mania, 65, also originally from Poland, survived the war because Jezienicki allowed her to pose as a governess for four weeks.
The Salsitzes, who now reside in Springfield, N.J., met and married after the war. They immigrated to the United States in 1947.
In 1942, 22-year-old Norman Salsitz had already survived the destruction of the Jewish community in his hometown of Kolbuszowa, including his parents and five sisters, and had managed to escape from a labor camp.
He joined a group of 125 other young Jewish concentration camp escapees. They found a friend in Bardzik, then a 16-year old schoolgirl, and her parents.
Their eyes sparkling with tears, Salsitz and Bardzik described how grateful the 125 Jews, who were hiding in the woods near the Bardziks’ cottage, were for the food, shelter and information the peasant family supplied at tremendous risk to themselves. All knew the penalty for being or assisting a Jew was death.
Bardzik herself was a member of a Polish underground partisan movement, noted for its anti-Semitism. The group, according to Salsitz, was as likely to hunt for Jews as for Nazis. Nevertheless, the young girl smuggled bullets to her Jewish friend when he needed them and kept him and his comrades’ whereabouts a secret.
Mania Petranker Salsitz had grown up in an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Stanislawow in southeastern Poland on the Russian border, an area notorious for Ukrainian anti-Semitism. After 1939, the area was occupied by the Russians, and her family barely escaped exile to Siberia. In June 1941, the Nazis appeared.
A petite blonde woman with deep brown eyes, Salsitz recalled that one month after the Nazis’ arrival, her 15-year-old sister was taken and the remaining family sent to the ghetto. On Hoshana Raba (the seventh day of Sukkot) that year, her mother was one of 15,000 Jews shot en masse.
Salsitz and her father decided to flee the ghetto together, but they soon became separated, and the 19-year-old girl found herself alone.
Not knowing what else to do, she set out from Krakow, where she knew Michel and Kazimeira Jezienicki, longtime gentile friends of her family, were residing. According to Salsitz, they welcomed her joyfully and vowed to protect her.
Well-to-do, the Jezienickis had no difficulty explaining to their neighbors that the young girl had been employed as their children’s new governess. The problem lay in preventing the Polish neighbors from noticing what Salsitz called “my Semitic eyes.”
After four weeks, the Jezienickis suggested to Salsitz, who spoke fluent German, that she continue to pose as a Polish Catholic and look for work as a housekeeper for a German family living in Poland.
“They believed I would be safest in the lions’ den because there the Polish police couldn’t come and check for the identity papers,” she explained.
The plan worked, and eventually she survived the war working as a secretary for a German company operating in Poland.
Grateful to the Righteous Christians to whom they owe their lives, the Salsizes, over the years, have frequently sent packages with needed supplies to many Polish families who saved Jews during the war.
“People ask me, why do you send gifts to people you don’t even know? I tell them, I don’t have to know. If you helped any Jew, then you also helped me, and we Jews do not forget,” said Norman Salsitz, a semi-retired building developer.
Neither Bardzik, who now resides in Warsaw, nor Jezieicki, now a widow but still in Krakow, said they felt they had behaved particularly righteously during the war. Both women, who spoke in Polish translated by Norman Salsitz, stressed that their ethics had been molded by parents who were staunch Catholics dedicated to the true Christian spirit.
“What we did was not a big deal,” said Bardzik. “Everyone who needs help should be helped. Everyone wants to live, and we wanted everyone to survive with us.”