Story of rescue

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“Be a good person”. The story of Sister Celina Aniela Kędzierska

“[…] children of parents, who are of the Catholic religion and Polish nationality, can be admitted into the orphanage and are to be raised according to the principles of the Catholic religion, in the Polish language and spirit”. The Congregation of the Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary began its activities in Sambor in 1901. When it purchased builings of Przemyska Street, it pledged to run:

“[…] for times eternal, an orphanage for poor children. To that end, the Congregation undertakes to provide, free of charge, in this assigned two-storey building (front), one large hall to be maintained solely at its own expense and one of the sisters will carry out the duties and activities of an orphanage” – as recorded in the 1901 property purchase contract concluded between Father Grochowski and Sister Zofia Kończa.

Before World War II, the Congregation consisted of 1,120 sisters and 160 convents located mainly in Lwów, Warsaw and Poznań. The sisters worked in 60 schools, 44 orphanages, 17 nursing homes, 14 hospitals and numerous rural outpatient clinics. In 1939, 12 sisters looked after 70 children in the orphanage in Sambor. 

Sister Celina Aniela Kędzierska was the Mother Superior of the community and Director of the orphanage. Born in 1902 in Łódż, she studied at the Seminarium Ochroniarskie in Lwów and, after taking her religious vows in 1924, she began work in the Polish Orphanage in Sambor as a childcare worker. 

During World War II, their congregation consisted of:

Sister Celina Kędzierska – Mother Superior
Sister Helena Klinger and Sister Cyryla Moskwityn – childcare workers
Sister Joanna Wadiak – storehouse worker
Sister Magdalena Mikulicz – sacristan
Sister Alojza Koralewska – seamstress
Sister Maria Sawicka – cook
Sister Weronika Sawicka – elderly nun

In 1943, Sister Ksawera Lewicka died, while two older sisters were moved to Łomna.

In 1939, after the Russians had taken Sambor, the authorities removed the sisters from the orphanage. They moved in with lay people and took up handicrafts. From 1941, following the change of occupant, Germans were quartered in part of the congregation's buildings. The sisters ran a kitchen and bakery and were permitted to look after the children. The number of those under their care grew to 100. Amongst them were Ukrainian orphans, three Roma and 10 school-age and several infant Jewish children.  

In her memoirs, the congregation's cook, Sister Maria Sawicka, wrote:

The Jews in Sambor were shot in the Ghetto by the Germans during a major roundup. However, they did not track them all down. Sometimes, in the evenings, Jewish men and women would come to the Orphanage to ask if their children were there. Usually it was Mother Celina Kędzierska who dealt with that. We only saw the human shadows sneaking in secretly.

Amongst the 10 Jewish children and 3 Jewish infants, who survived with the sisters, were Jerzy Bander and Anna Henrietta Kretz. Their stories were only revealed years later.

Jerzy Bander

Jerzy Bander was born in August in 1942 in the gestapo prison in Sambor. “My mother, a Jew (née Thun), had been arrested and imprisoned and was killed by the Germans. My father was in hiding”, he wrote, years later. The child went to the ghetto. Smuggled through the walls, he was left in a basket at the door to the orphanage.

I was placed into the Sambor orphanage thanks to Maria Wahułka, secretary of the school in Sambor. I learned about this later. I did not have Semitic features – I was blond and uncircumcised. In the orphanage, I was cared for by the Sisters of the Family of Mary in the infants section, where the Sisters hid Jewish children amongst the Polish children.

Anna Henrietta Kretz

Sister Sawicka recalls:

I once went for a walk with the children, out of the orphanage, in the garden at Zrąb”. A German stood and watched the children. At one moment, pointing at a Jewish child, he said, Oh, she's Jewish. Right away, I picked up the girl, who was playing on a roundabout, and paid no attention to the German. The little girl was the daughter of a doctor, a Jew from Sambor. I knew the doctor well because I, too, had grown up in Sambor.

Anna Henrietta Kretz was born into a Jewish family which had settled in Lwów in the 14th century. Her father, Maurycy Kretz, was a doctor. Sister Kędzierska was one of his patients. Eighty members of the Kretz family perished at the hands of the Germans. Until 1944, Anna, together with her father and mother, were in hiding with Poles and Ukrainians. Probably, as the result of being denounced, the Germans discovered their last hiding-place.

“In my childhood, my mother tongue was Polish. I didn't know any other language”, survivor Anna Kretz-Daniszewski recalled years later. She described meeting Sister Celina Kędzierska as a miracle.

Seventy two years ago, a small nine-year-old girl was running through the streets of Sambor. She was condemned to death and she knew it. Her crime? She was born a Jew. The previous evening, the Germans had found her and her parents hiding in the attic of the Patralski family. They had shot her parents in the street. She had survived thanks to her father, who had thrown himself at one of the Germans and shouted at her to run. She heard shots, the cries of her mother, more shots and then silence. She no longer had any parents. She had lost her father, a noble man who, being a doctor by profession, had saved the lives of others and her mother, who was always ready to help someone else.

The Polish Patralski couple, under whose attic the Kretz family were hiding, were also executed.

She searched for help, but found none. […] Some felt sorry for her, but were too afraid to offer her shelter, as helping a Jew could mean the death penalty. Others were indifferent to the life of a Jewish child, while some were even calculating how much they would receive from the Germans for giving up a Jew. Realising that she would not find any support, she hid in the garden of an abandoned, old house and fell asleep. When she awoke at dawn, as if by some miracle, an image of her parents appeared before her eyes and she remembered Celina Kędzierska who, during the Russian occupation, was a patient of her father's and had the feeling that only she could save her. 

German soldiers were moving around the congregation's yard. Despite that, she went into Sister Kędzierska's office and said, “Mother, I don't have parents anymore. Be my mother”. “You're safe, child”, was the reply she heard. A sister led her to a hospital room and, after being examined, rested there for a few days. After some time, at her own request, she was baptised and received Holy Communion.

The Conditions

Anna Henrietta Kretz also described the wartime circumstances with which the sisters struggled.

I recall how the light in the sewing room was on almost overnight. This was where, after evening prayers, the sisters sat and sewed, mended and patched clothes. They worked hard in the fields and in the small convent farm (in truth, helped by the older children). Although the food was scarce, it still gave the children the chance of survival. Almost miraculously, they managed to obtain semolina with sugar for the little ones in the nursery. 

In August 1944, when the battle for the city and shooting was raging, Sister Celina knew how to calm the terrified children.

She calmly arranged us according to our age – the youngest in the front – to go down into the basement. She went down last, together with the partisans who had been hiding in the attic and who carried the children from the nursery. When bullets rained down, Sister Kędzierska told us to sing loudly. 

When the Russians again took Sambor, they removed the sisters from the orphanage and nationalised it. It became the “Children's Home”. As part of repatriation operations, the sisters and the older children left for Poland. They reached the nuns' residence and orphanage in Szamotuły. Anna Henrietta Kretz went to her uncle in Kraków. She later emigrated to Belgium. As a farewell, Sister Celina told her to “be a good person”.

Sister Celina Kędzierska remained in Sambor. She became seriously ill. Imprisoned and interrogated, she endeavoured to reclaim the children from the Soviet Children's Home. She died on 21st January 1946. Her precise burial place is unknown.

After the war

Jerzy Bander got to know his life story only after his father's death in 1991 – mainly by being told it by others. In 1993, Anna Henrietta Kretz went to the Congregation's home in Warsaw. In her memoirs, Sister Teresa Antonietta Frącek wrote:

[…] I  showed her the remaining documentation from Sambor. Since that visit, Anna […] has repeatedly visited our homes in Warsaw and Rome, alone and with others who were also looking for traces of their own wartime childhood. She travelled to Sambor, found the Orphanage and looked for Sister Celina's grave. However, time had removed any trace of it. […] She filmed a documentary and tried to have a memorial plaque put up [it was created in 2015 at the initiative of the Oświęcim Circle of Samborzan - ed.] in Sambor in honour of Sister Celina, […]. Anna Kretz has devoted herself to a mission promoting peace. She speaks at schools and in various institutions in Belgium, Poland and Germany. Referring to the War, she aims at spreading mutual understanding, tolerance and the brotherhood of nations.

In 2015, thanks to the testimonies of those whom she rescued, Sister Celina Aniela Kędzierska was honoured posthumously with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. 

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We thank Sister Elżbieta Ślemp from the Congregation of the Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary for the sharing of material regarding Sister Celina Aniela Kędzierska and other Righteous Among the Nations from Sambor.