The Zelwerowicz Family

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“Friend of a human being”. The Story of the Zelwerowicz family

During the German occupation, Aleksander Zelwerowicz, an outstanding actor and theatre director, and his daughter Helena Zelwerowicz-Orchoń, actress, director, stage designer, like many other artists and creators, had to discontinue their careers. They undertook various activities, including assistance, providing help, among others to war refugees and Jews in hiding. During the Holocaust, the Zelwerowicz’s flat at Szczygla Street in Warsaw served as a shelter for several escapees from the Warsaw ghetto. 


“He described himself as a [...] friend of a human being. He always had an open heart and arms for all the oppressed and in need of help, and during [...] the occupation Jews needed this help the most.” – Aleksander Zelwerowicz’s daughter, Helena, reminisced.

The Zelwerowicz Family

Aleksander Zelwerowicz is remembered as one of the most important creators of Polish theatre. He was an actor, director, founder of the State Institute of Theatre Art in 1932, after the war the dean of the Acting Department at the National Theatre Academy in Warsaw, a social activist.

He performed on the stages of Kraków, Łódź and Vilnius. For many years he was associated with the Polish Theatre in Warsaw, where he played his great roles: Molier’s Argan in “The Imaginary Invalid”, Porfiry in “Crime and Punishment” and other famed stage productions, including “Liberation” by Stanisław Wyspiański. Since 1955, the Theatre Academy in Warsaw has been named after Aleksander Zelwerowicz.

Aleksander had two offsprings – Helena and Stanisław. Their mother, Zelwerowicz’s first wife, Emilia née Kulikowska, died tragically by committing suicide in 1909, when the children were very young. Helena, nicknamed Lena, after graduating from secondary school, studied painting and acting, and at the same time studied at the Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities of the University of Warsaw.

Although her father tried to dissuade her from pursuing a theatre-related profession, Lena followed in Alexander’s footsteps – she became an actress, director and stage designer. She learned about composing theatrical scenery and sewing costumes in Paris, at Alexandra Exter’s courses. She was working with theatres in Vilnius, Łódź, Sosnowiec and Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw. Her two years younger brother Stanisław graduated from the maritime school in Tczew and became the Master mariner. 

Flat at Szczygla Street

From 1918, the Zelwerowicz family lived on the top floor of a townhouse at 9 Szczygla Street in Warsaw.

“It was a three-room flat, large and bright. One huge room, actually a passage, served us as a dining room. It was furnished with two large couches, lined with beautiful kilims. There were also kilims hanging on the walls, so that it did not necessarily looked like a bedroom, but it was possible to sleep there. The third room had a balcony. All rooms were painted in a very light cream colour. The furniture was in a light colour, too. […] The room to the left of the entrance was father’s, it was his office. The kitchen, spacious, and bathroom were on the opposite side from the entrance […]” – Barbara Osterloff, the author of Aleksander’s biography, quotes Helena Zelwerowicz-Orchoń.

Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Helena’s partner, actor Józef Orchoń (family name Nudel) moved into the flat. 

The Family’s Predicament during German Occupation

For many Polish actors, the German occupation meant the end of their professional life. Zelwerowicz was urged to appear in theatres controlled by the Germans, but he refused to cooperate.

At the beginning of 1940 he left Warsaw to the Uleniec estate close to Grójec near Warsaw, and from February 1941 he worked at the House of War Invalids, run by the Polish Red Cross in Oryszew near Sochaczew. He lived there. 

Helena stayed in Warsaw and took an office job at the small chemical plant "Ormil" in Mokotów district. At the same time, she actively participated in the underground theatre life.

Józef Orchoń, who, as a Jew, had to hide, thanks to Zelwerowicz’s help got a job as a tutor in an estate near Warsaw and thus avoided the ghetto. Later, he often changed hideouts in Warsaw. He stayed in flats at Topiel, Tamka, Żelazna Streets, around Zbawiciela Square and at Krucza Street. While in hiding he translated into Polish the book of Yevgeny Petrov about theatrical direction.

The Zelwerowicz Family providing Hideout to Jews

Aleksander Zelwerowicz often came from Oryszew to Warsaw. He also sent to Lena food parcels and money, thus helping to maintain the Warsaw home. Help was needed, especially when from spring 1942, new tenants arrived in Szczygla – Helena accommodated escapees from the Warsaw ghetto.

“I remember a day when Zelwerowicz came to Warsaw and intended to spend the night at home. At the sight of seven people [...] he shyly asked if he would have anywhere to sleep. Although everyone enthusiastically assured that yes, he did not want to bother and looked for an overnight stay elsewhere”.

This is a recollection of Maria Nudel (Niedzielska during the war), Józef Orchoń’s sister, who lived on and off at Szczygla Street. Among others friend of Lena from before the war, Helena Caspari with her 11-year-old daughter Hania was hiding there, also for a while engineer Dawid Epstein (friend of Maria), Leon Feiner pseud. “Józef”, an activist of the General Jewish Labour Bund (The Bund) and chairman of the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews, as well as Lucyna Firestone and Khan Fejgenbaum.

In September 1942, another person in hiding – a lawyer with an unknown name – was blackmailed on the staircase. As Helena Caspari recalled in a report for the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem, he paid the demanded sum and was not informed on, but from that moment the address at Szczygla Street was “burned out”. 

Lena found another flat for the lawyer, and she placed Helena Caspari and her daughter temporarily with her friends in Żoliborz district. Thanks to the mediation of the priest confessor they were lodged in the Province of the Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary at Hoża Street, then in the monastery in Izabelin.

Warsaw Uprising (1944) and Fate after the War

During the Warsaw Uprising, Aleksander became involved in the organization of shelters near Sochaczew for refugees from Warsaw. He also helped to find shelter in the Szczytno estate for Maria Nudel, who had been earlier hiding in his apartment. Meanwhile, Lena took part in concerts for insurgents and worked in the insurgents’ kitchen in Śródmieście.

After the capitulation of the city in October 1944, Lena and Józef left Warsaw and were deported to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany.

When the war ended, they emigrated to Great Britain. In 1951, after Józef’s death, Lena left for the United States, where her brother Stanisław lived. Aleksander stayed in Warsaw; he agonised a lot over the separation from his children. He died in 1955. 

Friend of a Human Being. Honoring with the Title of Righteous Among The Nations

On October 9, 1977, at the request of several surviving Jews, Aleksander Zelwerowicz and Helena Zelwerowicz-Orchoń were honoured by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. The ceremony took place in New York in May 1979. The award was received by Lena. That’s what she said about her father:

“He described himself as a [...] friend of a human being. He always had an open heart and arms for all the oppressed and in need of help, and during [...] the occupation Jews needed this help most”.

Lena died in New York in 1998. Only after long efforts, thanks to the help of the Association of Polish Stage Artists (ZASP), the urn with his ashes was brought to Poland. The funeral took place at the Skolimów cemetery in 2014.

Other Stories of Rescue in the Area

Bibliography

  • Archiwum Instytutu Yad Vashem w Jerozolimie, Departament Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata; Dokumenty Aleksandra Zelwerowicza i Heleny Orchoń z d. Zelwerowicz, sygn. M.31.2/1136
  • Gutman Israel red. nacz., Księga Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, Ratujący Żydów podczas Holocaustu, Kraków 2009
  • Osterloff Barbara, Aleksander Zelwerowicz, Warszawa 2011
  • Osterloff Barbara, Helena Zelwerowicz, córka Aleksandra, „Aspiracje” 2(36)