By Eliza Segiet
ELIZA SEGIET graduated with a Master’s Degree in Philosophy, completed postgraduate studies in Cultural Knowledge, Philosophy at Jagiellonian University. Received Global Literature Guardian Award – from Motivational Strips, World Nations Writers Union and Union Hispanomundial De Escritores (UHE) 2018. Nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019 and 2021. Laureate Naji Naaman Literary Prize 2020. Laureate International Award Paragon of Hope (2020). Laureate World Award 2020 Cesar Vallejo for Literary Excellence. Laureate of the Special Jury Sahitto International Award 2021 Laureate World Award Premiul Fănuș Neagu 2021. Finalist Golden Aster Book World Literary Prize 2020. It is in the last stage of an international competition Mili Dueli 2020
There was no such meeting with Pawel Roszkowski that did not make one want to return to that time, the time of drama of a man involved in war. Our conversations always referred to the history that I know from stories, and he was its witness. This was also the case in a post-Jewish tenement house in Cracow, which always (I do not know why) gave birth to memories in Pawel.
His story began with tears in his eyes.
It was a normal day of May 2001 when I received a parcel from the postman. Almost sixty years have passed since the war when I opened a letter in which information was awaited. I have long sought for those whom my mother and I hid in this cruel time. I could still hear one thing: we cannot find a trace. I wrote to Professor Strzembosz, to the Embassy of Israel, to the Committee Commemorating Poles Who Saved Jews. I wrote everywhere where it seemed to me that any trace could be found.
I was not sure that they survived, but I did not lose hope. I promised my mother—even before her death that before I die, I would find them. The most important thing for me is that I kept my word. I found them. I knew that I had to contact them as soon as possible. When I got through, it was very difficult for me to talk. I asked if I had the right phone number to people who spent part of the war in Jedlnia-Letnisko? Then the phone went silent. Frighteningly silent. I was even afraid that I got bad information. I asked again: can you hear me? The silence continued, it seemed to me that for too long. I thought that maybe I do have the right contact details, but it’s that they want to wipe out that time from their memory? Suddenly, I heard in the handset:
Yes, I spent part of the war in Jedlnia, why does it matter to you?
I already knew that I called the right number.
I am calling—it was not easy for me, I cried—because I would like to meet with you.
– I have no intention of meeting anyone – I heard in the receiver.
– Marysia, is that you? – I asked.
– Yes, will you tell me what’s going on?
– Marysia, my name is Pawel. During the war, you took refuge with your family in our home.
– Pawel? That Pawel?
I went to Marysia by train. She came to pick me up at the station with her husband. A terrible cry began. After all these years, we were not able to recognize each other. During the war, Marysia was 4-5 years old. She was very smart, she coped with everything. She could lie. I remember her saying: my father is dead, my father is dead. She was taught this way, just in case. And the situation was unimaginable, because in the house where we lived, Germans were stationed, and her father was walled up… a floor above. All one had to do was to press one of the boards, and a cubby-hole was unveiled. A small, narrow… burrow!
– It was a burrow of life and death at the same time.
– You are right—he replied, crying—one wrong move, one mistake and we would all die. I was surprised at my mother that she wanted, that she was not afraid to hide the whole family. And my mother would reply to me that she was only hiding the father of the children of two little girls who would like to have a normal home after the war. Nobody knew when this nightmare would end, but if you have to help, you have to.
– And by what means, or perhaps by what miracle did they manage to reach Jedlnia?
That’s a good question. He, Jozef, had very Semitic features, and if it were not for the fact that he spoke perfect German, we probably would not have been able to get through. He could not expose the family. They did not go together, it was 1941. He came first, and only after a few days my mother brought his wife and daughters from the ghetto. Jozef traveled by train in the uniform of a gendarme. That garment saved his life, he would never be able to get through in his normal (civilian) clothes. The owner of the house brought him (dressed in a German uniform!) to my mother, who almost fainted in fear, because in order to survive, she traded meat. Back then everything was forbidden, and punishable by death. She was convinced that she got caught! Then Blasiak (the owner of the house), who was related to Jozef’s wife, calmed her down and said:
– Do not worry, this is a Jew. A Jew from Tomaszow Mazowiecki. Could you hide him?
For my mother, there was no distinction between faith and descent, for her only the human counted and always will. Of course, she agreed, and when she said yes, she heard that in a few days another Jewish family would arrive (because for the Germans, a Jew’s wife was always a Jewess). The girls had features clearly indicating their origin, but somehow that was hidden. Jozef, on the other hand, was a model Jew! It does not mean that he had side-locks and wore a kippah. That was not the case, but nevertheless he had to be concealed, stay hidden, or if someone prefers: to disappear for some time. People hated Jews and I think that’s how it is today. And I love them, my dream is to have Israeli citizenship, and my funeral must be two-stage, or whatever you call it. A priest must bury and asperse me, and then a rabbi must say goodbye.
– The dreams you have! Are you not thinking about this too early?
– It is not too early, someone needs to know my dreams.
– I don’t know what to say.
– Don’t say anything, just listen.
Once the gendarmes left on their horses, everyone thought they would come back as usual: in two or three hours. It was the only time when Jozef could leave his hiding place. Then you could wash something for him, vent his burrow and empty the bucket. Germans—I do not know why—sometimes did not leave anyone on the watch—when Jozef entered our apartment it turned out that they were galloping back. There was no chance of escaping – Jozef had a choice: save his life or die now with everyone else! He tried to save us and himself! I do not know how, but he pulled the door out of the oven, covered his face with soot—he recognized it was the only way.
– Camouflage? He was smart!
– Have you seen a Jew who was not smart?
– I don’t know if I did. People do not say if they are Jewish. And besides, what do I care where one originates from?
– I told you to listen…
Suddenly a gendarme entered the apartment. Everyone was horror-stricken, but did not appear this way. He asks:
– Who is that?
– A potter.
– Gut, gut, he’s doing well, it will be warm.
Then the gendarmes went to their own quarters for a moment, and left. And we were all left with a problem… it was necessary to look for a potter that could repair the oven broken by Jozef. Such is the fate of those who are hidden and those who hide. Such is the fate, when a man is a wolf to a man. This is one of the stories, but there are even worse, ones that are hard to believe…
On one hot day Jozef could not do anything with his full bucket. He saw through the peephole of his hideout that the gendarmes were leaving. He thought that it was the only time to empty the bucket. One had to press onto something so the quasi-window would open at all. After all, it could not be seen from the outside. Without thinking for a long time, he opened his quasi-window, which was one of the elements of the hiding place, and poured the whole contents of the bucket directly onto the head of the gendarme. He did not know that there was one keeping guard. Then it started! The German went crazy, running around the house. He was looking for the place from which this—let’s face it—reeky rain poured down onto him. When the gendarmes returned, they immediately began to check the whole house. Janka, wife of Jozef, was a very religious and practicing Catholic – she lay cross and prayed for a miracle. The whole house was very loud, everyone was shouting, slamming the walls, and on top of this the abysmal knocking of the jackboots. When they came down from the attic, the screaming was even more earthshaking. Five big gendarmes bothered the one and were shouting: you’re an idiot, you’re a fool! They put him behind bars for seven long days and nights. None of us could understand how, when they searched the house, they did not press that one, single board that secured the safe world of the Jew.
– I know what happened next. One German turned out to be a Human. And human is something to be proud of.
Exactly so. When the Germans were escaping from Jedlnia, one of them came to Janka and said:
– You don’t even know how happy I am that I managed to save a human in front of me. I am glad that your husband survived.
– Hans, what are you saying? My husband has been dead for a long time.
– Janka, I also have two daughters. When I get to Berlin, I will tell my wife and children about everything. They will be proud of me.
He never gave a sign of life again. Maybe he did not come across… a Human.
Pawel, these stories are amazing. As if from another world! Let’s go back to how you met with Marysia? What happened later?
Exactly what I told you—we sat for hours and recalled these cruel times. She probably remembered more from the stories, after all, she was little at the time, and in addition the mother protected them both the best she could. Everyone survived. I mean, survived those who we were hiding, because Jozef’s whole family died in some concentration camp. And I love Marysia like my own child. I was 14 when they came to us. I had to play with her to distract her from the reality. She was with me, or maybe I with her… today, 3 July 2005, in the Tempel Synagogue in Cracow. One of the most beautiful days in my life: I received the Righteous Among the Nations medal, my mother also, but posthumously. I am glad that I managed to keep the promise to my mother. I kept my word!
Do you remember that at my funeral I want there to be a rabbi?
Pawel Roszkowski died in the hospital on 24 May 2009.
In the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, he participated in the project The Polish Righteous – Recalling Forgotten History. He was supposed to receive the honorary citizenship of the State of Israel on 28 June 2009, but due to very poor condition of His health, it was handed over (by an employee of the Israeli Embassy) in a hospital in Nowa Huta, just before Pawel Roszkowski died, and at his funeral were a priest, a rabbi and Marysia.
Translated By Artur Komoter
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