June 17, 2024
Polish/Jewish Relations

Poles who rescued Jews from the Holocaust

Barbara Szymanska Makuch tells her story – interview
People are far stronger than one can ever imagine. Horses are weaker.”
Barbara Makuch

Barbara Szymanska first saw Poland when she was 8 months old. It was then that her parents, Janina and Franciszek, returned to their native land after several years in Russia, where they had gone to avoid Franciszek’s conscription into the German Army. It was 1918, and Poland was an independent state for the first time in nearly one hundred and fifty years; it seemed a propitious time to start a new life. Within a few years of their return Barbara, or Basha, as her family called her, had two new sisters, Halina and Hanka. But in post World War I Poland the young familiy’s prospects continued to be very poor, forcing the couple to send their three year-old middle daughter, Halina, to live with a childless uncle, with the hope that she might be raised in more comfortable circumstances.

Growing up in the north of Poland, Barbara briefly attended a well-known progressive school, but eventually graduated from an agricultural school in Wilno. Then early in September 1939, just as she was making her application to a Warsaw university, Hitler’s army invaded Poland, and all Polish education ceased. In the chaotic days that followed, her father was shot dead by a German soldier in broad daylight on a Warsaw street. Janina Szymanska gathered up her daughters Barbara and Hanka, and took them to live with her at her sister’s home in the small, historic town of Sandomierz, in the southeast of Poland, close to the Ukrainian border. Barbara soon found work teaching at an agricultural boarding school for boys in the nearby village of Tarnobrzeg. Her mother moved from Sandomierz to be with her.

photograph of Barbara Makuch 1987BARBARA MAKUCH: My mother was a special person. Not educated in a formal way, she was certainly intelligent; she had an open mind, and was always reading. She helped anybody who asked, not only Jews. Whenever my mother saw a real need she would just do it. I grew up in this kind of home, in this kind of atmosphere. Her attitude was, don’t say no, we can’t do it. We will try. If it’s really impossible, then we can say no.

When the Germans first occupied Warsaw, my father began working for the underground, helping to prepare hiding places. They shot him, leaving my mother a widow with three daughters. Even in this position, she accepted our underground work. Not every mother would do this.

Our apartment in Tarnobrzeg was very small–only one room and a kitchen. Since this was my first teaching job, the pay was quite low, and from that my mother and I had to squeeze the rent money. But we managed. It was enough.

MARYSIA: It was late in the afternoon, one day in 1942, when a woman named Rachel Litowicz and her child came to our door, saying she came because somebody had told her I was a good person. I had never seen her before. She had nowhere else to go–she was desperate. She wanted me to take her child. I knew that in Sandomierz that day the Germans were “cleaning” the town. A very bad raid had been going on all day. I had seen them shoot Jews right in the streets.

We all felt very scared. By law, the penalty was death if you offered so much as one glass of water to a Jewish person. The Germans killed us exactly the same as they killed the Jews. My mother and I knew that, but how could we refuse this woman’s plea? We didn’t even talk it over, we just invited her inside.

We talked with her for a few hours, and then she left the child with us and returned to her husband in Sandomierz, where he was working in a camp the Germans had set up for people who could still do useful work. I didn’t set eyes on Rachel again until after the war. I learned that she went to Auschwitz, but I knew she was very strong. Twice she escaped from the gas chambers.

So seven year-old Rebecca stayed with us: we called her Marysia. I slept in the kitchen, and my mother slept with her in the other room. In the beginning everything was okay because she was blond, with a pale complexion and freckles, and slightly curly hair, which I would straighten by making her little braids. We told people she was my niece. At home her family spoke Yiddish, although fortunately Marysia had linguistic talent and could speak Polish quite well. But like all children in this situation, she was shy and frightened. Her mother had said to her, “I’m leaving you now. After today, Basha will be your mother.” How can a little child understand this? She grew close to my mother because my mother was staying at home while I was away everyday at work. Right from the beginning my mother became her “aunt.”

Later on I discovered how Marysia came to us. Mrs. Litovicz ran a small clothing store in Sandomierz and my aunt was a customer. She asked my aunt to help her, but my aunt had two young daughters and was afraid. She told her to go instead to Tarnobrzeg where I lived with my mother, and that maybe we would help.

One evening after curfew, when my mother and I were visiting my aunt in Sandomierz, Marysia’s father showed up. He was standing by the fence, very frightened. When he saw me he threw over a hat saying, “This is what I have. Take it and the child, and go to Switzerland. I have a brother there who will help you.” But he had no address to give me.

“Everybody in Zurich can tell you who Litovicz is,” he said.

When we went back in the house I found sewn inside the hat five Russian rubles. I cried when I saw this, because I knew it was everything the poor man had.

STEPHEN: The news that we were helping a Jew traveled fast among the many people needing help. Soon after Marysia arrived a girl came to the house asking me to help her younger brother. But with Marysia already there, I couldn’t do it; there was absolutely no room for him. So I went to the director of my school and asked him if he could accept this boy, “Stephan” as a student. Dr. Polowicz took a look at Stephan and accepted him into the school without a single question. But, he knew.

From time to time a priest came to our school to give lessons in religion. Stephan paid close attention; he was a fine student. The priest would sometimes wonder why he knew so much about some things and next to nothing about others, occasionally just asking him outright whether he was really a Catholic or not. Stephan never gave a straight answer. He became adept at dodging the questions, so everything went all right for him. He finished school and later got a job. I never saw him or his sister again, but I know for sure that he survived.

Dr. PALOVICZ Our director, Dr. Polovicz, was a brilliant and special person, perceptive and willing to help however he could. He had come from western Poland, near the German border, and spoke perfect idiomatic German. In fact, many people thought he was Polish-Deutsch, a Polish person who sympathized with the Germans. He never objected to this idea because it was useful. When the Germans came to his office threatening, “We hear you are harboring Jews here!” he would yell right back at them, “What are you talking about?! You think I don’t know who the Jews are?! I have a lot of people here, but no Jews!” He was so strong.

DOCTOR OLGA: Then another person turned up on our doorstep, a woman of around forty. I didn’t know her personally, but she knew all my family, especially my sister Halina, who had even stayed in her home in Lvov. Olga looked very Jewish, like so many of the Jews who lived in Poland, with full, long hair and very big eyes. And she was afraid for her life. Again I went to my school director, Dr. Polowicz, and asked him if she could stay in the school kitchen and wash dishes. He agreed to it.

We knew from Halina that Olga Lilien was a pediatrician. She had been working at a girl’s school in Lvov, teaching hygiene and health. As luck would have it, not more than a month after she came to us, the Director’s fifteen year-old niece came for a visit from Lvov, where she was a student at the same girl’s school. One evening she happened to spot Dr. Olga in the kitchen, and immediately she headed indignantly straight off to her uncle.

“Do you know who this lady is?”

“She is a kitchen worker,” Dr. Polovicz replied.

“No, no. Do you know who she REALLY is?”


“She is a Jewish lady doctor!”

Dr. Polovicz became very angry with his niece and started to yell at her, “If I hear one more word about her being a Jew, you will leave this house!”

Photograph of Olga Lilien, Sandomierz, 1987Then he went to Olga and asked if there was any truth in what his niece had said. Dr. Olga answered, yes, and from that moment on she was appointed physician to the Director’s family of five children. The niece never told anyone, and Olga continued to work in the school kitchen until the end of the war, all the while becoming a close friend of the whole Polowicz family.

After the war, Dr. Olga had many opportunities to take positions in big hospitals but she rejected them all. She said she’d stay until the end of her life with the people who had dared to help her during that very dangerous time. Today she’s in her eighties, but she’s still there, living in a small one room apartment, taking care of the children all around. We write often, and my husband and I have visited her. I remember when my mother became very ill before her death. Dr. Olga was living in Tarnobrzeg, but she walked the fifteen or twenty kilometers to care for my mother in Sandomierz. She stayed with her until the very last moment. A very beautiful person, very beautiful.

SOPHIE The only drugstore in town was owned by a Jewish family. They had a daughter named Sophie, about my age.

There was no particular schedule for the German raids on the Jews. One day they started in again “cleaning” the Jews from Tarnobrzeg, coming to each house yelling, “Dirty Jew! Get out! Get out! Get out! We need you to help in another town!” Somebody reported that they had seen Sophie’s parents–old people–lined up in the street with the other Jews. One of the Germans started shooting and her father died right there in the street. In the next hour they killed her mother, too. People saw the bodies lying in the street. But when the raid began, Sophie had run out of her house by the back way and managed to escape. That evening she came to our door asking for help. What kind of help could we give her? Talking it over, we decided that she should leave immediately for the big city, Lvov. But she was well known in Tarnobrzeg, and it was too dangerous for her to buy a ticket.

We made a plan that my mother would buy the ticket–I couldn’t because I was working–and I would go to the station immediately after I finished school to be with her when the train left. The station was three kilometers by the road, but we usually took a short-cut through the fields. I was still at school when somebody ran in saying, “Did you hear? Sophie was killed in the field!” My heart leaped. I jumped up and ran to the station, very frightened. But when I got there, there they were, my mother and Sophie, safe, thank God. I was so relieved. Why someone started that false story I’ll never know. I boarded the train with her and stayed with Sophie until the last possible moment, because there was always a chance the Germans might still come looking.

Many years later, after I was established in Canada, my uncle wrote to tell me that he had heard Sophie was working in a library somewhere in eastern Ontario. My husband tracked down her address, and I wrote her a very nice, warm letter, telling her how pleased and happy I was to learn that she was alive and well, and that I would be so happy to see her again. She wrote back, “I don’t remember anything about that story. I don’t make any money in Canada, so don’t count on my giving you any.” Something like that.

Her words hit me like a thunderbolt; I felt deeply hurt. Never before, not when I sent the letter, and never since, have I ever once thought about asking for money. I didn’t write to her again. She is one of those people who have obliterated their past, and doesn’t want to know the truth…

Read the rest of the article here.

Other stories from this site can be seen here.

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