Story of rescue

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“She took my hand tightly in her's and thus we went on”. The story of sister Wanda Garczyńska

Seven girls were wearing communion dresses. Amongst them stood a priest. Behind them was the altar. It was 3rd June 1943 and they were in the building belonging to the Congregation of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary at 59 Kazimierzowska Street in Warsaw. The children were smiling, five of them were Jewish. If they had known about each other, about their origins and about the fact that they were living in hiding, it would only have been because they had guessed. Two weeks earlier, on 16th May, Jurgen Stroop blew up the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie – the final act of the Warsaw ghetto liquidation. Twenty eight thousand Jews remained in hiding in Warsaw [see G.S. Paulsson, The Secret City. Jews on the Arryan Side in Warsaw (1940-1945), Wydawnictwo ZNAK, Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów IFIS PAN, Kraków 2007, p.327], of whom a handful were hiding in the ghettto ruins. The girls were pleased with the Communion and the spring day. One of them, Joasia Olczak, does a handstand of happiness when leaving the church.

The Congregation had purchased the land and building on ulica Kazimierzowska at the beginning of the 1930's. In the spring of 1933, following modification works, a chapel, a kindergarten, a primary school with boarding house and a boarding school for girls were opened. In 1936, Wanda Garczyńska became the Mother Superior.

Wanda

Wanda Garczyńska was born on 19th August 1891 in Lwów, the daughter of Franciszek, a banker, and Helena (née Syroczyńska). Her parents placed their eight-year-old daughter into a boarding school in Niżniów near Stanisławów, run by the Congregation of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The girl spent eleven years there – until she graduated. During World War I, she worked as a nurse in Kiev. After the War, she trained to be a teacher. In Lwów, she taught in public schools. In 1926, she joined the Immaculate Sister and then worked in the Congregation's private schools in Jazłowiec, Jarosław and Warsaw.

Because there is a chapel

The school campus, at number 60, was opposite the Congregation's building. During the occupation, an SS battalion was stationed there. The sisters recalled: “The SS men's binoculars were constantly trained on the pathway in our garden. They kept watching, looking, inspecting. Once, a guard asked, 'Why do so many people come here?' He received the reply, 'Because there is a chapel'.

Officially, the sisters were conducting permissable activities. Sister Wanda ran the house on Kazimierzowska. In 1941, she opened a dormitory at 6 Chocimska Street. In 1942, she became the Mother Superior of the house in Wrzosów. In 1943, she returned to Warsaw as the Mother Superior. There, she opened the kitchen of the Central Welfare Council (RGO). A year later, she established a branch of Warsaw in Skolimów.

Unofficially, the Immaculate Sisters continued to educate young people. They became involved in providing help and in underground activities. Kazimierzowska became “the centre of everything that was forbidden”. Sister Wanda maintained contact with the Związek Walki Zbrojnej (Armed Struggle Union) and then with the Armia Krajowa (Home Army). Wanda Fijałkowska, who at the time was connected with the Congregation, recalled: “One time, she told me to be vigilant and cautious and to take a parcel to a certain address. I don't remember the address. I also don't know what was in that valuable parcel. When I think about it now, it was probably the underground press, the so-called 'bibuła'”.

Sister Wanda, herself, taught, in the secret branch of the Szymanowski high school in Warsaw. She organised help for prisoners and, in time, also for Jews. Years later, Dr Zofia Rozenblum-Szymańska, in her book “I Was Only a Doctor”: “This educational institution […] was the centre where tireless people deliberated on how to bring help to those in hiding, in danger and in poverty. They found hiding-places for them, obtained identity cards. […] In the evenings, many young women and girls would cross the city as the Sisters' messengers. The strictest secrecy was observed. It was only after the War that I found out about the Sisters' activities”. 

It wasn't a planned operation

Even before the War, in 1938-1939, Sister Wanda kept in touch with Jewish families. In her book entitled Where Love Grew into Heroism, Sister Maria Ena wrote: “Jewish children also went to our school. Very few people knew about that. Adult Jews came to Catechism classes, among them being Hania Scherman and Dolores, whose surname I don't know. Both were baptised. […] During the occupation […] Sister included our home into the network which gave refuge to and saved Jews, especially the children”. 

In explaining her decisions to her superiors after the War, Sister Garczyńska, herself, reported: “[…] beginning in August 1942, Jews were increasingly escaping from the ghetto. They hid wherever they could. They pleaded for help. […] I hesitated. I made excuses, but I gave in. […] If I didn't respond in the cases of Jewish women, it was because (1) it was not a planned operation and there was no time to refer the matter to Szymanowska. Because the danger was direct, a decision had to be taken immediately. And it never crossed my mind that the Mother would have acted differently […] (2) I was scared to commit the matter to paper, so I did many things just via the spoken word”.

More and more came

In 1943, the sisters opened a kitchen on Kazimierzowska, just one of thousands of venues run by the charitable organisation. Sister Maria Ena described the conditions: “[…] under cover of this RGO kitchen, throughout the entire day, children moved to the 'overt' kindergarten, then to the 'secret' primary school, the 'secret' junior and senior high schools, even to 'overt' university lectures, through the whole occupation.

Lessons took place in  the sisters' cells and bedrooms. From the attics to the basements, the stairwells were full. All that wre missing were school bells. And mongst them all, there were also Jews red, curly-haired and freckled: racial – no one could be mistaken. […] There are thirteen of them, tomorrow maybe even more. Not only could or were those living with us under the same roof be the cause of justifiable fear and anxiety, they were wandering spectres”.

Children from the ghetto and those hiding outside its walls found their way to the Mokotów convent. Sister Aneilla recalled: “[…] it was difficult to determine their age, because they were so dehydrated, starved, poor and unhappy. It was hard to know if the child was four or six-years-old […]. We assumed that they must have somehow crawled out of the ghetto or out of some hiding-place, but no one asked and the children remained silent, as though under some spell. […] When we tried putting something different into their bowl, they threw it away. [...] When we gave them soup with bread, they very quickly ate it, put the bowl on the ground and disappeared. More and more came – some shy and delicate, others aggresively pushing into the queue for soup. They endangered not only themselves”.

We feed and save as many as we can

Sister Wanda knew that, in deciding to help Jews, she was endangering the entire Congregation, as well as all those connected with it. She also gave the other sisters an opportunity to make the decision. The terror was increasing and the consequences had to be taken into account. One day, she gathered the sisters and asked if they wanted to continue providing the help. Sister Aneilla recalled: “[…] each sister responded in turn. Like it was today, I remember the voice of Sister Flawia who, wearing the sleeves, said, 'But, of course, we must!' With that, she turned and left hurriedly back to her work. And then, each sister, all of them, each and every one, a dozen or so, answered 'naturally' or 'of course' or 'yes' or 'how can we do otherwise?' and so on. In each case, they gave their absolute consent. I saw a certain joy in Sister Wanda's face, but there was also fear. She said, 'We, that's good! So, by a decision of all the sisters we continue doing what we are doing. We feed and save as many as we can, of course”.

I had to remain silent

In part, the sister provided help subconsciously. After the War, Sister wrote: “We weren't completely sure that many of the children were actually Jewish, because they didn't have that appearance. I also saved as many adult Jews as I could – mainly women, but also men. I didn't succeed in all cases, but I did with the majority. I kept repeating to myself that it was my Christian duty and I relied upon God and said nothing to anyone. Instinctively, I knew that I had to remain silent”.

Often, those who received the help did not realise just how many people were hiding in the Congragation's houses. Zofia Rozenblum-Szymańska wrote: “After the War, when, with Hanna Mortkowicz-Olczakowa, we looked at the Holy Communion photographs of our children, I noticed that other girls also did not have a completely Slavic appearance. She burst out laughing, 'Of course, as well as Jasia, the sisters were hiding another dozen or so Jews, only those had a slightly better appearance'”.

A decade later, the issue of rescue was still not out in the open. In a letter to Sister Krystyna Szembek, dated 19th May 1954, Sister Wanda wrote: “[…] these are not things that should be talked about or described. I write here in confidence. For certain, we rescued around thirty Jews, but I don't remember exactly how many!”.

Among the Jews hidden in the Congregation's houses, the Immcaute Sisters chronicle mentions: “There were several Jewish children in the boarding-house: Hania Dymecka, Maryla Solecka, Józia and Tosia Jabłońska, Oleńka Olejniczak, Maryla Gajewska, Teresa Kurek”.

Szymanów, Wrzosów

When the situation in Warsaw became too dangerous, Sister Wanda sent those under her care to Congregation houses in Szymanów and Wrzosów.

Zofia Rozenblum-Szymańska noted that all the sisters, the lay staff, all the parents and, actually, the entire village, knew about the Jewish girls staying in Szymanów: “Despite the constant danger hanging over the convent, none of the parents removed their child. Some of them even paid for two children, in order to cover the cost of maintaining those in hiding”.

From March to June 1943,  Henryk Mioduszewski and engineer Emil Kaliski (under the pseudonym of “Józef Domagalski”) hid in Wrzosów, posing as lay staff. Emil Kaliski was vacuated together with his sister. The other woman was called Jasia. She had come there from Kazimierzowska where, in the summer of 1944, she helped Sister Falawia in the kitchen. According to the-then Mother Superior in Wrzosów, Sister Antonina, she was a Jew who was hiding under an assumed name, a fact which, initially, the sister did not know. In the chronicle, it states: “She had not been baptised, but went to Holy Communion every day, not understanding the procedures. During the evacuation, the sister remained in Wrzosów and nothing further was ever heard about her”.

Jewish girls from photographs also stayed in Congregation homes outside of Warsaw. They spent vacations and holidays there, having been brought in times of danger.

Joasia Olczak

Years later, Sister Aneilla recalled: “[…] she was unbelievably gymnastic. […] She loved it and did it so beautifully, bouncing on her legs and standing on her hands. […] which was her way of expressing great joy and happiness. […] and that was the way she went to Holy Communion. And when she came out of the chapel, with a word, the first thing that she did was to jump up and stand on her hands with her legs in the air”.

Zofia Orłowska-Rostworowska, one of the messangers, recalled: “Joasia was a live spark, intelligent and talented. She was ten-years-old, but her mental development greatly exceeded her age. She was the daughter of a famous writer who was in hiding”.

Sister Aneila recalls: “From time to time, her mother would send someone trusted to her. They lived somewhere outside of Warsaw, I think somewhere in Pruszków. They took her to visit her mother. The girl was discrete, remembering what was actually going on. However, some policeman saw them and, when they were in the garden, he caught the child, taking her into his arms and said, 'Now we'll go to mummy'. And the child went. They told him how and where to go and he drove her to her mother. But they were somehow blackmailed. It probably cost them a decent sum. But that was it – he never did anything more”.

Three Volksdeutsche appeared at the convent. They had been tipped off regarding the girl. The sisters locked the Jewish girls inside their enclosure. The other girls would have to appear in front of the men who, fortunately, did not insist on entering the area reserved exclusively for the nuns. Following this event, the sisters took Joasia to Szymanów, where she remained until the end of the War.

The Jabłońska sisters

The Jabłońska sisters were taken into Kazimierzowska by Sister Irenea, the mistress of the small boarding school. At the time, the Congregation was hiding many Jews. Sister Irenea assured Sister Wanda, who was afraid that hiding more people would popse too much of a risk for the others, that the girls were not Jewish. “A very nice man came, absolutely not a Jew […]. He asked that both his daughters be taken in. […] The younger one still had not had a Holy Communion”, she argues. After some time, “Sister Irenea drops a bomb a on Sister Wanda. She says, 'Sister, the Jabłońska girls' hair is growing, but it's a different colour'”. When the girls' father, who was in hiding, fell and the Congregation's address was found on him, Sister Wanda was summoned for several days' interrogation. “She was calm when she returned. After a few days, they left her in peace”.

Jasia Kaniewska, Janina Atkins (nee Kon)

“My name is Jasia. I have no one. Will the sisters take me in?”, the little girl said to Sister Wanda, standing at the doorstep of the Congregation's house. Jasia Kaniewska left the ghetto with her aunt, Dr Zofią Rozenblum-Szymańska on 19th August 1942. She was nine-years-old. After staying for a month with friends of her parents, her host tookj Jasia to Kazimierzowska and left her at the convent gate. “Sister Wanda immediately hugged me and said, 'You're not alone. You'll stay with us and you'll be under our care'”. The girl did not know, at the time, that what was happening was going according to a plan which her aunt and Sister Wanda had put together. She hid in the convent for two and a half years. She stayed in all the Congregation's houses – in Wrzosów, Szymanowie and Żbików where she spent several months

Jasia had a “bad appearance”. At different periods, she lived in the sisters' enclosure. “[…] I taught her separately, working with her fourth grade material”, recalled Zofia Orłowska. “Jasia didn't see much of the world. Cows, deer, horses and elephants from nature books mixed themselves, for her, with an unknown, dangerous world. With difficulty, she learned to recognise them from pictures. She couldn't play with other children and she suffered. Sister Irenea decided to remedy that situation. She bought hair dye and coloured Jasia's 'carrot-top' hair. Unfortunately, the result just like that of Ania of Zielona Góra – her hair turned greenwłosy wyszły na zielono. […] It had to be cut off”.

During times of danger, the sisters hid Jasia and Joasia Olczak under the altar in the chapel. “Apparently, one one occasion, both girls sat there under the altar, wet with fear, for almost an hour”, noted Zofia Orłowska-Rostworowska. At the sisters' request, she agreed to accept Jasia as an illegitimate child. “Some document was required, and my birth certificate was by chance handy”.

As an adult, Jasia-Janina Atkins described her time in hiding. “[…] during Christmas […] I really wanted to take part in the Jasełków show”, recalling one of her most difficult moments. “Sister Wanda didn't want to deny me this childish wish, despite the risk of putting me in public view. So, I played an arab king and was overjoyed with happiness. At one point, a voice from the audience called out, 'I only see Jewish kings here'”. Indeed, it was Jewish girls playing the roles of the other two kings. “When an indignant woman got up to leave, the sisters immediately took the kings off the stage and hid us in a cupboard behind the enclosure – […] where lay people were not permitted to enter”. The Germans forced their way into the convent, having been alerted by the woman who had left. “They searched for us everywhere, including in the cupboard where we were standing in amongst the long habits, which were hanging on clothes-hangers. The Germans wanted to ensure that there was no one amongst the habits and stabbed them with their bayonets. By some miracle, we were untouched”.

After that event, Sister Wanda moved Jasia into a hiding-plce in the city. The host, who traded illegally in cigarettes, received money for the girl's upkeep. One day, a Gestapo officer appeared at her home. He recognised Jasia as a Jew and, on leaving, announced that police would arrive within the hour. The girl sent her host to call for help, using a pre-arranged password. “[…] After receiving the call from Jasia's carer, Sister Wanda sent a young girl-scout to collect the child. She, herself, went to the chapel and lay, in the form of a cross, until they returned. […] “God inspired me with the faith that I would save all the children entrusted to me. I ceased being afraid”. In a letter to Jasia's aunt, Zofia Szymańska, who was also in hiding, Sister Wanda wrote that she had decided to keep the girl with her until the end of the War. “The Germans will take Jasia over my dead body”.

The girl and the sisters experienced repeated moment of horror. “Two Germans entered the house and ordered to be taken upstairs. Passing by the chapel, Sister Wanda opened the door because the Germans ordered that all doors be opened. The senior ranking German stood, […] noticed the beautiful irises which decorated the altar. […] He went onto the balcony of the children's dining-room, next toi the parlour and look down at the beautiful flower-beds […] did he not see anything else? Sister Wanda sent Sister Szymona to the garden. After a short time, Sister Szymona returned with a handful of pretty irises which she gave the officer. He thanked her, went downstairs and never returned. Sister Wanda went numb at the moment he looked down at the garden from the balcony becuase, behind a bush, Jasia sat curled up. We called her 'Carrot-top' because she was a redhead, freckled – with doubt, a Jewish child”. 

Zofia Orłowska-Rostworowska recalled transporting Jasia to Wrzosów, in which she participated. “Sister Irena  advised taking a rickshaw, with Jasia wearing 'optometric' bandages – around her eye and head. However, I didn't want to do that and decided that Jasia would be dressed normally in a beret and without any bandages. I brought a rickshaw and travelled with her across the whole of Warsaw to the electric train station, where another 'convoy' was waiting for her”.

Teresa Kurek, Rochelle Dreeben, Rachela Szyfka

“I was told that I was not allowed to tell anyone that I am a Jew”, recalled Rochelle Dreeben about her time in hiding during the occupation as Teresa Kurek, in a Congregation house. She had left the ghetto with her mother in April 1943. For two days after jumping the wall, they lived in a tenement near the Saxon Gardens. From there, she was collected by Sister Bernarda. “I had no idea that the majority of children in the convent were Jews. It seems that the sister also didn't know”.

Lili Lampert

“My basic education was received at Kazimierzowska, leading a relatively normal life in those extremely abnormal times”, Lili Lampert testified in a postWar report. She went to the Congregation house with her mother. “I was treated in exactly the same way as every other child in the school, which was very important to my development as a person. I even continued studying the piano. My only limitation was leaving the school – for my own safety […]”.

“One day, my mother disappeared and Lili, bandaged as the mumps-ailing Sister Imelda-Roma Abczyńska, also a redhead and very freckled, was driven to Szymanów. The Germans were very afraid of contact with people sick with the mumps”. Lili's mother remained in contact with the sisters. She found consecutive hiding-places thanks to them. For a time, she was a governness at the convent school.

Adults

After leaving the Piotrków Trybunalski ghetto, Józef and Róża Pytowski found themselves without a roof over their heads. After the War, Maria Trzcińska wrote that her sister, Anna Kaliska, went to the Immaculate convent to get help for them. “The Prioress, Sister Wanda, found an apartment for the parents with two older ladies, who were in contact with the convent. These women, especially in the beginning, were worried that, by chance, the parents were Jews. Sister Wanda did everything to dispel their fears. She looked after my mother as though she was her own. She taught her how to behave during prayers in the chapel, and also in the yard where evening prayers were held every day. She had no remorse that she had taken in a Jew and allowed her to take part in the prayers. Apprarently, she used to say that she took everything onto her own conscience and that anyone could come to the church to pray to God, in their own way”.

Anna Kaliska and her husband also found refuge thanks to Sister Wanda. “In an atmosphere of pece, tranquility and cordiality, I began feeling human again. I sewed kaftans and nappies. I helpoed Sister Rózasew aprons for the children. I waiting impatiently for prayers in the chapel”. Her husband went to Wrzosów.

Fire

During the first weeks of the Warsaw Uprising, there was a small field hospital at Kazimierzowska. Fighters and civilians sought help from the sisters. On 23rd August, the Germans set fire to the convent and the school. The buildings were burned to the ground.

After the War, Sister Wanda worked as a Catechism teacher. In 1947, she was elected to the General Council of the Congregation. She died on 21st September 1954.

On 7th March 1983, she was posthumously honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Full of emotion, Jasia Kaniewska's aunt, Zofia Rozenblum-Szymańska, said of Sister Wanda, “With the passing of the years, I realise that I would not have survived those days (I was full of poison), if not for Sister Wanda. I couldn't determine what distinguished her from the other sisters but, from the first moment, she seemed spiritual to me. An indescribeable peace flowed from her. Her gentle, penetrating eyes peered into the depths of your soul. […] She asked for nothing. She did not seek comfort. She didn't try to encourage me with words as she knew the state I was in, where words had ceased to reach me. She took my hand tightly in her's and thus we went on”.

Other Stories of Rescue in the Area

Bibliography

  • Ena Maria, Gdzie miłość dojrzewała do bohaterstwa. Wspomnienia o Siostrze Wandzie Garczyńskiej, niepokalance, 1999