It was chilling to see the suave Prime Minister of Poland unabashedly tell a room full of European leaders at the Munich Security Conference that there were also Jewish perpetrators of the Holocaust.
And yet I think it is important now, more than ever, in the increasingly polarized Israeli discourse about the Polish people and the Holocaust to shed light on a reality that is much too often obscured: that I, and many others like me, would not be alive today were it not for the courage and kindness of non-Jewish Polish people during the Holocaust.
This imperative was underscored for me this past week, with a most welcome and surprising email. In the midst of the heated discourse generated by the recently passed Polish law that outlaws blaming Poland as a nation for Holocaust crimes committed by Nazi Germany, I was contacted, with the help of The Times of Israel, by the young great-granddaughter of the courageous Polish couple who hid my parents in Warsaw during the Holocaust.
Karolina Krzyanowska, a highly educated, University of Warsaw graduate, wrote me with an urgent message: was I the Andrew Griffel who had made a visit to Poland many years ago, and if so, in light of all that has been happening, she has a clarification that she must make.
My parents along with the other Jews of Radom, Poland were imprisoned in the ghetto in March of 1941. My grandfather’s huge leather factory, located a mile or so outside the ghetto, was seized by the Nazis and the Polish workers who had been employed by my grandfather were forced to work in the factory under harsh Nazi supervision. The leather they were producing was being turned into combat boots for German soldiers fighting on the Eastern front.
As the Radom ghetto was being ‘liquidated’ by the Nazis in October 1942, my mother was nine-months pregnant with me. A few of the factory’s Polish workers came into the ghetto and smuggled my mother to the factory. There, in the factory’s attic, with Gestapo officers one floor below closely supervising the Polish workers preparing the leather used to make the boots for Nazi soldiers, my mother gave birth to me with the help of a Polish midwife, and was guarded by a cluster of Polish workers. During all this time, not one of the hundred workers in the factory or the hundreds of Poles living in the village nearby, betrayed my mother to the Nazis. These brave Poles risked their own lives to save the life of my mother and me, her newborn child. My mother was then smuggled back to the ghetto and one of the Polish workers immediately took me to his home; there he and his wife raised me as their own child for three years, risking their own lives and that of their 19- month-old daughter since the Nazi were killing Poles on sight who were harboring Jews.
Then, back in the Radom ghetto, as my parents, together with other Jews, were being marched to the cattle train, Polish partisans – probably employees of my grandfather’s factory – pulled my parents out of the line and, hiding them in a horse and carriage, smuggled them up to Warsaw where another Polish family hid them in their basement for three years.
My mother would tell me that she and the Polish woman – Hela Spus – became very close, were like sisters, and she would often recount the amazing things Hela would do for her and my father. Hela would also travel back and forth between Warsaw and Radom to check up on how I was doing with my Polish ‘foster parents.’ Once she brought back a picture of me at three-months old.
When I visited Poland in the 1990s and met with my milk-sister, daughter of my foster Polish parents, and afterwards with the then 90-year-old Hela who hid my parents and who is the great grandmother of Karolina Krzyanowska, the woman who contacted me last week, I learned in greater detail the extraordinary things that these Poles did, at grave risk to their own lives, to save ours.
It had became very important for Hela’s great-granddaughter, who contacted me last week, to clarify a matter that has been haunting her for years. During my visit with Hela I had asked her if the family that hid my parents had been paid for hiding my parents and two of my mother’s sisters. The translator, after relaying the question, translated simply that they had. This young woman had heard the story and wanted to set the record straight in light of what was happening in Poland: they had been paid, she said, but only to procure food. The life-threatening decision had been taken, she said, because it was “the right thing to do.”
Coincidentally, just a few weeks before I was contacted, I had again watched the interview of Hela videotaped in person by the Shoah Foundation back in 1998 and indeed saw and heard Hela say that they did receive a small sum of money to help them buy food for four additional mouths to feed.
I told Karolina what I have repeated many times to others: that when I met Hela, at age 90, I could see in her still sparkling eyes and beautiful face, that she was a deeply spiritual good and kind person. And I also told Karolina that she herself seems to have inherited many of her great-grandmother’s wonderful, humane traits. We vowed to stay in touch.
Stories like this have given me some hope that, in the midst of the increasingly acrimonious exchanges with the Polish government resulting from their new law, some balanced harmonious relationship will be maintained between the Jewish and Polish people.