Marian Rzędowski: "Felicji” Activist

The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews wishes to commemorate those Jews who helped other Jews in occupied Poland during the Holocaust. Such people are not honoured, by the Yad Vashem Institute, with the title of Righteous Among the Nations since, by definition, only non-Jews receive it. There are also the Righteous, as understood in the broader and universal sense of the term.

Probably, in the summer of 1942, the engineer Marian Rzędowski, and his mother Gustawa, managed to get out of the Warsaw ghetto. They found shelter with past friends from Kielce, Maurycy and Felicja Herling-Grudziński, who, in occupied Warsaw, were providing aid to other Jews in hiding. In the autumn of 1943, the aid network, which they had created and which operated under the codename "Felicja", became part of the "Żegota” Council to Aid Jews. Marian Rzędowski became one of the regular co-workers of the Herling-Grudziński couple. Operating under the assumed identity of "Zygmunt Rządkowski”, he provided financial aid to Jews hiding on the "Aryan side".


"Once, while I was buying a watch, he showed me this [watch] and told me its story from the occupation period. And there were many such conversations. […] He didn't like that. I have the impression that he didn't want to return to these things. All this was associated with drama, with danger and with an extremely difficult situation. Maybe he didn't want to burden me with it either",  wondered Marian Rzędowski's widow, Zofia (nee Pomianowska), in an interview for the POLIN Museum.

Kielce and Warsaw - the Rzędowski family before the war

Marian Rzędowski, son of Dawid and Gustawa (nee Kahane), was born on 3rd May 1906 in Kielce. He came from an assimilated Jewish family, whose Polish tradition dated back - the family believed - to the Kościuszko Uprising. Marian and his younger brothers, Leon and Ignacy, studied at the Jan Śniadecki State Gimnazjum. For some time, their father worked with the Herling-Grudziński family, who owned a mill in nearby Suchedniów.

In the 1930s, Marian Rzędowski, a graduate of the Warsaw Polytechnic, after serving internships in France and Denmark, became a valued engineer. Even while studying, fit and strong, he stoodup for himself and for his Jewish colleagues, attacked by the supporters of the ghetto benches. He designed residential and industrial buildings. he lived and worked on ulica Marszałkowska.

The Warsaw Ghetto and the "Aryan Side” - the fate of Marian Rzędowski and his family under German occupation

In September 1939, during the defensive war, the Rzędowski brothers left Warsaw. Responding to the radio appeal by Colonel Roman Umiastowski, who called for a new line of defence against the Germans east of the Wisła River, they reached Białystok. After the attack by the USSR and the division of Poland into two occupied zones - German and Soviet, Marian tried unsuccessfully to bring his parents to the other side. Only Franciszka, Leon's fiancée, managed to contact them. The three of them were taken to Tajikistan by the Soviets, where they were forced to work logging a forest. 

In 1940, Marian decided to return to occupied Warsaw. He arrived just before the ghetto was closed-off but, initially, decided to remain on the "Aryan side". He stayed with a woman with whom he was emotionally attached. According to scraps of memory which Marian Rzędowski shared with his wife Zofia years later, we can guess that the woman's parents were pressing for them to marry. He believed that the War was not a good time to start a family. The couple parted and Marian regretted that he had been deprived of shelter.

We know that, in May 1941 at the latest, he settled into the ghetto, joining his parents. For some time, he worked in the company of B. Glatman, for which he carried out renovations and breakdown repairs. As part of his duties, he rebuilt part of Janusz Korczak's orphanage. 

Jewish Self-Help - Hiding in the Home of Maurycy and Felicja Herling-Grudziński

One evening, probably in the summer of 1942, Marian Rzędowski decided to take his mother out of the ghetto. His father had died a year earlier, most probably the result of a heart attack. He chose to pass through the Court [building] on ul. Leszno.

"[…] something dramatic must have happened during the transition. You needed to walk smoothly and she must have begun to withdraw”, recounted Zofia Rzędowska, based on scant information from her husband. "His mother's behaviour was such that it would have taken only a little for us to remain”, said his wife. 

He set off with his mother in the direction of Sochaczew. Dusk was falling and lamps flickered in the windows. They knocked on doors, asked for accommodation, explaining that they were on their way to friends and that they had planned their trip badly. People turned out their lights and slammed their windows shut to them. In Babice Stare, in a small yard, the owner led them to a woodshed, where they slept on a pallet. For a long time, they wandered seeking shelter, until they stayed with friends, Maurycy and Felicja Herling-Grudziński.

In their home, located in Boernerów near Warsaw, Felicja lived with her step-daughter and Maurycy's two sisters. He, a lawyer, the brother of Gustaw, a well-known, pre-War writer, for reasons of safety, stayed overnight at a different address. The Rzędowskis slept in a connector with the "Jewish room", a room with a window overlooking the garden which, if necessary made it possible to escape. 

"There were two levels”, explained Zofia Rzędowska. "There was a room, four steps and then another room. And, in the passage, by these stairs, a mattress was spread out in the evening. And, in the morning, very early, before the inhabitants had awoken, this setup was rolled up”. 

The Watch - Marian Rzędowski's Activities in the "Felicja” Cell of the "Żegota” Council to Aid Jews

He was riding on a crowded tram. The hand, upon which he wore his watch, grasped the descending handle. The tram jerked, passengers fell, the watch was gone. He guessed that it was the man with his back towards him. He grabbed his wrist. As the tram reached a stop, he leaned in. “We’re getting off”, he said. Outside, he demanded return of the watch. Years later, he explained to his wife, Zofia Rzędowska, why he had done that, quietly and calmly. He was protecting himself and those under the care of "Felicja". He was taking money to Jews hiding on the "Aryan side". In calling for help, he would have risked having his papers checked - they were false - and he was carrying large sums of money

"Felicja” was the private initiative of Maurycy Herling-Grudziński and his wife Felicja, whose name was used as its codename. In the autumn of 1943, it was transformed into a cell which became part of the "Żegota" Council to Aid Jews, a Polish-Jewish organisation operating form 4th December 1942. 

The Herling-Grudziński couple included Marian Rzędowski in their activities. The story of the watch occurred during one of his trips to the needy. Marian, while working at the S. Gładkich Concrete Products factory as "Zygmunt Rządkowski", was caring for 30-40 people.

"According to preserved notes, Grudziński's main assistant regularly dealt with the same group of those under his care. The groups were unequal, some being more numerous than others. Jerzy Finkielkraut looked after more than 45 individuals. The lawyer Adolf Helman and the doctor Irena Gorzowa looked after slightly fewer […]”, wrote researcher Teresa Preker in her, now classic, monograph The Underground Council to Aid Jews in Warsaw 1942–1945. 

There are more anecdoes relating to Rzędowski's underground activities. Years later, he would surprise his wife with stories, for example, during walks in the Kampinos Forest. He described how, near the village of Babice, after having been arrested, he had escaped from a truck. He hid in a grain field, having thrown away his hat and jacket in order to confuse the tracker dogs. Then, he rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, stuck a blade of grass between his teeth and went back on the road. He just strolled along the road. The gendarmes, whom he met, did not recognise him as the fugitive they were looking for. He spent two nights in a cemetery.

Another time, when he was making a delivery and was already in the garden next to his destination, he noticed that the gate was swinging on its hinges and that there was dust floating above the road. He guessed that cars had just left, taking away the family whom he was coming to help, as well as the family who were sheltering them. He had been minutes away from disaster. 

It is estimated that "Felicja” cared for 20% of all Jews hiding in occupied Warsaw. Unique testimonies to this activity are 187 pieces of paper - receipts for money received by Jews in hiding. They have been preserved thanks to the Herling-Grudziński couple. Together with Maurycy's entire legacy, they were included with the Ossoliński National Institute in Wrocław. They can be viewed in the Core Exhibition of the POLIN Museum.

The Rebuilding of Warsaw - the Post-War Fate of Marian Rzędowski

"They promised, with Felicja, that they would always celebrate the anniversary of the day when the Red Armny soldiers entered Boernerowo. Marian especially ordered a sprig of blooming lilac for Felicja on 17th January, and we always went there”, recalled Zofia Rzędowska. 

After the War, Rzędowski joined the Capital Reconstruction Office and then the Social Construction Enterprise. Among other things, he designed the reinforced concrete structure of the Party House at the intersection of Nowy Świat and al. Jerozolimskie and was the representative of the construction organisation of the building (the "Tygrysów” team, built 1949-1952). This was considered as one of his greatest achievements. In the 1960s, he becam the director of the United Industrial Building Design Offices, from where he was sacked during the antisemitic campaign in March 1968.

"In 1966, a file about him was created and material was collected. They even reached into the 'Merkuriusz Polski" from 1932. In it, he was written about as an assistant to Żabotyński, as a powerful Zionist”, related Zofia Rzędowska, speaking about the circumstances of her husband's expulsion from the Polish United Workers' Party. "At a party  meeting, it was said, 'What do you want Comrade Rzędowski? You are going to appeal that decision anyway'. Marian replied, 'Like hell, I'll appeal', and he left the meeting. […] They ordered him to hand over, on the spot, his identity card. […] he came [home] at four in the morning, white as a sheet. He didn't say a work and immediately went to sleep. He had a specific internal protection - a strong psyche. He could turn his consciousness off from unpleasant, difficult and stressful things”.

He returned to painting, something which he had abandoned in his youth. "It was a way to let go and switch off from his life's tensions”. He belonged to a group of non-professional painters, who gathered at the Szuster Palace. Amongst the memorabilia, retained by Zofia Rzędowska, there was a poem, torn from a newspaper, which her husband wanted to use while painting. He did not destroy it, he rather retained the excerpt:

"Just breathe easy
under the garbage fall on us. 
Be able to cover the ridge, 
to dig a hole, 
do not waste air. 
To have lead in the blood. 
To wait without flinching, 
until it became mushy. Until the earth chews paper, bones, bottles. 
Until the moles grind everything, 
so that no one will ever know who threw what here.
Learn to smile as befitting a rat.
Learn shallow breath as in lethargy.” 

– Ernest Bryll, Mazowsze, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warszawa 1967. 

Marian Rzędowski died on 24th December 1983. His pre-War Tissot watch - a witness to leaving the ghetto, hiding on the "Aryan side" and, finally, the underground activity of "Żegota” - was donated, by Zofia Rzędowska, to the collection of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews:

"After the War, he didn't wear it anymore and, from the mid-1950s, certainly not when we were together. The watch didn't really work anymore. But Marian kept it, keeping it in a drawer.”

From 2017, the POLIN Museum has been displaying selected receipts for money from those under the care of ""Felicji” - this unique Ossolineum deposit is presented within the Core Exhibition.

Karolina Dzięciołowska, ed. Mateusz Szczepaniak, consultant: Dr Przemysław Kaniecki, December 2022


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Bibliography


  • Marek Arczyński, Wiesław Balcerak, Kryptonim „Żegota”. Z dziejów pomocy Żydom w Polsce 1939–1945, Wydawnictwo Czytelnik, Warsaw 1979.
  • Władysław Bartoszewski, Zofia Lewinówna, Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej. Polacy z pomocą Żydom 1939–1945, Wydawnictwo Znak, Kraków 1969 (as well as a later edition).
  • Zdzisław Kudelski, Gustaw Herling-Grudziński – wątek żydowski, „Rzeczpospolita”, 5.07.2003.
  • Zdzisław Kudelski, Pielgrzym świętokrzyski. Szkice o Herlingu-Grudzińskim, Lublin 1991.
  • Zdzisław Kudelski, Studia o Herlingu-Grudzińskim. Twórczość, recepcja, biografia, Towarzystwo Naukowe Katolickiego Uniwersytetu Lubelskiego, Lublin 1998.
  • Teresa Prekerowa, Komórka „Felicji”. Nieznane archiwum działaczy Rady Pomocy Żydom w Warszawie, „Rocznik Warszawski” 1979, t. XV.
  • Teresa Prekerowa, Konspiracyjna Rada Pomocy Żydom w Warszawie 1942–1945, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warszawa 1982 (oraz drugie wydanie rozszerzone i uzupełnione przez A. Namysło w 2020 r.).