Walaszczyk Jozef

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“A drop within the vastness of human misfortune”. The story of Józef Walaszczyk

During the years of German occupation, Józef Walaszczyk was the director of a potato flour factory in Rylsk (Łódzkie Province). Thanks to being fluent in the German and being an efficient manager, he enjoyed a good reputation amongst the Germans. He exploited his position in order to help Jews during the Holocaust – he employed almost thirty people from the ghetto in Rawa Mazowiecka, paid the ransom for twenty-one Jews arrested by the Gestapo in Warsaw and obtained false identity papers for Irena Front. 

Józef Walaszczyk, the son of a paramedic and a journalist, was born into an intelligentsia family. He spent the first year sof his life in Warsaw. In the autumn of 1927, when his father died, his family’s financial situation worsened. In an interview for POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, he recalled: “My nanny was let go and my mother took a job at St.Joseph’s Clinic on Emilii Plater Street. I was transferred to a cheaper boarding-school on Wileńska Street”.

Help came to Walaszczyk from his cousin Ludwik Okęcki, the owner of an estate and a factory in Rylsk. From that time, Rylsk became home to Józef and his mother. During the year, the adolescent boy lived in the student dormitory, but he spent vacations and holidays in Rylsk. Even before the outbreak of the war, he had already passed the junior high school graduation examination (the “small matriculation”) and had gained entrance into the National Education Commission Senior High School of Commerce at Senatorska St. in Warsaw. From that time, he lived alone in a bachelor flat at 34 Krucza St. He became active in trade and made new acquaintances, amongst them Jews. At that time, Okęcki began teach Józef how to manage the estate, the farm and the potato flour factory.

The potato flour factory. Help for Jews

The ourbreak of World War II found Józef in Warsaw. As a participant in the military preparatory course for students, he was mobilised and sent to the eastern section. His impressions of those days were:

“The roads were difficult to get through. They were full of refugees and military personnel everywhere. The places we passed, often still burning following bombardment, gave me goose-bumps. There were crying, terrified people, deprived of their homes – the first victims of the war”.

Together with his cousin, with whom he had left the capital, he tried to get to Romania, through Polesie. When they were already near Równe, the Red Army attacked Poland. They then decided that they would return to Rylsk. After various adventures, often quite dangerous, they managed to get to their hometown at the end of September. In December 1939, the Germans appointed Józef as manager of the potato flour factory and as administrator of the whole estate in Rylsk. He stressed:

“My proficiency in German and in financial ‘reasoning’ helped me to persuade the Germans to give me the permits and the opportunities to do what I wanted”.

Thanks to this, he was also able to help his family and friends. Altogether, he employed around two hundred workers. “For many people, Rylsk was the salvation during the War. It gave them somewhere to spend the night, it fed them and it was capable of accommodating a large number of people who needed shelter. And a sense of safety was as good as gold”.

Józef Walaszczyk took advantage of his position in the factory in order to hire Jews as well. Most probably in 1941, one of his Jewish friends, Wengrow, asked him to take in forty people from the ghetto in Rawa Mazowiecka. Owing him a favour from before the war, Józef went to the Arbeitsamt (labour office) and asked for mermission from Director Miller. Józej recalled: “He took out a pistol and says, ‘You want to bribe a German for Jews?”. In the end, for a large bribe and for the need to get the required Arbeitsamt stamps every two weeks, he agreed to pay them extra and managed to negotiate permission to employ thirty Jews.

However, after a dozen or so months, Miller refused permission for a further extension to their work at the factory. So, Walaszczyk freed up a group of workers and warned them that if they saw any Germans, they should hide. He, himself, went to a meeting with Miller. As he had anticipated, trucks with German officers drove into the estate. Several Jews were then arrested and were transported to the ghetto in Łódż. The remainder, those who managed to hide, survived.

The ransom for the Gestapo. Help for Irena Front

Another person whom, during the occupation, Józef Walaszczyk helped was someone he met in the spring of 1941 – Irena Front. Józef fell in love with her, not being aware of her background:

“The fact that she is a Jew, I only found out when the Gestapo burst into the hotel [at 15 Żurawa St. in Warsaw], where we were staying. It was then that Irena told me that her surname was not Bartczak, but was really Front and that she was Jewish”.

Not lacking in courage, he helped Irena hide behind a wardrobe. He pretended to have stomach problems. He closed the door and went to the toilet outside of the room. After being told by the hotel owner that he was a regular and was a client well-known to her, the Germans left without conducting a search.

After this incident, Józef suggested to Irena that she live in the studio apartment on Krucza St. He arranged false “Aryan papers” for her. A condition of providing them was that they be as Józef’s wife. However, after a time, Irena stopped by sufficiently cautious and, together with a group of Jewish friends, was arrested and imprisoned. Absent from Warsaw at the time, Józef recalled:

“A colleague called me and told me that Irena had been arrested by the Gestapo. I went to the police station – the Home Army had an agent there. Once there, it turned out that Irena had been caught with a group of twenty other Jews. If something was to be done, it had to be done for them all. I had to arrange for a kilogram of gold by 5:00 pm – and it was already noon. Only then would the Germans forget about the incident and would release the Jews”.

Walaszczyk managed to collect and pay the required ransom, thereby saving the lives of twenty-one people. Despite an assurance from the Gestapo officers that Irena could safely continue to live at the apartment on Krucza St., the next day Józef moved her.

He sold the studio apartment and bought an apartment at 17 Emilii Plater St. Apart from Irena, two other Jewish women lived there – Hanka Staszewska, her friend and a children’s nanny Helena Torbeczko. Although he was not always in Warsaw, he tried to support the women and also to protect them from threats. During one of their walks, Hanka and Irena met a young man and brought him to the apartment. As it turned out later, he was an agent for Kripo, the German criminal police. Over a period, the man continued to meet with Hanka. Fortunately, he never discovered her true identity.

Help for Jews in the Warsaw ghetto

Józef Walaszczyk would also illegally enter the Warsaw ghetto, where he visited friends, bringing them food and clothing. To do this, he would bribe a tram driver to slow down a little when crossing through the ghetto. This would enable him to safely jump off the tram. He suggested that his friend, Dr. Marczewski, escape to the “Aryan side” and that he take up a position as a doctor in Rylsk. However, the man remained in the ghetto with his family.

“In doing all this, we felt that it was only a drop in the vastness of human misfortune. Seeing what was happening around us, we realised that each of these trips could be our last. However, it was hard to stand by idly, watching this tragedy with our arms folded and being aware that you could help”.

During one of those trips into the ghetto, Józef contracted typhus. Over several weeks, he remained, recovering, in his apartment on Emilii Plater St.

The post-war fate of the rescuers and the rescued

Walaszczyk also worked together with the Polish underground. When the Warsaw Uprising (1944) broke out, he found himself on a train at Okęcie station. He was especially worried that it would cut him off from those under his care – Irena, Hanka and Helena. In Podkowa Leśna, he waited for news of any developments. The women managed to get out of the beseiged capital and reached a camp for civilians in Podkowa, from where that went to Rylsk together with Józef. In January 1945, Józef and Irena returned to Warsaw. They remained in contact after the end of World War II.

Thanks to Irena’s efforts, on 2nd May 2002, Józef Walaszczyk was honoured by Yad Vashem Institute with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. In 2008–2022, he was a Vice-President of the Board of the Polish Association of the Righteous Among the Nations.

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