The Witkowski Family

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“I had nothing more to do with the Nationalists”. The Story of the Witkowski Family

Near the end of German occupation, Felicja Witkowska, together with her children Ryszard and Aniela, helped Jews who had escaped from Warsaw which was in the grip of the Uprising. Thanks to Ryszard’s activity in the underground, one of the Jews hidden by them received false identity papers. The name given to him was „Grot”, the pseudonym of Generał Stefan Rowecki, commander of the Armia Krajowa (Home Army) in 1942–1943.

In autumn 1944, Milanówek (Mazowieckie Province) was flooded with a wave of refugees from the Uprising in Warsaw. The small town of several thousand took in tens of thousands of people. 

The Only One in the Town – Felicja’s Photographic Studio

At that time, the Witkowski family – Felicja and her two adult children Ryszard and Aniela – lived at 16 Warszawska Street in the „Aleksandrówką” building. In an interview for POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Ryszard recalled:

“[…] at tmes, sixteen people were sleeping in our apartment – in all the rooms – in the kitchen, the hallway, in the rooms [two – ed.], on the balcony. […] My mother got them clothes, gave them accommodation and meals. […] she cooked large amounts of meaty soups”.

Widowed since 1928, Felicja Witkowska ran the town’s only photographic studio, which was located next to the railway station:

“[…] a timber gazebo, consisting of a reception area, […] glass-walled studios […] and a small darkroom. In the studio, an important place was  […] was occupied by "backgrounds" […]. Behind the ‘backgrounds’ was an empty area about 1 metre wide, where the cleaning equipment was stored and where a waste bin stood.. The gazebo was not a basement – there was a timber floor just above the bare ground”.

Felicja worked alone. It was not usually so busy, except during the holidays.

The Word “Pawiak” had a Special Meaning – Ryszard’s Activities in the Underground

In November 1941, Ryszard joined the Narodowa Organizacja Wojskowa (National Military Organisation):

“[…] one of his colleagues asked the question, ‘Rysiu, do you not want to do something against the Germans?’. Someone who is around fifteen years old doesn’t ask, ‘Excuse me, who am I dealing with here?’. It was important that something be done against Germany. […] in spring 1943, we mearged with the Związek Walki Zbrojnej (Union of Armed Struggle). We took new oaths according to the Home Army Rota and became fully-fledged Home Army soldiers. From that moment onwards, I had nothing more to do with the nationalists for which, to God, I a very grateful”.

In autumn 1943, during a search of the apartment of the photo studio, during which the Germans found nothing,  Felicja and Aniela were arrested and taken to Pawiak. Thanks to acquaintances and a bribe,Ryszard managed to free them, “They directly encountered […] the cruelty of the Nazi terror machine and, from that time, the word Pawiak had […] a special meaning for my mother”.

Let’s Give You the Name “Grot” – Józef’s New Identity

At the beginning of August 1944, a 20-something man appeared at the photographic studio:

“Being alone with my mother, he told of how he was an escapee from Pawiak and was looking for help. Without hesitation and purely for humanitarian reasons, my mother promised to help, remembering her on experiences there. Even when he revealed that he was a Jew, she didn’t change her mind. […] We decided that Józef […] would ’live’ in the studio, behind the backgrounds. We arranged a place for him to sleep there. He would come to our home for meals. We also provided him with clothes”. 

The man was one of thirty Jewish workers who had escaped from the workshops in Pawiak in July 1944. He had no identity documents. Ryszard contacted the Armia Krajowa (Home Army) documentation cell:

“I said: Józiu, we’ll create a name for you based on the pseudonym of the former commander of the Home Army, who was arrested by the Germans a year ago. […] Let’s give you the name ‘Grot’, with a different ending”. […] It was a tribute to General Grot-Rowecki. […] on the identity card, I entered the surname and first name ‘Grotte Józef’, born in Gödöllő”.

Released From a Concentration Camp – Helping the Miodowski Brothers

Grotte took advantage of the fact that there were thouands of refugees in the town:

“Hiding yourself in a dense forest is easier that hiding in an open field, right? […] with false papers, well-dressed, clean-shaven with a trimmed moustache, he moved around quite freely in the crowd. Despite the fact that, in appearance ‘Slavic’, […] when we filled out the false identity card, […] we wrote that his nationality was Hungarian because, at that time, a unit of Hungarians was quartered in Milanówek. 

In circumstances known only to himself, he obtained a pistol. “[…] he never parted from the pistol. […] ‘The Germans won’t take me alive’, he said”.

One day, to the Witkowski family, he brought others in need of refuge. “[…] he had found two other Jews in the crowd. The brothers had a Polish-sounding surname - Miodowski - Bronisław and Józef. However, they were not refugees. They were Jews freed from the Stawki concentration camp [the so-called Gęsiówka – ed.] by Warsaw Uprising fighters”.

Sincere Contacts – Relations Between the Rescuers and the Rescued After the War

Józef “Grotte”, together with Józef and Bronisław Miodowski, lived with the Witkowski family until liberation on 17th January 1945. Grotte, who retained his occupation surname, was arrested by the NKVD in summer 1945. But, after a short stay in prison, he was released. He went to the Śląsk region. In 1968, he emigrated to West Germany. 

The Miodowski brother moved to Łódź and later emigrated – Bronisław to France, Józef to America. Bronisław Miodowski changed his name to Bernard Miodon. After the war, Ryszard Witkowski became a test pilot, a flight instructor, an author and the translator of several aviation publications.

“I maintain friendly correspondence with Józef Grotte and with the Miodowski brothers. We meet up when the occasion arises”, Ryszard Witkowski wrote in 1989, several years after Felicjia’s passing.

On 28th February 1993, the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem honoured Felicja Witkowska and her children, Ryszarda and Aniela, with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. In 1994, Ryszard Witkowski also received Honorary Citizenship of the State of Israel.

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