Helena Merenholc: Liaison of “Żegota” in Warsaw
At POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, we wish to remember those Jews who helped other Jews on the “Aryan side” in occupied Poland. The Yad Vashem Institute does not honour these people with the title of Righteous Among the Nations, as that title is only bestowed upon non-Jews. They, also, are Righteous, as understood in the broad and universal accepted sense of the word – they are people who opposed the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany. They also defended dignity and human rights. Read the story of Helena Merenholc from the Polish Righteous website section: Jews helping other Jews on the “Aryan side”.
In March 1943, child psychologist and educator Helena Merenholc escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto to the so-called “Aryan” side of the city. Although she was herself forced to hide due to her Jewish descent, she helped other Jews by acting as a liaison officer for the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews. She provided those in need with false identity documents, delivered monthly allowances, and searched for hiding places. She cooperated with Adolf and Basia Berman, her friends and members of the Jewish National Committee.
“Wearing a warm hood and shuba in the winter and a black dress in the summer, carrying a large tote bag with a double bottom concealing false IDs and money, she wandered around Warsaw all day helping people, inquiring about their needs, and asking for aid from people of good will,” recalled Halina Dębicka-Ułłowicz when talking about Helena Merenholc’s activities.
Child psychologist. Helena Merenholc before the war
Helena Merenholc was born in Warsaw in 1907; her grandfather and later her father owned a brickyard in the district of Wola. Her mother came from an Orthodox family from Lublin. Only Polish was spoken at home, although the family continued to observe Jewish traditions and holidays. Helena had five siblings: three brothers and two sisters.
Before the war, she graduated in psychology from the University of Warsaw and started her residency at the psychiatry department of the Jewish hospital in Czyste. She concomitantly worked at the Pedological Clinic of the Society of Friends of Children (Polish: Poradnia Pedologiczna Towarzystwa Przyjaciół Dzieci).
“The Clinic was founded and run by Dr Zofia Rozenblum (she took on the name “Szymańska” during the occupation), an extraordinary person and social activist. Working at the Clinic was a school of life for me; it was where I met Jewish children, Polish children, children from poor families, children hailing from the intelligentsia. It gave me a more nuanced outlook on the human society,” recalled Helena Merenholc.
Her father and brother died before the war, her sister emigrated to the United States, and her youngest brother left Warsaw in September 1939; headed for the East, he was killed in Ostrov near Zdolbuniv.
Warsaw Ghetto. Helena Merenholc’s aid to Jewish children
When the Germans established the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, Helena Merenholc moved to the “closed district” together with her mother, sister, brother, and the brother’s family, finding an apartment at 38 Sienna Street.
At the time, she worked at CENTOS – the Central Union of Associations for the Care of Jewish Children and Orphans (Polish: Centrala Towarzystw Opieki nad Sierotami [Żydowskimi]). Even earlier, while working at the Pedagogical Clinic, she had met Adolf and Basia Berman, who also were psychologists. Merenholc was involved in a range of activities, including the operation of “home corners” – set up in almost every tenement house in the ghetto, their aim was to provide care and feed hungry children living on the premises. She used to accompany her nephew on his visits to Janusz Korczak’s Orphanage (she had cooperated with him even before the war), during which he told fairy tales to the children. She thus described her experiences in a post-war interview:
“I regret not a single day spent in the ghetto. My fate should have been the same as the fate of all its residents. I experienced it personally, directly, not from stories. […] I knew what I would be doing when I decided to go to the other side of the wall. I had already agreed to cooperate with the Bermans. I knew that by coming to the Aryan side, I would be entering a different world, even though technically I would still be in Warsaw, my Warsaw. I was not afraid nor did I dwell on whether I would live up to the task. I couldn’t fight the Nazis any other way than by doing what I was doing. […] On 6 March 1943, together with my mother and sister, we reached the Aryan side through the sewers,” Helena said.
Her mother and sister settled in the district of Grochów, in the flat of the Markowski family. When the Markowskis’ son was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, the two women moved to Twarda Street, where they lived until the Warsaw Uprising.
“Mrs Stasia.” Living in hiding on the so-called “Aryan side” of Warsaw
Having escaped from the ghetto, Helena Merenholc used false identity papers, introducing herself as “Stanisława Królikowska.” She changed her place of residence many times: she initially rented a room in the Żoliborz district, but she had to flee in panic in the middle of the night after the owners of the flat had taken a look in the wardrobe and realised that they had been renting the room to a ghetto fugitive. Every now and then she would spend the night in a brothel in Targówek, but manhunts for procurers and prostitutes eventually deterred her from returning there.
For some time, “Mrs Stasia” – as Merenholc was commonly called – lived at 14 Próżna Street (together with Rachela Auerbach). The flat was the site of meetings of the Jewish National Committee, attended by Adolf Berman, Leon Feiner, and others. However, the apartment was “blown” when the landlady, a smuggler, was arrested by the Germans.
Helena Merenholc later rented a room from Mrs Rolińska at 58 Szóstego Sierpnia Street (today’s 28 Nowowiejska Street), where she stayed until the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising. The landlady never discovered the true identity of her new tenant, who was forced to patiently listen to anti-Semitic remarks made by the apartment owner and other flatmates.
Help for Jews. Helena Merenholc’s co-operation with “Żegota”
Throughout her stay on the “Aryan side” of Warsaw, Helena Merenholc provided help to her fellow Jews in hiding. As one of the liaisons of the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews, she provided those in need with false identity documents and a monthly allowance of 500 zlotys and searched for hiding places. She thus described her activities in the interview for the USC Shoah Foundation:
“[…] I was actively involved in the campaign to help Jews. […] We were never short of work – one person lost his flat, someone else had something happen to their family. […] I had a few hundred people under my care – people would come to me and I would give them money. […] I arranged lodgings and forged documents, I received people at my place, and hosted weekly meetings of all liaisons.”
Helena Merenholc recalled that Basia Temkin-Bermanowa “came to see me once a week, on Tuesdays during lunchtime. We would eat hot soup and discuss the matters of our mutual charges.” Halina Dębicka-Ułłowicz, also involved in helping Jews, thus described the work of “Mrs Stasia”:
“The list of her charges included several hundred names. She had to visit every single one of them, listen to their needs, help them. Stasia knew everything about everyone – who needed a flat or a job and where there was a vacant room or a post, who needed documents and who could share a wardrobe. To put it shortly, she was an entire ‘information office.’ Wearing a warm hood and shuba in the winter and a black dress in the summer, carrying a large tote bag with a double bottom concealing false IDs and money, she wandered around Warsaw all day helping people, inquiring about their needs, and asking for aid from people of good will. When she came to us [to the house at Orzechowska Street] an hour before the outbreak of the uprising, she carried in her bag over a hundred thousand zlotys collected at the ‘point.’ She would collect the money at the first of every month and give it out in allowances.”
In mid-August 1944, carrying a bag lined with money, Helena Merenholc was deported by the Germans to the transit camp in Pruszków together with the inhabitants of the house at Orzechowska Street, including Aniela Steinsbergowa, Dr Alina Margolisowa, Zofia Dębicka, and her cousin Lotta Wegmeister (who was also a liaison for Żegota). They managed to escape from the camp and reach Piastów, from where they continued to help Jews.
“The money came in handy to our bunch and to all the fugitives who got in touch with us thanks to the letters from the Central Welfare Council [Polish: Rada Główna Opiekuńcza] and the classified ad I bought. It read: ‘Stanisława Królikowska from 6 Sierpnia Street is looking for relatives and friends’ and included my new address. And so we were contacted by activists who had lost their way after being expelled from Warsaw: Dr Adolf Berman, Leon Feiner, Salo Fiszgrund, and others, as well as liaison officers: Józef Ziemian and Bella Elster. Every day we rushed to the station in Piastów to hand out bread and money to exiles from Warsaw, who were being transported by trains to camps or to work in Germany.”
Director of children’s broadcasts. Helena Merenholc after the war
After the war, Helena Merenholc worked for the Central Committee of Jews in Poland (Polish: Centralny Komitet Żydów w Polsce). In 1949, she found employment at the Polish Radio. She worked there as the literary manager of the Editorial Office for Children’s Programming until 13 December 1981.
After 1976, she hosted meetings of activists from the Workers’ Defence Committee (Polish: Komitet Obrony Robotników, KOR) in her room at Nobla Street in Saska Kępa. Helena also stored underground publications and, as always, was involved in the fight for human rights. She died in 1997 and was buried in the Jewish cemetery at Okopowa St. in Warsaw.
Prof. Barbara Engelking, ed. Mateusz Szczepaniak, March 2021
- Jews helping other Jews on the so-called Aryan side | Read selected stories of rescue »
- Jews hiding on the so-called Aryan side | See the conditions of hiding in occupied Poland »
- Situation of Jews in occupied Poland | Learn more on the Holocaust »
- „Nie żałuję ani jednego dnia spędzonego w getcie”, rozmowa z Heleną Merenholc [in:] B. Engelking, Na łące popiołów. Ocaleni z Holocaustu, Wydawnictwo Cyklady, Warszawa 1993.
- VHA 17439, Interview with Helena Merenholc.
- H. Merenholc, Tak było z Basią… [in:] “In Memory of a Fighter” – a collection of articles and memoirs written for Batya Temkin – Berman marking the 10th anniversary of her death, Tel Awiw 1963.
- H. Dębicka-Ułłowicz, Z. Zielińska-Dębicka, Dom na Orzechowskiej [in:] Czarny rok… czarne lata… ed. Wiktoria Śliwowska, Stowarzyszenie Dzieci Holocaustu w Polsce, Warszawa 1996.