Story of rescue

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“With a broken heart and tears, I took the child in”. The story of Maria Byrczek

In February 1943, probably during the liquidation of the Chrzanów ghetto, Erna Korngold, together with her brother and five-month-old daughter Marysia, reached Jaworzno-Bory. She was so cold and exhausted that, when she saw a light on in one of the houses, she decided to knock on the door and ask for help.

According to Erna, the door was opened by a ninety-year-old woman. Erna asked her for shelter for her daughter. The woman took her and passed her on to thirty-six-year old Maria Byrczek. In a statement written in 1967, Maria recalls trhe event differently: “On her knees and with tears in her eyes, the abovementioned woman [Erna Korngut – ed.] asked me to keep the child for fourteen days. As the mother of four children, I didn't have the conscience to refuse this plea from a woman who had only one child. So with a broken heart and tears, I took the child in. I want to stress that I was a single mother of children aged from one to ten. My husband had been executed by the invaders”.

However, after two weeks, Erna had not reclaimed her child. As she recalled, after the War, she wandered around from place to place, staying with various people. She often came to Maria for food, sometimes staying for 1-2 weeks. According to Erna, Maria was convinced that she was Marysia's aunt and not her mother.

According to Maria: “Taking the child in, I thought that the mother would come at the predicted time, considering the danger that not only threatened the child and me, but also my whole family – the betraying of the secret of a hidden child – by outsiders who took an interest in  the matter and who, at the same time, made various assumptions and comments”.

Maria registered little Marysia at the registry under the name of her sister in Warsaw who, atthat time, was in a concentration camp. Thanks to the help and support of her children, she took good care of the little girl and little Marysia called her “mama”.

From December 1943, apart from Marysia, Maria Byrczek also hid two Jewish girls until the end of the War – Bronka Krakauer, a fugitive from the Chrzanów ghetto and Hanka, who came from Berlin. She hid them in a rabbit-hutch. Maria's granddaughter, Barbara Bryczek, recalls: “Grandma brought them food in a bucket, at the time when she fed the animals. She had an agreed signal for Bronka and Hanka to open the board in order to take the food. It was grandma's call, imitating the calls of rabbits. It was hardest in winter, during the severe frosts. Then, grandma would carry them hot water in bottles so that they could warm up a little in the severest frosts. Late at night, when everyone slept, they left the hutch and came inside. They warmed themselves by the stove and slept a little. But in the morning, at dawn, they went back into hiding. During summer, in the heatwaves, they also came out to take a stroll - but only at night so that no one would learn about them”.

Maria Byrczek's two sisters and three friends knew about those in hiding. Sometimes, they would bring her food ration stamps or spare clothes. In this way, they survived until the end of the War, after which they left for Switzerland.

Immediately after the German army left the town, Erna returned for her little daughter. Her husband, who had also survived, soon joined her. Little Marysia was strongly attached to Maria and did not want to leave her. Maria also did not want to give back the little girl. Eventually, the court decided to return Marysia to her biological mother. As Erna recalled, the bond between mother and daughter never developed between them.  

After the War, the Korngut family settled in Wałbrzych, where Erna ran a corsetry shop. For several months, she maintained contact with Maria. Marysia graduated in medicine in Wrocław. In 1967, she visited Maria, asking for a notarised statement of how she had saved her during the War. Shortly after, she left for Canada where she lived as Maria Susman. At the end of the 1970's, Maria Byrczek made contact with Erna Korngut who, at that time, lived in New York. She also maintained contact with both Bronka and Hank.

In 2004, Maria Byrczek was honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.