It seems cliché to meet an average Pole and have him tell me a story of heroism at the time of the Holocaust, yet that is what happened to me the other day. It wasn’t a random occurrence though; it took place at an event that is unique to Krakow in this modern era. In this lost but re-emerging Jewish community there are many people who gravitate to the JCC here. Some are Jewish having survived the war and maintained a Jewish life despite forty years of communism. Some have Jewish roots and are searching for their identity, coming to classes, and connecting with Jewish life they uncovered only recently.
Others however, are of a different breed—they are avowedly not Jewish, yet love Judaism, dedicate their time to the JCC Krakow, and volunteer to help enhance the center of Jewish activity in Krakow. These 35-40 volunteers are all in their teens and early twenties and for many different reasons they find themselves at the steps of the JCC with one mantra—I want to help!
Last week, a group of volunteers from the JCC as well as volunteers from the ‘Jewish Culture Festival’ and Jewish Studies Department of Jagiellonian University got together to clean up the New Jewish cemetery in Krakow. Founded in 1800, the cemetery is prominent in size (11 acres) and its home to many rabbis, mystics and community leaders in Krakow over the past 200 years. Unfortunately the cemetery is in disrepair –paths blocked off, no map, graves broken and shrubs taking over the stones.
I joined them and found a group of twenty or so youngsters (myself included!) and one elder gentleman, and here is where the story begins. Curious, I went over and introduced myself. “Hi my name is Andrzej Wsołek” he told me in a proper English. “What brings you to this cemetery today?” I asked him. His response intrigued me: “I am ashamed for the Polish citizens of Krakow that this cemetery is in such disarray”. At that point I was ready to listen to a story of a Polish citizen who was embarrassed by the actions of his parents or relatives and has been quietly attempting to assuage his guilt through acts of kindness towards the Jewish community.
Just the opposite.
Andrzej told me that his father saved a Jew over the course of two years during the Nazi occupation. The Jew, A judge named Leon Kurtzer, was friends and colleagues with his father, Tadeusz. When the Nazis invaded they first dismissed all Jews from working in the courts and later planned to send him to the ghetto, eventually to be liquidated. Tadeusz Wsołek and some other lawyers and judges hatched a plan to hide and save Leon for the remainder of the war. For two years they clandestinely hid him in an apartment they rented and brought him food every day– two years! They also brought him work from the office and he continued to work from his hiding place!
The punishment for harboring a Jew was set out clearly by Hans Frank, Hitler’s General Governor in Poland and known to all Poles: death! The Schindler History museum which focuses less on Schindler and more on Krakow during the war, documents the German warnings for protecting a Jew and shows pictures of hanged Poles who dared violate their regulations. Andrzej’s family and friends truly were heroes.
Leon Kurtzer remained friends with Tadeusz after the war, returning to his position of Judge even assuming a role of president of the court for several years. He died in 1968 without a family but with Jewish friends and non-Jewish friends, remaining forever grateful to those brave Poles who saved his life. How many more stories of heroism will I uncover walking the streets of Krakow?
The last exhibition of the Schindler Factory Museum is a room with two books side by side, each one with a list. On the left is the book of love, in which a list of several thousand names of Poles who selflessly saved Jews during the Nazi occupation. To the right is the book of hate which speaks of another list, of several thousand names of Polish collaborators with the Nazis. Side by side these two books present the polarity of expression in wartime; however, seeing them and then realizing that hundreds of thousands of other names do not appear in either book represents a glimpse of the complex polish condition under Nazi rule and the complicated Polish reaction to the singling out of Jews to be ghettoized and liquidated.
It also highlights the gallantry of spirit and heroic composure of those involved in saving someone’s life at the risk of losing their own. I asked him why he had not pursued the mark of ‘righteous gentile’ for his father who died years ago, he replied that his parents are dead, the Jew had no relatives and died in 1968 and no one has a trace of this story other than Andrzej, his family, and now me.
Yad Vashem may not consider his father to be a righteous gentile, but I do. I have a feeling that Andrzej will continue to clean the Jewish cemetery and maintain a positive attitude on the world and on how each individual has the capacity to influence that world in small or large measure. Tadeusz Wsołek and his friends were heroes for saving lives; that spirit was inherited by his son who acts justly, does acts of kindness and offers a smile to whomever he encounters.