Andrzej Sitkowski was 15 years old when his mother told him that a neighbor had asked him to hide a Jewish girl from the Nazis in his house.
“It was a short conversation and then, yes, we decided to take Hadassah in and they brought it into our home in 1943.”says Sitkowski, recalling those difficult years during World War II when he lived with his widowed mother. Helena and her younger sister Magda outside the Polish capital of Warsaw under German occupation.
“Of course we were afraid, but fear was our daily dish during those years anyway”Sitkowski told The Associated Press at his home in the Bavarian town of Durach, where he settled 10 years ago with his German wife.
Nearly eight decades after Hadassah Kosak’s rescue, the 93-year-old Pole is still in regular contact with Kosak, now 84, who after the war emigrated through Israel to the United States, where she became a history teacher. In New York.
For their efforts to help save the lives of Kosak, his sister Marion, and their mother Bronislawa, who later also came to stay with the Sitkowskis, Andrzej and his mother received Israel’s highest honor in 1995. They were named “Righteous Among the Nations”, a title given to non-Jews who took great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust by Yad Vashem, the country’s official Holocaust remembrance organization.
This year, as the world marks the 77th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi German Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp on January 27, 1945, Yad Vashem and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany have come together to highlight the stories of “Fair rescuers” like the Sitkowskis who risked everything, including their own lives, to save Jews from being murdered by the Nazis and their minions.
As part of a social media campaign called #Don’tBeABystander, Claims Conference and Yad Vashem are posting several videos and throwing a website about people who saved Jews during the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews were murdered across Europe.
“One of the amazing things about the rescuers is that they not only rescued the specific person who was in hiding, but all of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — an entire family tree,” said Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference.
“In the Jewish tradition it says that if you save one person it’s like saving the whole world,” Schneider told the AP.
Over the past 60 years, Yad Vashem has recognized some 28,000 people from some 50 countries as “Just Rescuers.” The organization still receives hundreds of requests each year to honor others, mostly posthumously. Of all the rescuers still alive today, most helped their parents when they were children or teenagers.
“We believe that about 200 of them are still alive and most live in Europe”said Dani Dayan, president of Yad Vashem. “As anti-Semitism is growing again on five continents, we must once again emphasize the moral stature of these people and their actions.”
In Poland, home to the largest Jewish community in Europe before the Holocaust, the Nazi occupiers punished those who helped Jews by executing not only those who helped, but their entire families.
Still, when you ask Sitkowski why he and his mother decided to help the Jews despite enormous personal risks, he shrugs it off and says it was simply their duty as human beings.
“When my mother told me about the neighbor’s request there were no long deliberations. The approval was kind of obvious,” recalls Sitkowski, tucking in his red scarf.
“It was just an impulsive decision by a Mensch,” he adds, using the German word for human, which in Yiddish also refers to a particularly good person.
Sitting in his living room overlooking the snowy slopes of the Alps, he smiles when he thinks of Hadassah.
“She was a beautiful girl, very intelligent, with slightly dark hair and black eyes. I became very fond of her.”
Even today, there is still a strong bond between them. In the past, they visited each other and today they talk on the phone and exchange letters.
In their conversations, their memories often go back to those months in hiding when the Sitkowskis shared their meager food rations with Hadassah, when Andrzej taught five-year-old Hadassah to read and write, and when they led their neighbors and well-known fabricated story in which Hadassah was not a Jew, but a Polish-Christian girl whose mother had been taken to Germany for forced labor.
In reality, Hadassah’s mother was hiding as a servant with another family and her sister Marion was hiding in a Catholic convent. But when those hiding places were no longer safe, the two joined Hadassah in the Sitkowskis.
However, in September 1944, the Nazis first burned Sitkowski’s house and many other houses on his street and then expelled all the people who had lived there. So they needed to escape again and eventually the Sitkowskis and the Kosaks had to split up and survive the last months of the war in different parts of Poland until the Soviet Army liberated Poland in January 1945.
While Hadassah Kosak moved first to Israel and then to the United States, her mother and sister ended up in Britain, where Marion married Ralph Miliband and where their two sons, Ed and David, two well-known Labor Party politicians, were born. British. .
Andrzej and his mother’s decision to offer shelter “was a true act of humanity,” Hadassah Kosak told the AP. “Thanks to their bravery, and at great risk to themselves, we survived the Nazi horrors.”
(with information from AP)
The unusual escape of an old woman hours before being tried for having worked in a Nazi concentration camp
The trial of the 96-year-old woman who had fled after being accused of being an accomplice for working in a Nazi camp was restarted
A US court ordered the deportation to Germany of a former Nazi concentration camp guard