WARSAW (Jul. 7)
Renata Skotnicka-Zajdman and Lechoslawa Czerniakowski first met in the summer of 1939 in Warsaw, and the two teen-agers quickly became good friends.
After the German invasion of Poland that September, the friendship established a connection that helped save Renata’s life.
This week, the two friends met again in Warsaw to participate in the first International Conference on Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust.
Nearly 50 years after the war ended, the conference marks the first time that the Polish rescuers of Jews are being publicly recognized in Poland.
Renata’s story was one of many retold this week.
The Czerniakowski family first sent food and medication to Renata’s family in the ghetto. When the Nazis began the mass deportations from the ghetto, the Czerniakowskis secured false documents for Renata and her sister and brought them to the “Aryan” side of Warsaw.
Renata lived with the Czerniakowskis before she was caught by the Nazis and sent to a forced labor camp in Germany. Even there, the Czerniakowskis helped her, sending letters and thus allowing her to continue to pose as a Pole.
“The Czerniakowskis’ rescue of me began from the day the war started. Only with their help was I able to escape,” Renata said this week, giving thanks to the family.
After the war, she settled in Montreal and started a new life. Part of the Czerniakowski family was arrested by the Communists in Poland, and the link between the two friends was severed.
For years, Renata tried to find her childhood friend to thank her and her family for their heroic act.
Despite repeated attempts, she said, “I could not find out anything about them until two years ago.”
On a trip to Warsaw, Renata returned to the building where she hid as a child. Recognizing a neighbor from her memory, she received a first bit of information.
The old neighbor “gave the name of somebody in Gdansk, who told me that Lechoslawa was living in Zadan, near the German border, and her name was now Ostrowsky,” Renata said.
After a telephone call to the village, the two friends were reunited.
CHILDREN CARED FOR JEWISH BOY
Another tale told this week was that of Gerald Kaiser.
When his parents brought him to live with a Polish school principal in the tiny village of Wengleszyn in 1942, Gerald was just a 2-year-old.
Though it was only meant to be a temporary arrangement, the baby stayed with the Wlodek family for more than a year.
After Mr. Wlodek fled to the forest to escape from the Germans and Mrs. Wlodek was deported to Auschwitz, the only people left to take care of the baby were the couple’s two sons — Janusz, then 10 years old, and Krystyn, age 8.
“To survive they worked in neighbor’s fields to get food to eat. They even knew that I could not play with any of the other children because I was circumcised,” Gerald explained.
He was eventually sent to live with the Wlodeks’ cousins until the end of the war. In 1945, his mother came for him and they later moved to America.
Though an aunt of Gerald’s stayed in contact with the Wlodek family, Gerald lost touch with them while he was growing up. Later, as he got older, he became interested in how he and his family survived the war.
“At a family reunion, the discussion turned to the Holocaust, and I asked a question that I have always struggled with: whether I would do such a thing to save a stranger’s life,” Gerald said.
After that, he actively tried to find the Wlodek family.
He was able to locate them in Slupsk, in northern Poland, and began writing to them. He later went to visit them and has remained in close contact with the family.
Many of the Poles who saved Jews never sought any public recognition for their heroic acts for fear of societal or political consequences in Communist Poland.
But today, many Jews, especially those who were children during the war, are trying to locate those rescuers and publicly honor them for the first time.
“It was quite dangerous to admit under the Communists that you saved Jews. Polish communism was basically anti-Semitic, and they might possibly endanger themselves,” said Yehuda Bauer, a professor of Holocaust studies at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
After finding their rescuers, both Renata Skotnicka-Zajdman and Gerald Kaiser filed testimonies to honor the Poles who had saved them as Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Israel.
The Wlodeks now receive a monthly stipend from the Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers, a branch of the Anti-Defamation League.
The foundation provides medical and financial assistance for more than 1,200 rescuers, 900 of whom live in Poland.