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Honor Thy Family: Israeli Looks for Bodies of Relatives Killed in Wwii

April 5, 2006
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Rony Lerner grew up hearing the horrific tale of the World War II murder of his grandmother and five of her children, stabbed to death by Polish farmers who had been sheltering them from the Nazis in exchange for money. Shortly after the death of his father, Yitzhak, in 2002, nearly 60 years after the murders, Lerner set out for Poland looking for some semblance of justice.

Posing as an historian Lerner, a successful Israeli businessman from Tel Aviv, tracked down Josef Radczuk, a 92-year-old farmer and the last surviving suspect in the 1943 murders.

Radczuk, jarred to learn Lerner’s true identity when it was finally revealed, quickly composed himself and reached out to him with extended arms.

“He tried for some sort of reconciliation and attempted to hug me but I stepped back,” Lerner, 57, said Monday in a phone interview with JTA from Poland. “I told him I know he is a murderer.”

The Polish authorities are now investigating the murder in the small town in eastern Poland called Przegaliny. Lerner is trying to identify where his family members are buried so that he can bring their remains to Israel.

On Monday, he went to the corner of a Catholic cemetery in the town where Radczuk told him and a documentary film crew following the story that the bodies were buried.

But after searching Monday, no bodies were found. Lerner, however, said he has not given up hope. He believes the bodies are somewhere in the same cemetery and that they will be found.

“For the rest of his life this was my father’s wish,” said Lerner of his decision to exhume the bodies and bring them to Israel. “I am completing this obligation.”

Radczuk was among those Yitzhak Lerner identified as one of the killers in testimony he gave after investigating the crime shortly after the Soviets took control of the area in 1944. Yitzhak Lerner had spent the war living in Warsaw with false papers while most of his family went into hiding. Another brother also survived the war and lives in Israel.

Rony Lerner’s grandmother, Gitl Lerner, 45, and her children ranging in age from 22 to 13, along with two other Jews identified only by their last names, Zefryn and Pomeranc, had taken refuge in a hiding spot found for them by a farmer named Jan Sadowski.

According to Yitzhak Lerner’s investigation in 1944, Sadowski, along with four other farmers, including Radczuk, carried out the killings. They had been asking the group for more money and when the money ran out they grew increasingly hostile. The testimony was housed in the Jewish Archives in Warsaw.

Lerner found the testimony when he went to Poland in 2003, accompanying his daughter on a school trip to the country. He also discovered that members of the group raped his aunts, Miriam, 22 and Hannah, 20 in front of their mother, hoping to terrorize Gitl Lerner into paying additional funds.

But she had no more money to give, Lerner said.

According to his father’s testimony, the murderers thought the group was hiding valuable possessions that could become theirs once they were killed.

Sadowski was later executed by the Soviet Union for the crime but the other suspects were never prosecuted.

Radczuk told Lerner’s father in 1944 that he had witnessed the murder and taken some of the family’s belongings. But he denied taking part in the killings themselves, a denial he repeated to Lerner and the film crew.

Lerner said his work is not yet done.

“I will only be content when I can bring the bodies back to Israel and the guilty are punished. That is when I will feel justice has been served,” he said.

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