Story of rescue

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A Hiding-Place in an Orthodox Cemetery. The story of the Kartaszew family

During World War II, Jakub and Anna Kartaszew lived in Warsaw. From 1943, they extended help to the Orthodox Jewish Międzyrzecki family, hiding them in the Orthodox (Old Believers) cemetery in Kamionek, where Jakub worked as a gravedigger. The Kartaszew home also provided refuge for members of the Jewish resistance movement, among them being a courier for the Jewish Fighting Organisation (ŻOB) and Benjamin Międzyrzecki’s future wife, Fejgele Peltel (after the war: Władka Meed).


The Międzyrzecki family before the war

Izrael and Rywka (née Rybak) Międzyrzecki were Orthodox Jews. They lived in Warsaw, with their four children – Stella (b. 1916), Benjamin (b. 1918), Mordechaj (b. 1922) and Genia (b. 1934). In the pre-war period, Izrael was a member of the Agudat Israel party. His sons attended a cheder, but also went to Polish public schools. After the outbreak of World War II, they continued trying to run their home in the traditional manner.

In 1940, when the Warsaw ghetto was established, the Międzyrzecki apartment found itself within its confines. They were not required to move, but were allocated tenants. The domestic budget was strengthened by twenty-two-year-old Benjamin. While working in a labour commando, he made contact with one of the German overseers. With his help, he smuggled valuables out of the ghetto.

At the same time, Benjamin was a member of the Jewish underground organisation. Thanks to his ability to leave the ghetto, he became active as a courier, carrying documents and helping to smuggle people in and out of the ghetto.

Escape from the Warsaw Ghetto

In September 1942, during the deportation of Jews from the ghetto to the extermination camp in Treblinka, Izrael Międzyrzecki was caught in a round-up and sent to the Umschlagplatz, from where the transports departed. Stella, who worked as a secretary at the Judenrat or at one of the German businesses inside the ghetto (sources indicate both places of employment), tried to intervene on behalf of her father.

She was not successful. On the contrary, along with her husband, she was arrested and was sent on a transport to Treblinka. Eventually, thanks to bribing a German officer, Izrael was released from the Umschlagplatz.

Realising the threatening situation in the ghetto, Benjamin took steps to move the family onto “Aryan side”. In this rescue operation, he was helped by a Polish woman he met while working in the underground – Julianna Larisz. Benjamin prepared a hiding-place in the attic of the factory which she owned. A few days later, he returned to the ghetto to get his parents and his youngest sister Genia.

A Hiding-Place in a cemetery – Orthodoxy in hiding

His father did not want to go outside the wall. In the end, he agreed, but on one condition – that he could take with him his  talles (prayer shawl) and teffilin (phylacteries). Possessing them on the “Aryan side” could prove extremely dangerous for the whole family. The Międzyrzecki family hid in the factory, together with another Jewish family. In order to minimise any threat, Benjamin looked for another refuge for his family. Thanks to friends in the underground, he found it in an Orthodox cemetery on the other side of the Wisła River (probably the Old Believers cemetery in the Warsaw suburb of Kamionek).

Jakub Kartaszew was the caretaker and gravedigger. His wife Anna looked after the home. They lived very modestly. Izrael, Rywka and Genia hid in a wooden shed where goats were kept. It was not the most comfortable of places, but it was on the margins of the cemetery and hence was relatively safe. Vladka (Władka) Meed wrote:

The family shelter was a kitchen so tiny thaht one of its occupants has to step outside to admit a visitor. The kitchen was part of a small hut within the cemetery. It could be approached only by first gaining access to the grounds through the gate, which Kartaszew opened to those he recognized through a small gate-house window.

Benjamin built an additional wall in the shed, behind which his family could hide during the day. Even in hiding, Rywka and Izrael tried to maintain their Jewish traditions, e.g. keeping the Shabbat:

Benjamin’s father smugled out his prayer shawl, phylacteries and prayer book from the ghetto and observed the traditional rituals and prayers, while the mother lit the Sabbath candles ever Friday evening. The Gentile landlady had given the family two pots of their own use; with these they did their best to observe the laws the Kashrut, the separation of milk and meat utensils. On Friday evenings, in the crowded kitchen, the tiny table was spread with a cloth and two candles glowed on an overturned plate. The table was bare of food and the blackout covering over the single small window reflected the haunting fear of the occupants; but an air of Sabbath eve festivity pervaded the cramped space, reminding me of my childhood home.

They also contributed to the cost of their maintenance.

Help from Members of ŻOB

Due to his “good appearance”, Benjamin, using the name “Czesław Pankiewicz”, became Jakub’s assistant. He continued to be active in the resistance movement, where he met his future-wife, Fejgele Peltel, who was active under the name “Władysława”. She was active in, among other things, leading Jewish children out of the ghetto. She was also a courier for the Jewish Fighting Organisation (ŻOB) and also smuggled weapons, petrol and dynamite to those fighting in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Together with Benjamin, she would often spend the night in the Kartaszew home.  

The cemetery was located between two factories. After the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising, Benjamin, fearing that the cemetery might be bombed, found a new shelter for his family and Fejgele. During the course of the following days of the Uprising however, they lost contact. Benjamin’s parents went to Opoczno and stayed there with a Polish family, without revealing their ethnic origins. All survived until end of the occupation. In January 1945, they all managed to reunite.

Mordechaj, Benjamin’s younger brother, remained behind the ghetto wall, where he worked in the workshop of German entrepreneur W.C. Tobbens. He died as a result of German provocation in the “Hotel Polski” where, in the spring of 1943, a false internment centre was set up for Jews with South American passports. Lured there, people were instead sent to concentration and extermination camps.

Emigration from Poland

For several weeks following the end of the war, the Międzyrzecki family remained in Warsaw. In 1946, Benjamin and Fejgele left Poland and emigrated to the United States via Germany. There, they changed their names to Beniamin and Vladka (Władka) Meed. The remaining members of the family left for Palestine.

On 13th June 1988, the Yad Vashem honoured Jakub and Anna Kartaszew with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Other Stories of Rescue in the Area

Bibliography

  • Archiwum Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, Dział Dokumentacji Odznaczeń Yad Vashem, sygn. 349/24/1107
  • Meed Vladka, On Both Sides of the Wall. Memoirs from the Warsaw Ghetto, New York 1979
  • Gutman Israel red. nacz., Księga Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, Ratujący Żydów podczas Holocaustu, Kraków 2009