Pępiak Julia

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”I forgot about the terror, the fear and the consequences”. The Story of Julia Pępiak

I heard a racket and a dog barking. I don't even know when I blocked Rudolf so quickly from heading to the barn. Salomea Helman and Bronia were hidden there. If the barn had have been set alight, they would have been burned alive. That was when Rudolf shot me in the foot.

Julia Pępiak, a  farmer from Bełżec, had hidden her Jewish friend and her friend's daughter. This was done in secrecy, even from her own family, right next door to the extermination camp, right under the noses of the Germans, who had taken over half of her home.

Rudolf, the German, chased Mietek, a relative of Julia's, who had hidden with her.

In an interview with journalist Antoni Madejski, she said:

When I screamed and gunfire sounded, he jumped out of the house [the German officer – ed.] and ordered that I be left alone, because she's a decent person and not a bandit”. Rudolf saluted and drove off, leaving me wounded and limping

In the pages of the Catholic press, Antoni Madejski had told her story several times. In the 1990's, he worked towards having Julia honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

The residents of the town knew Julia as a good person. Since her youth, she had suffered from bone marrow inflamation when he deformed her body. It was said that she endured her suffering without complaint. She wass a gentle and good person, at the same time strong and firm. When, after Poland surrendered in September 1939 and the Germans led their prisoners through Bełżec, Julia Pępiak gave them food and water. “She did it courageously. The Germans respected her”, said her friend, Maria Wołoszyn. “She loved children and all people – and also had them around her […]”, recalled Bronisława Cichońska, her carer during her old age.

Mr Pępiak worked on the railways. The couple had three children – two sons and a daughter. One of the sons, a partisan, died shortly after the arrival, at the farm, of  Salomea and her daughter. Salomea came from a poor family from Bełżec. She had four siblings – two sister, Rudka and Małka, and two brothers. After her marriage, she moved to Lwów where, in 1938, Bronisława was born. When, in the summer of 1941, the Germans occupied Lwów, Salomea's husband perished and she, with her daughter, managed to get out of the city through the sewers. A friendly farmer brought her to the Pępiak couples home in Bełżec in August. He said, “Julia is a good person. Maybe she will be able to keep you. I cannot. Everyone knows you, The whole family would kill me”, he said.

Salomea knocked on the door. As Julia told the journalilst:

I never thought that anyone could ask for something so compellingly, If looked, maybe, like when the Holy Mother was escaping from Herod with the little Jesus. I forgot about the terror, the fear and the consequences. […] I hid them in the barn.

For a few weeks, they dug under the straw. “Freshly-dug soil would be dangerous. So I carried it in my pockets and scattered it amongst the grain”. Under the giuse of feeding the animals, she took food to those in her care. 

According to Mrs Wołoszyn, “Her husband didn't know that she was hiding Salcia and her child. His nerves wouldn't have withstood it”. Salomea's siblings were living with the Borkiewicz family.

Eustachy Borkiewicz recalls:

During the war, Moszek Helman and his sister Małka Helman were at my father's, in an old abandoned building. We called her Mańka. Moszek Helman hid his sister Salomea with Julia Pępiak. He didn't confide in me, but he knew that I knew about it. Salomea had to hide because of her Jewish appearance. Mańka was a pretty girl, she was unlike ither Jewish women. For that reason, she didn't have to hide. Moszek worked in the bakery, for bread. Amongst us, there was a friendly atmosphere. Moszek was liked. Just before the end of the war, they were taken away by the Polish police. As Moszek was being transported to a camp, he threw away his photographs. Fro that, we knew that he had been executed in the camp. 

When Bronia, Salomea's daughter, found herself on the Pępiak farm, she was around two and a half years old. “I loved her just like my own child. The Germans killed my son. In his place, God gave me Bronia”, said Julia.

The decision to build an extermination camp at Bełżec was made on 13th October 1941. Work started at the end of that month. Julia recalled:

I was constantly trembling with fear at the thought that Bronia could be gassed by the Nazis or even burned alive, because such beastly things were happening at the camp. The more I loved her, the more fearful I became. When I heard strange footsteps at night, I would hold my breath. I was all-ears. I was overcome with fear that she would be discovered and burned in the exterination camp, from where the wind blew carrying the bland, sweetish smell of burning bodies.

Bronia, mature for her age, understood the situation. She knew that was not allowed to cough or cry and that she had to walk like a cat.

Bronia would huddle against the barn's wall for hours, staring at the world through a gap. Later, she would tell her mother about the work in the fields, the cows the sheeop and the children. Other children were of most interest to her. She often would ask her mother, “Why can those children chase after the sheep and play and I can't? I'm a child too.

In Bełżec, it was assumed that Julia Pępiak was hiding someone – probably the person who had brought Helmanow from Lwów. Her cousin said, “The whole family knew that Salomea and the child were hiding with the Pępiak family. We even felt a little resentful that Jula said nothing to us about it”.

Keeping the secret was difficult. Antonina Kulesza said:

In my family home, it was said, often with amazement, about how often that Julia Pępiak washed underwear, also children's underwear. Julia washed the underwear on a metal washboard near a boiler which had warm water. My parents told me that my aunt was hiding a Jewish woman. Uncle Mietek, Dymitr, often warned auntie, “Jula, you'll bring down a misfortune on all of us”.

Another Bełżec resident, Rozalia Kwas, recalled “[…] Julia Pępiak often asked Krystyna Natynowa, 'Krysiu, Give me some of the better soup'. Then she would happily take that soup home. We guessed that she was apparently hiding some Jews because she had never made such a request in the past”.

Maria Wołoszyn said, “I supposedly didn't know the Julia was hiding Jewish women. I helped her. I gave her bread, milk and cheese”.

When one of the Germans living in the Pępiak house mentioned that a search would happen, because someone had escaped from the camp, Julia took Salomea and her daughter into the cornfoeld. Soon after, Edward Ferenc, a volksdeutsch, appeared. look is you sustec

One of those on the farm recalled:

Jula then said loudly, “Mr Ferenc, Salcia isn't a pin,search – don't suspect!”. He left and didn't search. After liberation, Ferenc asked Julia to testify in his favour, that he knew the Julia was hiding Jewish women, but did not betray her. Julia Pępiak fulfilled his wish.

Those in hiding remained outside the bard and in amongst the grain. When Julia fell ill, she stopped bringing them food. Salomea wanted to check what was happening. She went into the yard and hid where potatoes were kept. It was then that a neighbour noticed her. He took her to the local council Secretary, Zygmunt Nowosielecki. On her knees, she begged for help. The Secretary pretended that he did not know her and, in pretended anger, told her to get out. Together with her child, she then hid in the cemetery. Julia found her there and brought her back toher home, “[…] to the hole under the straw in the barn, the place affectionately referred to as the palace. We cried with happiness”. 

During Christmas, there were some threatening moments. Ensuring previously that she was alone, Julia brought the mother and daughter into the house. “Bronia could not see a Christmas tree. I told her about the Mother of God and of Bethlehem. Our time was then snatched away by the sudden arrival of the German”.  The soldier banged on the window. “I covered them with an eiderdown and pushed it against the wall”. He yelled for Julia to buy him vodka from the neighbours and, during that time, he would rest on the bed. “When the situation became more than critical, shots rang out nearby. The Nazi cursed and ran out of the house. My holiday guests returned to their palace”. 

For a time after the war, Salomea and Bronia lived with Maria Wołoszyn. “Broneczka had some sort of leg problem so that she had trouble walking”. Later, they left for Israel. They tried to stay in contact with Julia Pępiak. When she moved to Śródborów, they searched for her in the 1960's, turning for help to the parish priest in Bełżec. Carer Mrs Cichońska recalled:

Salcia wrote from Israel. I read the letters – there were many of them, more than ten for sure. She didn't know Mrs Pępiak's new address. She wrote to Bełżec and pleaded for news about Mrs. Pępiak, begging for a reply – she wanted to write, even a little and even symbolically, to keep thanking her. In one letter, she writes that, even though it was difficult for them in their homeland, she would send a crate of lemons. […] But Julia didn't write even one letter to the Jewish woman and let no one persuade her to do so, saying that 'it's good that they're alive, but I don't need anything, I have everything – let them make a living and may God bless them”.

Julia Pępiak's son, Father Sebastian, a Franciscan, wrote:

My mother's heroic attitude was based on religious and humanitarian reasons. She was a saintly person, so I keep her memory very close to me.

On 27th December 1999, by a decision of the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem, Julia Pępiak was honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Bibliography

  • Archiwum Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, Dział dokumentacji odznaczeń Yad Vashem, 349/24/097
  • Madejski A., Salomea i Bronia, „Zorza”
  • Madejski A., Sprawiedliwa z Bełżca, „Słowo. Dziennik katolicki”
  • Madejski A., Bohaterka z Bełżca, „Słowo. Dziennik katolicki”