Maria Hochberg (Miriam Peleg): liaison in Kraków
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 Maria Hochberg (Miriam Peleg) from the Polish Righteous website section: Jews helping other Jews on the “Aryan side”.
In 1943, Maria Hochberg (Miriam Peleg), alias “Mariańska” or “Ewa,” became a liaison in the Kraków division of the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews (Polish: Rady Pomocy Żydom „Żegota”), acting as a representative of Jewish organisations. She provided help to escapees from the Kraków Ghetto, for example the Libermann and Aleksandrowicz families, prisoners from the Janowska camp in Lviv, including Michał Borwicz and Janina Hescheles, or Szymon Zajdów, a fugitive from Auschwitz. Even before she joined Żegota, she had cooperated with the Jewish underground, supplying false identity papers and allowances to Jews. Being of Jewish descent herself, she had to hide on the so-called “Aryan side.”
“It was late, much too late, but for those who were still alive at the time and struggling with their bitter fate, it was the last resort, the proverbial straw that a drowning man will clutch at,” Maria Hochberg wrote in her memoirs titled Wśród przyjaciół i wrogów. Poza gettem w okupowanym Krakowie (Polish: Among Friends and Enemies. Outside the Ghetto in Occupied Kraków), published many years after the war together with her husband Mieczysław Piotrowski (Mordecai Ben-Zvi).
The Hochbergs. The family of Galician Jews
Maria Hochberg grew up in the Przybyszów manor farm in Łęki Dolne near Pilzno. The land cultivated by her parents, Abraham and Róża, belonged to the Carmelite Order. In 1932, Maria graduated from the Helena Kaplińska Private Female Secondary School in Kraków and went on to study history and Polish at the Jagiellonian University. However, she dropped out after three years to help her parents on the farm. She made her writing debut in the children’s supplement of Nowy Dziennik, a Jewish newspaper published in Polish. She was at the family house when the war broke out.
“German aircraft were dropping bombs on the railway lines day and night […]. The road was brimming with the shattered remains of the Polish Army and crowds of refugees on carts, bicycles, and, above all, on foot, carrying with them the remnants of their belongings. You could see it all from the hill on which our quiet house stood,” she recalled the September of 1939.
It was then when she met her future husband, Mieczysław Kurtz (Piotrowski during the war): “[…] a young man with a distinctly Slavic appearance showed up at our door and brought us greetings from my brother, who had set off East in September in the uniform of the 16th Infantry Regiment and, after his unit was disbanded, found himself in Lviv.” Soon they both became involved in the underground movement.
A Jewish woman with “Aryan papers.” Maria’s underground operations
“It was time for ploughing in preparation for the new sowing season. […] my father said with the unwavering faith of a farmer: ‘What will we eat, we and our people, if we do not sow the land in time?’ And so he had sowed and reaped the harvest two times before he perished in Bełżec.”
Abraham Hochberg never forgot his difficult experiences and loss of property during World War I, so he refused to leave the estate in Przybyszów. Maria would visit the family home until the summer of 1941: “[…] I used to come there to rest a little during the first stage of underground work.” A few months later, her mother, father, sister, and elder niece were displaced to the ghetto in Pilzno and eventually sent to the Bełżec death camp in the summer of 1942. Maria’s younger niece, Hania Reich, hid in Kraków.
Disregarding German orders, Maria did not report to the ghetto. She decided to live on “Aryan papers” in Kraków. She was able to do so thanks to her “good” appearance and fluency in Polish. She received an interwar Polish identity card as early as the summer of 1940 – from then on, she was known as Maria Górska. She enrolled in a German course.
“I was on the ‘better side’ of the tram. I looked, I listened, and sometimes I felt ashamed that I stood on the other side of the rope.”
Having made friends among activists of the Polish Socialist Party (Polish: Polska Partia Socjalistyczna, PPS), she started to cooperate with its Jewish branch. She edited the underground Wolność (Polish: Freedom) periodical, transcribed translations of London radio announcements, helped forge documents and distribute bulletins. For some time she was a liaison officer to General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Army (Polish: Armia Krajowa).
She supported herself by trading in medicine, bread, and cigarettes. She also worked as gardening help for the Łebkowski family in Bronowice Wielkie. Thanks to the job, she obtained documents entitling her to temporarily stay outside Kraków. She always had a vial of cyanide on her.
Liaison of the Kraków division of “Żegota”. Aid to Jews
“[...] people were connected with threads, thin threads of help which started to form webs, sometimes extending to entire families in hiding or to individuals living on the Aryan side.”
Maria became involved in the campaign to help Jews at the very beginning of the war, as a member of the Jewish division of PPS. In the early summer of 1943, she joined the Kraków division of the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews as a representative of Jewish organisations. She was in charge of the so-called “legalisation unit,” providing false identity papers and monthly allowances to Jews on the “Aryan side.” Among the people she helped were escapees from the Kraków Ghetto – the Libermann and Aleksandrowicz families, prisoners from the Janowska camp in Lviv – Michał Borwicz and Janina Hescheles, as well as Szymon Zajdów, a fugitive from Auschwitz. She herself also benefited from financial assistance provided by “Żegota”.
“My first official dead letter box was the flat of pre-war PPS activists Maria and Mieczysław Bobrowski on Sebastiana Street. They gave me a contact in Wieliczka, which led to another socialist activist, Józef Jedynak.” He directed Maria to Jewish labourers working “on the surface”: “He instructed me to attach a modest banknote, of twenty or fifty zlotys, to boxes of cigarettes and matches, and to throw them secretly into the ditches that the Jews were digging around the mine.” Through Jedynak, she met Henryk Margulies, alias “Jackowski,” who worked in the German district office.
“[…] I received [from him – ed.] documents for Jews holding Aryan papers and for Poles working in the underground. These were German certificates for inspectors of dairy co-operatives and other economic establishments, for people who, having such documents, could move more freely in the field. […] I would carry out these documents right in front of a German gendarme who stood guard at the gate, I hid them in the vast pockets of my coat. They had holes in them made on purpose, so that the papers would immediately drop down to the lining. In the winter, I used ski trousers tucked into my boots.”
“I am Jewish and a lot of Poles know me here.” Maria Hochberg’s relationship with Jewish charges
“[...] when one of my charges demanded that I take care of […] every single errand in his everyday life, though he was in the exact same predicament as me, that is holding good Aryan papers and moving freely on the Aryan side […]. When a woman gave me an excuse: ‘But I’m Jewish and a lot of people in Kraków know me,’ I shed my Aryan skin for a brief moment: ‘I am also Jewish and a lot of Poles know me here.’ [...] it was all about time, which was divided not into days, but into hours.”
Only a handful of people knew that Maria was Jewish. One of her charges thus described their meeting:
“A tall handsome blonde woman shook her head at the sight of me. ‘Dear child, you are going around town looking like this?!’ […] I had to promise her that once I received the fixed monthly allowance, I would stop running errands in town and only go out once a month to meet her […]. The second question concerned the amount we were paying to the landlady for providing room and board to our group. From that moment on, I received seven thousand zlotys from Mrs Marysia every month. Mrs Marysia did not want to know our address for safety reasons. […] She also obtained documents for us, namely Polish Kennkarten for the women and a certificate of baptism for the child.”
Potential charges were reluctant to trust her when she tried to make contact with them in the street. She recalled with sadness one mother and daughter whom she approached. They would not listen to her and quickly walked away:
“They were clearly depressed, and it was not so much their outward appearance as their behaviour that indicated that they were not only Jews, but Jews left to their own devices, not having any particular safe haven. The older woman wanted to get off at the nearest stop. The younger one stopped her.”
Among Maria’s charges there were also children hidden by Polish families. The relations with the guardians were at times very difficult. Maria recalled long conversations with a woman who became extremely attached to the girl she was hiding:
“[…] I tried to prepare her for the return of the child’s mother, to warn her that it might happen. I saw how blind and boundless her love for the girl was. I heard words from her that I had never heard from Polish women keeping custody of Jewish children. Such responsibility brought with itself danger, constant threat, a shadow of death looming over the whole family. But she said that the child had brought happiness and serenity to her childless home.”
Miriam Peleg from the Yad Vashem Institute. Maria’s fate after the war
Maria and Mieczysław married soon after the war. Their son Roman was born in 1946.
In the years 1945–1948, Maria Hochberg-Mariańska headed the Child Care Section at the Provincial Jewish Committee in Kraków (Polish: Referat Opieki nad Dzieckiem przy Wojewódzkim Komitecie Żydów w Krakowie). She prepared accounts for the volume Dzieci oskarżają (Polish: The Children’s Indictment). She edited and provided an introduction to the diary of Janina Heschel titled Oczyma 12-letniej dziewczyny (Polish: Through the Eyes of a 12-Year-Old Girl). Both publications came out in 1947. In February of the same year, Maria founded the Kraków branch of the Central Jewish Historical Commission (Polish: Centralna Żydowska Komisja Historyczna).
At the end of 1948, Maria and Mieczysław with their child left Poland and settled in Israel. Maria Hochberg assumed the name Miriam Peleg. In 1963, she became director of the Tel Aviv branch of the Yad Vashem Institute. She sat on the committee which awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
“[…] as a member of the Committee […] she had a keen sense of the predicament of both the rescuers and the rescued Jews, knowing from her own rich experience the perplexities and pitfalls of the struggle to remain alive, the dangers awaiting those helping Jews, and the desperate clinging onto life […],” wrote Natan Gross in his farewell to Miriam Peleg.
She died on 1st March 1996.
Karolina Dzięciołowska, ed. Mateusz Szczepaniak, consultation: Avery Peleg, 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 »
- Archives of the Jewish Historical Institute, Account of Maria Hochberg-Mariańska [in Polish], call no. 301/3422.
- Marek Arczyński, Wiesław Balcerak, Kryptonim „Żegota”. Z dziejów pomocy Żydom w Polsce 1939–1945, Wydawnictwo Czytelnik, Warszawa 1979
- Władysław Bartoszewski, Zofia Lewinówna, Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej. Polacy z pomocą Żydom 1939–1945, Wydawnictwo Znak, Kraków 1969 (and later editions).
- Anna Czocher, Dobrochna Kałwa, Barbara Klich-Kluczewska, Beata Łabno, Wojna to męska rzecz? Losy kobiet w okupowanym Krakowie w dwunastu odsłonach [katalog wystawy], Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Krakowa, Kraków 2011.
- Bartosz Heksel, Katarzyna Kocik, „Żegota”. Ukryta pomoc [katalog wystawy], Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Krakowa, Kraków 2017.
- Maria Mariańska, Mieczysław Mariański, Wśród przyjaciół i wrogów. Poza gettem w okupowanym Krakowie, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 1988.
- Teresa Prekerowa, Konspiracyjna Rada Pomocy Żydom w Warszawie 1942–1945, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warszawa 1982 (and edition extended and supplemented by A. Namysło in 2020).