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They Were Just People

Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust

Bill Tammeus & Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn

Publication Year: 2009

Hitler’s attempt to murder all of Europe’s Jews almost succeeded. One reason it fell short of its nefarious goal was the work of brave non-Jews who sheltered their fellow citizens. In most countries under German control, those who rescued Jews risked imprisonment and death. In Poland, home to more Jews than any other country at the start of World War II and location of six German-built death camps, the punishment was immediate execution.
            This book tells the stories of Polish Holocaust survivors and their rescuers. The authors traveled extensively in the United States and Poland to interview some of the few remaining participants before their generation is gone. Tammeus and Cukierkorn unfold many stories that have never before been made public: gripping narratives of Jews who survived against all odds and courageous non-Jews who risked their own lives to provide shelter.
            These are harrowing accounts of survival and bravery. Maria Devinki lived for more than two years under the floors of barns. Felix Zandman sought refuge from Anna Puchalska for a night, but she pledged to hide him for the whole war if necessary—and eventually hid several Jews for seventeen months in a pit dug beneath her house. And when teenage brothers Zygie and Sol Allweiss hid behind hay bales in the Dudzik family’s barn one day when the Germans came, they were alarmed to learn the soldiers weren’t there searching for Jews, but to seize hay. But Zofia Dudzik successfully distracted them, and she and her husband insisted the boys stay despite the danger to their own family.
            Through some twenty stories like these, Tammeus and Cukierkorn show that even in an atmosphere of unimaginable malevolence, individuals can decide to act in civilized ways. Some rescuers had antisemitic feelings but acted because they knew and liked individual Jews. In many cases, the rescuers were simply helping friends or business associates. The accounts include the perspectives of men and women, city and rural residents, clergy and laypersons—even children who witnessed their parents’ efforts.
            These stories show that assistance from non-Jews was crucial, but also that Jews needed ingenuity, sometimes money, and most often what some survivors called simple good luck. Sixty years later, they invite each of us to ask what we might do today if we were at risk—or were asked to risk our lives to save others.

Published by: University of Missouri Press

Reviews, Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-9


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

No book of this sort can be the work of just its two authors. We had considerable help in many ways, but first we want to express our gratitude to the people who opened up their homes, gave us their time, and shared not only their personal stories but also their very hearts with us. Without their willingness to contribute to our effort to add additional details to the story of the Holocaust, there...


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pp. xiv-xviii

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pp. 1-6

When Felix Zandman knocked on Anna Puchalska’s door near Grodno in eastern Poland that cold afternoon in early 1943, he was looking for someone who would help to save a life—his. But Felix knew that the Germans would kill any non-Jew in Poland who helped Jews, so if Anna agreed to his request to hide him even for one night, she would be putting her entire family—her five...

The Stories

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Zygie Allweiss

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pp. 9-24

When the German soldiers came that day, the teenage brothers Zygie and Sol Allweiss were in their usual hiding place—in the Dudzik family barn behind bales of hay. But this time the Germans had come to find hay, not necessarily to search for hidden Jews. Hearing the demand for hay, Zygie and Sol steadied their racing hearts and felt for the triggers on the guns they...

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Irene Bau

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pp. 25-33

At night, hiding in a Polish woman’s barn, Irene Landesdorfer and her mother could hear the chilling screams and moans of Jews who were locked in collection points at nearby railroad tracks, waiting to be sent by train to death camps the next morning. But after Irene and her mother, Regina, had been in the barn just two or three days, the woman who owned it ordered them to...

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Sheila Bernard

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pp. 34-41

The man was dying of cancer, and he knew it. He also knew that as a Polish policeman he had done things that did not make him proud. So he decided he wanted to do something good and courageous for the world before he left it. Against his wife’s bitter protests this man did exactly that, and having accomplished it, he died two weeks after the war. He saved the life of Sala...

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Maria Devinki

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pp. 42-51

For more than two years—from September 28, 1942, to January 16, 1945—Maria Devinki lived under barns.
For more than a year and a half, it was in a hole dug in the soil under the wooden floor of a barn at the edge of the village of Droblin, outside Wodzisław, northeast of Kraków. Then fear of being discovered drove her and her family to...

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Aaron Elster and Irene Budkowski

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pp. 52-63

Aaron Elster knew it was almost certainly his only chance to survive. So this sick, frightened, malnourished, lice-ridden ten-year-old boy knocked anxiously on the door of Francesca and Hypolit Gorski’s home in his hometown of Sokołów Podlaski, where he believed his sister, Irene, was already in hiding. But when Mrs. Gorski opened the door and saw him, she was furious. “It is...

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Roman Frayman

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pp. 64-70

When German troops burst into Maria Balagowa’s home that day, little Romek Frajman (today Roman Frayman) was wearing only a nightshirt that came down to his ankles. The soldiers demanded to know who this child was. “This is my nephew, my sister’s boy, visiting from the countryside,” Maria told them. It was a lie. But somehow the Germans failed to do the one thing that...

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Rose Gelbart

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pp. 71-82

Sabina Grosman desperately wanted the job of housekeeper for a widower named Adam Zak. But Zak, a Warsaw banker with two children, left the choice up to his thirteen-year-old daughter, Hanna Barbara (called Hanka). Which of the two people sitting in Zak’s office, facing the Warsaw Ghetto, would it be—Sabina or another woman who also had applied and who wanted...

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Felicia Graber

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pp. 83-97

Felicia Graber is quick to acknowledge that she may be among the most fortunate of Holocaust survivors. Hers, after all, is a story of a child who was with her mother (and often her father, though she thought he was someone else) throughout the ordeal.
And yet it is also true that she did not know who her real father was until well after World War II, even though he lived with—and hid...

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Feliks Karpman

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pp. 98-104

When Marianna Konarzewska’s family hid Wolf [now Feliks] Karpman from the Germans, the two teenagers fell in love. They married on January 6, 1946, less than a year after the war ended, and were in their sixty-second year of marriage when we interviewed them in their home in Góra Kalwaria, southeast of Warsaw.42 “We were two stupid kids,” Feliks said, laughing as we sat at the...

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Jerry Koenig

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pp. 105-115

There would have been room for this newborn girl with the eleven other Jews hiding in a bunker under a barn floor in northeastern Poland—except for one thing. She did what all babies do. “She was crying,” Jerry Koenig, one of those eleven, told us. “And, really, she had a very good reason to cry because she was being eaten alive by the pests—the lice and bedbugs—that we had in the...

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Andre Nowacki

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pp. 116-124

When Andre Nowacki thought back to the two years he hid in the Warsaw apartment of the Kwiecinski family, these were the painful words he spoke: “I did not exist. I did not exist. Officially I did not exist.”
Making the outside world believe that Andre did not exist was, in fact, his mother’s goal. It was her way of making sure the Germans never discovered he...

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Anna Schiff

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pp. 125-139

One bitterly cold night Anna Lubich left the hiding place that a non-Jewish woman had provided for her and slipped back to the Grodno Ghetto. She went to find her husband, Ephraim Lubich, and their one-year-old son, Izydor, so they could join her.
Anna moved quietly and quickly through the frosty deserted streets toward...

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Barbara Turkeltaub

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pp. 140-149

It was still dark when the clip-clop clip-clop of horse hooves awakened Barbara Gurwicz and her little sister, Leah, near the brick kiln where they had found rest and warmth. Barbara looked up and saw a priest driving a buggy. He slowed and gazed at the girls, and they at him, but then he drove on. So not knowing what else to do, Barbara (called Basha) and Leah went back to sleep....

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Father Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel

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pp. 150-157

Batia Weksler and her husband, Jakub, were frantic. Already they had given away one son, Samuel, to save him from the Germans. They had sent Samuel to live with a Lithuanian family in their town of Stare Swieciany, just northeast of Vilna.63 And now she was ready to deliver another Jewish child who would need to be hidden, too.
But just before the second son’s birth, the...

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Felix Zandman

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pp. 158-174

Felix Zandman’s Grandma Tema once did Anna Puchalska a big favor that Anna never forgot. Tema Frejdowicz helped Anna through a childbirth at a difficult time in her life. So years later, when Felix knocked on Anna’s door and asked for a single night’s shelter to hide from the Germans, Anna took him in, glad for a chance to do something for a member of his Grandma...

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Four Rescuers

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pp. 175-192

When we were in Poland conducting interviews for this book, we met several of the rescuers who helped to save people we previously had interviewed in the United States. But in four instances, we interviewed individuals who either had outlived the Jews they helped or no longer were in touch with family members of those survivors. We spoke with Maria Nowak, Jozef Biesaga, Jozef...

After the War

A Brief Chronology of Events Related to Rescuing Jews in Poland

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pp. 195-197

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Yad Vashem

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pp. 198-202

Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority) in Jerusalem bestows the title “Righteous Among the Nations” on non-Jews who helped Jews survive the Holocaust. But not on all such non-Jews. Why not?
There are many reasons that people considered for the title do not meet the criteria, even though their actions may be quite laudable and even heroic....

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The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous

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pp. 203-204

“Righteous Among the Nations,” that is, non-Jews who helped Jews survive the Holocaust, if they face financial hardship, can receive regular payments from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR). The foundation was created in 1986 by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis and Dr. Eva Fogelman and seeks to fulfill the Jewish commitment to hakarat hatov, or searching out and...


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pp. 205-212


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pp. 213-216

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Readers’ Guide

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pp. 217-228

This book raises profound questions about how people make excruciatingly difficult decisions, choices that can result in life or death. We think that the stories we tell in this book can be useful tools for asking such questions of ourselves, our families, our students, our congregants, and our friends. There is no way to know specifically how we might act in traumatic times, of course, but...


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pp. 229-236

About the Authors, Back Cover

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pp. 256-257

E-ISBN-13: 9780826271976
E-ISBN-10: 0826271979
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826218605
Print-ISBN-10: 0826218768

Page Count: 255
Illustrations: 32 illus, 21 maps
Publication Year: 2009

Edition: 1