The Ziental family

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“Death lurked at every step”. The story of the Ziental family

In a statement submitted in Israel in 1962, Bronisława Ziental wrote:

We had many Jewish friends in the city. My daughter Stasia had a store. Jews would often come to shop there and they knew us well. They would often invite us for tea.

During World War II, the Ziental family lived in Włodzimierz Wołyński (now within the borders of Ukraine). Stanisław Ziental worked in the sugar factory, while Bronisława (nee. Krawentkowska) was a seamstress. They built a home on the corner of ulica Centralna and ulica Wiejska, at the back of which they had a large garden. In 1939, after the Russians had entered, the Ziental family was forced to leave the house. They regained it when the Germans occupied the city.

One of their daughter, Irka, worked as a nurse in the infectious diseases hospital on Lotnicza Street. Thanks to her, the family knew many Jewish doctors.

When German operations began, Dr. Keitelman and his wife came to my daughter Zosia, whose husband was a station-master. They asked to be hidden. My daughter had a problem - she had nowhere to hide them. But we couldn't refuse to help people who were in such need . So, my husband, who was present and witnessed this, says, “There's no other alternative. They'll have to come to us, to our allotment”.

Stanisław had in mind the garden behind his home. Despite his bad health, suffering from cancer, he built a connection between the garden and the basement.

In the pantry, he knocked through an entrance to the basement and masked it with a board. He built over the doorway leading to the big basement, so that it led from the garden to the small one - which had served as a storage area.

A week later, the Keitelman couple were joined by Dr. Bernard Torbeczko.

My daughter Irena met Dr. Torbeczko as he was going to the hospital where they worked together. “Where are you going?”, asked my daughter. “They lock the ghetto at four o'clock. You have to save yourself”. Dr. Torbeczko tied a hankerchief over his face so that no one would recognise him and climbed onto her bicycle.

In the autumn of 1942, the Germans began liquidation operations of the local ghetto.

Another three people found refuge in the Ziental basement. The Lewit couple, supported by Irka Ziental (she brought them bread and pork fat), were hiding in the hospital administration building.

After a few days, people began suspecting that Jews were hiding upstairs in the administration building. Their situation became dangerous. A Ukrainian secretary told my daughter, “They need to leave, because we won't put ourselves at risk by saving them”.

For the next few months, they hid with peasants in a village.

[…] Banderites came to that Ukrainian woman, “You've got Jews here”, they told her. She became scared. She put on a brave face and replied, “Well, if I have Jews here, you should set the cottage on fire. Then they'll run like rats”.

When night fell, their hosts and those in hiding fled. The peasants went to relatives, while the Jews remained in the fields.

Mrs Lewit gathered up her courage. She had no other option. She sneaked along side-streets and managed to reach the hospital. She found Irka. She asked for help to save them, that they were sitting in the field and were just waiting for death. Irka quickly came to see me. “Mum, the Lewits and the Grinbergs are sitting in the field”. I told her, “There are already three with us, so let them come too”.

Irka brought each one separately. First, it was Mrs Lewit and the rest came at night.

Germans and Ukrainians were constantly patrolling and death lurked at every step […]. Irka went back and forth throughout the night, bringing them all one by one. Bringing them as a group would have been dangerous. In the meantime, Grinberg had got lost somewhere and Irka went searching until she found him.

Shortly afterwards, those seven were joined by the Szrag family and the Pekler couple, who had lost their previous hiding-places.

The youngest of this twelve-member group was the Szrag's sixteen-year-old daughter – the rest were all adults. A. Raaba, who interviewed Mrs Ziental, noted:

[…] young up-and-coming doctors, with their wives, as yet had no money. As the witness said, they helped the married daughter, Irena, who worked in the hopistal (now Mrs. Jakira, living in Haifa). Only the Szrags and the Peklers, merchants by trade, had a little money.

Being locked away in one room with a dozen or so other people generated some tension amongst those in hiding. […] It even led to some unpleasant and ugly scenes, like for example, the instance, as Irena told me, when one doctor, whose name she didn't want to tmention, refused to treat the boils on the Szrag's sixteen-year-old daughter, because he'd been refused payment for such help.

The Ziental family lived in fear of their neighbours, the Germans and the Ukrainians. By day, Bronisława took those in hiding into the house. The curtains were drawn across the windows. They spent the nights in the basement.

[…] I prepared and carried food to them so many times, all with the fear of God in me that the neighbours hadn't noticed how much bread I was baking and how much food I was cooking. […] One time, I hadn't yet managed to empty out the bucket and here were the Germans driving into the courtyard. I was trembling in the hope that they hadn't seen the bucket because, if they had, they would have immediately guessed that I was hiding Jews. Quickly, I closed the door and they then began knocking. I poured cold water over my head and headed to open it, explaining to them to wait a moment because I had to dry my head which I had just washed. […] Another time, Ukrainians came to our basement - not to the small one where the Jews were hidden, because the entrance to that was covered - but to the big one. They rifled through any cavities, looking for valuables. Hidden in the small basement, the Jews sat there, holding their breath. In the end, the Ukrainians left.

Bronisława also helped those who remained in the ghetto.

[…] I was walking near the ghetto and, from a distance, they shouted out to me, “Mrs Ziental!” and, using gestures, they pleaded for some food to be thrown to them through the wires. So I return home. I put some flour and som esugar into a bag and go back to the wires. Kamm is standing there - I know him well. Before the War, he had a shop, now he's like a pauper. I was scared to drop off the little bag, in case a policeman might notice. So Sonia Kowalska did it. She traded with people in the ghetto. Another time, my daughter gave me bread, tomatoes and apples. I dropped it off to Kac.

For two years, the Ziental family helped the people in their basement. In 1944, the Germans transported the whole family to Lubiczyn near Lublin.

A peasant, a Ukrainian, moved into our house. I don't remember his surname, but I know that his first name was Franciszek. I handed over the Jews in hiding to him with the request that he look after them.

All survived until the end of the War.

Stanisław passed away shortly after the War. Bronisława Ziental resided in Łódż with her daughter, who had married a Holocaust surviver, Dr. Jakira. They then all left for Austria where they lived in a resettlement camp in Linz. In 1949, they settled in Israel.

Only the Lewit and Keitel families kept in conatct with her: “The rest don't write. They're far away, they don't respond”.

Mrs Raaba provided this sad commentary:

In their memories, people don't regard Mrs. Z.with gratitude. […] They're apparently living in excellent material circumstances. They've made their fortunes, but they've forgotten about Mrs. Z.. […] It should be mentioned that, when referring to those who were in her care, Mrs. Z. speaks with great restraint.

On 26th November 1968, by a decision of the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem, Bronisława Ziental and her daughter Irena Jakira were honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Bibliography

  • Archiwum Instytutu Yad Vashem w Jerozolimie, Departament Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, M.31.2498
  • Gutman Israel red. nacz., Księga Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, Ratujący Żydów podczas Holocaustu, Kraków 2009