Story of rescue

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The Gajda Family, Samaritans from the Meadows Between Krupa and Podbórz

The family of Stanisław and Feliksa Gajda lived on the riverside meadows between Krupa (Mała Kłoda) and Podbórz., near the "little, white bridge" on the former Krawcówka. It was said that the Gajda family lived "on peat". Seventy years ago, during the Nazi occupation, they rescued a Jewish girl - Dina Rycer of Kurów. They also helped other Jews, some known by name, others not. This article is intended to extract the Gajda family from oblivion and to preserve their memory.

Sources

The basic sources for this story are two personal narratives by Holocaust survivor Dina Rycer (Ricer). The first, entitled How I Survived, was written in Yiddish for a Yizkor (Memorial) Book, compiled in remembrance of Kurów Jews (Tel Aviv 1955). The appearance of an English translation of it caused me, in 2013, to take an interest in the story. The narrative became available in 2014. It was an interview which, in Paris in 2011, DIna gave to documentary film-makers from Lublin's Ośrodek Brama Grodzka, who have been recording the memoirs of Lubelskie Province Jews from around the world. The recordings of two discussions are available from the Ośrodek. Despite the fact that in many places it is difficult to understand, the narrative from 2011 strengthens belief in the credibility of the post-War narrative.

The narratives of the two surviving Gajda daughters are invaluable sources. In 2013, the younger, born during the War, told me, according to the family's memory, the story of how Jews were hidden in their home. She asked, however, that her name not be disclosed. Her recorded statements were quoted literally. They were edited so that they became a little less natural than the original statements. At my request, in 2015, the older Gajda daughter, Barbara Mróz (born 1936) now living in Jaślo, wrote a short, later supplemented, narrative on the same subject. She, too, relies on the family's memory, but she, herself, remembers Dina, a seven or eight year old, who was hiding in their home. The sisters' narratives describe, very well, the climate of the time and in their home. They contain interesting, factual information. Given in a natural manner, the narratives accord with each other, deepening and supplementing the narrative of the survivor, though some details differ. Dina Rycer is remembered by the Gajda family as "Diana" and "Danusia". From her narrative, it appears that, in her contact with people from the village, she used the second name.

I am also taking advantage of the narrative of suvivor Samuel Chanesman of Kurów, written in 1948 in occupied Germany and published in a Yizkor (Memorial) book.

I am also relying on knowledge gathered, in recent years, in Kurów and in surrounding villages. The oldest individuals remember the Gajda family there. I thank them for talking to me. Their anonymity has been respected unless they, themselves, have decided not to remain anonymous.

The Rescuers and the Rescued

Stanisław Gajda had been a forester in an estate between Barłogi and Podbórzem and lived there in the forester's lodge. But several years before the War, he had been dismissed from that position and been evicted from the lodge, together with his family and possessions. The Gajda family then lived in the corner of someone's homeo after which, they cobbled together a cottage on a farmer's meadow by the bank of the nearby Białka River. It was simple, comprising just one large room and an entrance hall. They were there from, at least, 1936. For years, peat had been dug up from those boggy meadows and then dried. For the poor, it proved to cheap fuel and Gajda looked after it. Dina called him "the guardian of the meadows”.

Gajda and his wife Feliksa (born 1899) had seven children which, at that time, was somewhat rare and, to this day, characterises a family as "them who've got seven children”). They had a section of a field, a milking cow and fish from the channels in the peat. The daughters recall their family as being hardworking, harmonious and friendly, and their father as someone who, even though being poor himself, would give his last loaf of bread to someone, to Jews as well. Gajda wrote letters to Marshall Piłsudski to which he received replies, probably from his office. Many, in Poland, wrote to Piłsudski at the time on various subjects. He was considered as a kind of just "father of the nation”.

Dina Rycer was the daughter of Moszek and Gitel. There were several Rycer families in Kurów and Dina's family was known by the nickname "Krupnik". Apart from her, the "Krupnik" family had sons Symcha and Eli, and a daughter Chaja (Chana?). Before the War, they had a large mercery shop and would travel to fairs to buy stock. They knew many clients and cart drivers from Kurów and the surroundings.

After the burning of Kurów in 1939, they moved to villages. The longest period was in Kłoda. Someone from that village still remembers that, at the time, there was someone called "Dyma”, while someone else, considerably elderly, even recognised her from a photograph ("She looks kind of similar to Mrs Krupnik's daughter”). For a certain period, they all lived in Kłoda. Later, only Mrs Rycer and Eli remained there, while Moszek Rycer, Symcha and Dina left the village.

In the autumn of 1941, the Germans ordered all Jews from the villages to present themselves at an assembly point in Kurów, in order for them to be taken away to ghettos. But the "Krupnik" family went into hiding. Amongst the Jews deported in April 1942 to, what we now know today, a death camp, was only Chaja, married and pregnant, who had earlier remained in Kurów. Moszek, Symcha (who had papers under the name "Tadeusz Kowalski") and Dina survived until liberation. But, Gitel and Eli, mother and son, were murdered by locals in 1943.

With the Gajda Family

Following the deportations, the Germans reatined several dozen Jews in Kurów - at "Ulryk's”, they tanned hides and sewed winter clothes for the army. In the older group was Abraham ("Abramcie”)  Goldberg, son of the last rabbi in Kurów, the previous chairman of the Judenrat, the Jewish Council appointed by the Germans. Some Jews would slip out of the little town at night in order to get food or to simply escape from this labour camp. The rest of the Jews were murdered by the Germans at the end of 1942. It is, at this point, that surviving Jews recall the name "Gajda" for the first time, with the added word "Christian”. The word "chrześcijanin” (krist), in the language of Polish Jews, is not only used to formally describe a religion, but also as an expression of respect, unlike the neutral word "Polak" and the, at the very least, disagreeable word "goy”.

Abraham Goldberg, and his son Jechiel, found shelter in the home of Stanisław and Feliksa Gajda. They had managed to escape execution in November, both having been wounded. A certain, at the time, seven year old Kurów resident remembers (from reports) how, with bravado, "Abramcie's son” had escaped. He was assumed dead and had been thrown onto a cart carrying the bodies of the killed to the Jewish cemetery in Blich. But, on the bridge, he jumped into the river and managed to escape. Samuel Chanesman, who had been warned about the executions by a farmer from Płonki with whom the execution squad had spent the night, fled from Kurów the previous evening. He writes, "Three days later, I met Gajda, a Christian from the Podbórz village, with whom the wounded Abrahamcie and Jechiel Goldberg were staying”.

From Chanesman's narrative, it is possible to estimate that the Goldbergs could have hidden in the Gajda home for a few weeks. It was only in the middle of December that they moved to a shelter in the Podbórz meadows which, for money, a group of locals had dug out for the Jews. In the Gajda home, the Goldbergs must have recovered well, since they managed to spend seven weeks, in extreme conditions, in a root cellar - until February 1943. It is interesting that the Gajda's older daughter recalled, certainly the same instance "when my father kept two sick Jews longer, until they were healthy”. The Goldbergs fled from the root cellar ahead of approaching Germans. However, they later perished, murdered by local thugs.

Hiding and caring for the Goldbergs were not the only acts of humanity performed by the Gajda family. The Gajda's younger daughter remembers when some Jews came to them. "There were seven children, with their father and mother. Nine individuals is a lot. Jews came in the evenings. They were hungry. For supper, mum would often cook porridge with milk. My father would often give them his own portion. Because I've already eaten today. What about them? Do we know when they last ate? Sometimes, he would hide the Jews in the attic. It was mainly poor Jews who came. Once, a very scruffy Jewish lady came to us. Dad was scared that the children would be infected with lice, but he didn't refuse to help her. He heated some water and told her to wash her head in the entrance hall. It was a severe winter. When he tipped the water out onto the snow, he was shocked by the amount of vermin he saw.” (- an oral statement, later edited by the family of the interviewee). "In particular, I remember the mother with the small children", recalls the older daughter. "They stayed with us for a short time. After a couple of days' rest and obtaining some food, they wandered off”.

Amongst Kurów Jews, Stanisław Gajda must have been known due to the help he provided, since Dina Rycer recalls that "when there was a labour camp in Kurów, people said that this Pole gives everyone, who wants to stay the night, a place to sleep”. This could have of interest to those Jews who had avoided deportation, and without having a permanent hiding place, were wandering around the area. For that reason, on advice from her cousin, she herself went to the Gajda family. She and one of their daughters were school-friends from before the War. According to the Gajda's younger daughter, her father met Dina, who was looking for shelter, and brought her home. Such small discrepancies are understandable.

Dina's narrative states, "I went to where that Pole lived. He told me that 'You can stay with us, but not in the house. We have seven children and there's the two of us - that's nine souls. We'll make an underground hiding place and you'll spend the day there. At night, between one and two o'clock, you can leave it to get some fresh air'. More than once I fell asleep in that enclosure, but I couldn't get used to sleeping in a hole in the ground. In the meantime, the hiding place hadn't as yet been dug out, so I returned to that place where I was until 31st December 1942”. After some time, Dina returned to "the poor Pole”, to the Gajda family. She writes, "I went to what he assured me that when he digs it out, would be a shelter underground where I could hide me. The shelter was not even one metre deep, maybe only 60-70  centimetres. It could not have been deeper because of the peat. Water had started soaking into it. I couldn't sit there - I could only lie down in it”.

Mrs Mróz, the Gajdas' older daughter, recall the hiding of Dina this way, "I remember many, daily situations when mum would ask me, as a petite little girl, to take food to Dina in her hiding place. That hiding place was very narrow, with a camouflaged entrance. The hiding place was a root cellar in which potatoes and dried peat for fuel were kept. My parents also made sure that Dina could still study, using notes made by my older sister Zosia. Dina could leave the hiding place in the evening and at night in order to breathe some normal air and to walk around, because my parents were always worried about her health.” She also remembers "the perceptible atmosphere of fear and my parents' orders forbidding us from saying anything about helping Jews. As a child, I wondered why it wasn't possible to talk about acts of kindness”.

All of this happened in an atmosphere full of dread. In her mind, the sight remains of a convoy of Jews from Michów coming close to their home (heading to the train station in April 1942). Also deep in her mind are other events, probably from the second half of 1942 when she was six years old. "We were at home. Suddenly, we heard shots. We ran outside and saw two fleeing Jews, with Germans chasing them and firing rifles. They were around 200 metres away. A short while later, the young Jews were killed, after which the Germans came to our home and told my father to bury those murdered. They then left. My father buried the bodies near to where they had been shot. In the evening of that same day, the father of those shot came to us and asked to be shown the burial site. After the site was dug up, he took his sons' jackets. I'm not sure if he took the bodies”. That "Hunting for Jews” (Judenjagd) took place before Dina's appearance at the Gajda home, but it is easy to imagine the terror it aroused in them. It returns to the Gajdas' daughter even after seventy or so years later. The Gajdas were such brave people. It still did not prevent them from taking in the young Jewish girl. After all, they could have easily found a reason to close their door to Jews. They had seven children. But, for them, that was rather the reason to open their door to Jews.

In an interview in 2001, Dina offers a few new details regarding her hiding with the Gajda family - that she was very close to the family, that the youngest children called her "auntie” (and the older ones, who knew what kind of "auntie" she was, kept her out of the sight of others), that she slept in holes on potatoes, that she was also hidden in the attic and in some shed used to store peat. With humour, she also says that the Gajda couple told people, who came to their enclosure, that the eighth child was Stanisław Gajda's, born out of wedlock. Because the birth mother no longer wanted to look after her, Gajda's wife had taken her into the family. "There are seven now. There will be eight.”. It is barely possible for anyone to have believed that fairy tale. It could have been taken for true if it was a small child, but not an, almost adult, fifteen year old. All the same, it was a good "cover", because anyone who did not want know who that eighth child at the Gajdas really was, knowing the Gajdas' kind hearts, could have accepted that answer as being honest. Apart from everything else, the Gajda couple treated "Danusia” as their own daughter.

Dina also writes that, at the Gajda home, she met with other Jews who were hiding in the area. "I often saw Jews there, among them my cousin Szmuel Chanesman with his son, the son of Manes Luzer and Chaim Pejsak with his wife and children. That Pole was very good to me. I survived the War with him. They wanted me to live and to survive the War. When his wife brought food to me in the hiding place, she often said to me, 'The world is beautiful. The sun is beautiful but, for you, it is dark'”. Since those Jews would come to the Gajda home, they must have felt safe there or, at least, safer that in their own hiding places.

During her stay with the Gajda family, Dina would visit her mother and brother at night in Kłoda. They were being hidden there by a farmer. But when, in 1943, they were murdered, she was mentally supported by the Gajdas. She collected things left behind by her mother and brother and left the enclosure in the meadow in search of the rest of her family. Gajda accompanied her to Płonki, where Dina's father and older brother were hiding on three farms - owned by Figel, Kowalik and Piech. In December 1943, however, Dina returned to the Gajda family and stayed there until liberation in the summer of 1944. That appeared in the form of a unit of Soviet soldiers. They asked about yevreyóv, "adults, children”, but Dina, who as a child in the Gajda home, knew what those words meant. What she did not know were the soldiers' intentions. She was scared to admit that she was a Jewish survivor.

After the War

Shortly after liberation, Dina Rycer, together with other members of her family, left Kurów, first to Lublin and later to Łódż. There, in 1946, she registered with the Jewish Committee. In that same year, in a religious ceremony, she married Adam Rotsztajn from a Markuszów family. In 1947, she left with him for France. In 1958, they were married in a civil ceremony at the town hall in Paris. In her old age, Dina Rotsztajn lived there in a care home. In 2011, when she spoke with researchers from Lublin, she was already seriously ill.

Stanisław Gajda died soon after the War, in January 1946. His family has not one photograph of him. Soon after, Gajdas' cottage was burned and the family left the enclosure in the meadow. The council allocated them a modest premises in Kurów. The children quickly becme independent. One remained, while the rest dispersed around the world. Feliksa Gajda died in 1974. She is buried next to her husband at the cemetery in Kurów.

The Gajda family and Dina Rycer-Rotsztajn tried to find each other after the War, but it took until the end of the 1950's for the search to succeed. At Dina's request at the time, Feliksa Gajda wrote down the whole story of her hiding. She had her signature on it endorsed by the Council and she sent it to DIna. I do not know where it is now. In any case, it is neither with Yad Vashem in Jerusalem nor with the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Dina's letters have not been preserved. However, two photographs, taken in Paris, have been preserved. On the reverse of a portrait of Dina with her husband, is written the dedication, "For an eternal memoir for my dearest, about whom I will never forget, for my beloved Gajda family, Dina Adaś." A photograph of the Gajda family, sent from Kurów, has also been preserved in Paris. On the back of the photograph, Feliksa Gajda wrote, in an untrained but sensitive hand, "My adopted sweetheart, Mummy".

Soon after, however, the chain of correspondence broke. I do not know why. The Gajda family assumed that Dina had died and it was only in 2015 that they found out (from me) that she was alive the whole time, and that she and her husband continue to live in Paris. The family was surprised in the same way they were, two years earlier, when I found them and told them that, from the memoirs of survivors, I knew that the Gajda family from the meadows, had hidden Jews during the War, and that I wanted to talk with them as part of my research.

Thus far, the fact that the Gajda family had hidden Jews has not been recorded anywhere in Poland, in any form. Even if someone in Kurów knew of the exceptional dedication of the Gajda family, it has been forgotten with the passing of time and the change in the local population. None of the current residents of Kurów and its surroundings, even their former neighbours in the meadows who remember the Gajda family, had heard anything about it. It has to also be said that, in Kurów and its surroundings, their "Samaritan" rescue of Jews was not, unfortunately, the subject of public respect and commemoration. Those who do remember did not talk about it openly and, sometimes, are still unwilling to talk about it. Also, nothing remains of the Gajdas' enclosure in the meadow. For half a century, no one has dug for peat there, at Krawcówka. The "little, white bridge" has gone. There is now a busy freeway there. If someone, visiting there, wanted to find the place where Feliksa and Stanisław Gajda hid Dina, the daughter of Moszek "Krupnik", he would not know where to begin looking. Even the name "Krupa” (changed to "Mała Kłoda”)  and "Podbórz” (the last home connected with Mrs Szum) have vanished from the map and from signposts.

 

This article appeared originally in the magazine "O nas. Kwartalnik Gminy Kurów”, No. 2/2015. 

The author is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warsaw. Anyone who can add to this article is asked to contact: Instytut Socjologii UW, 00-927 Warszawa; suleka@is.uw.edu.pl; 22 (827 85 99).