Preker Teresa

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"If not you, then me” - the Story of the Aid Given to Jews by Teresa Preker

She was an historian and an editor - the author of the first monograph on the "Żegota” Council to Aid Jews, published by the State Publishing Institute in 1982. Readers of her book - today considered as part of the canon of the historiography on Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust - are usually unaware that the experience of helping Jews was also her own. She never boasted about it and rarely talked about it. In 1985, thanks to the testimonies of Holocaust Survivors, she was honoured with the title of "Righteous Amonth Nations".


"We had so much trouble in getting her to submit documents. The procedure requires that the person, who is to received the award, write some sort of account. We had the evidence and statements from Jewish witnesses, but it was difficult to obtain a statement from her”, recalled Halina Grubowska, staff member of the Righteous Among the Nations Documentation Department at the Jewish Historical Institute.

"Many would have done less and written a book about it”, said Władysław Bartoszewski, regarding Preker's attitude towards Jews. "It's an interesting contribution towards her attitude regarding matters from the past, the slightest accent of externalising merit.”

Zapusta - Otmianowo - Warsaw: The fate of the Dobrski family before the War and in the first years of German occupation

Teresa Preker (née Dobrska) was born on 30th December 1921 on the Zapusta estate in Mazowsze. Her father, Wacław, was an ardent patriot and an admirer of Józef Piłsudski. After losing his property in the Kresy Wschodnie, which happened as a result of the 1921 Treaty of Riga, he worked as an administrator on the landed estate of J. Targowski and then on the Radziwiłł estate in Mankiewie, Polesie. Her mother, Halina (née Drecka), looked after the home. Teresa had four older brothers - Andrzej, Wacław, Jerzy and Zbigniew, as well as a sister Zofia, two years younger than her. From 1935, the Dobrski family lived on the Otmianowo estate in Kujawy, which Halina had inherited. 

Teresa received her primary education studying at home, after which she continued her education at the Nazarene Sisters' Gimnazjum in Warsaw. 

In September 1939, she spent the first days of the War with her parents and sister in Otmianowo, but soon the Germans arrested Wacław and displaced the entire family from the estate. At the same time, Teresa's brothers were engaged in defending the country.

After the loss at Otmianowo, her mother took Teresa and Zofia to Warsaw. There, they were joined by her father and, later, by Jerzy. Teresa took up clandestine studies, which resulted in her passing her matriculation examination, in 1940, at the Nazarene Liceum. At the same time, she began studying horticulture at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences.

During her internship on the small estate of Wacław and Maria Preker, in Skolimów, she met their son, twenty-year-old Mieczysław. At that time, he was very active in the underground, serving in the Home Army (AK) in Konstancin and the surrounding area. They were married on 27th October 1942 and, a year later, their son Stefan was born.

The experience of the Holocaust - Help provided, by Teresa Preker, to Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto

"At that time, I noticed that it was her environment that had moved away from her. They were so terrified that they broke off contact. And so my protest against this arose. I decided that it was inhuman to leave people without contact - people who had been treated in such a way by the Germans. And that was actually the reason why  I decided to go there one day", recalled Teresa Preker in 1984.

In the autumn of 1940, Alina Wolman, a friend of Zbigniew Dobrski, was resettled into the Warsaw ghetto. None of her pre-War friends, including Zbigniew, wanted to help her. It was then that Teresa decided to act alone. "If not you, then me”, she would say.

"They lived at ul. Twarda 52”, she reported. "I knew how difficult, economically and psychologically, conditions were there. So, despite the closing-off of the ghetto in mid-November, I made it there several times, carrying as much food as I could under my coat, in my pockets, inside a muff, etc.”.

Teresa entered the ghetto in a simple manner. She would approach a guard - a different one each time - and say that she had to go in to collect money which they had lent to the Jews. Alina Wolman recalled: 

"Shortly after the closing-off of the ghetto, even though we knew very little about each other at the time, Mrs Dobrska came to us, bringing lard, sugar and flour under her overcoat. She visited us several times, even though she was aware of the risks involved. Each time, she brought us different food items. Her visits kept up our spirits. They proved that we were not forgotten and cut off from the world.”

Teresa tried to get Alina out onto the "Aryan side", but the girl did not want to leave her parents in the ghetto. To achieve her goal, Teresa lied, saying that Alina's uncle, who was already on the "Aryan side", was very ill and wanted to see her. They left the ghetto through the guard. 

On the "Aryan side", using the "Home Army route", one of Teresa's friends obtained false papers for Alina, under the name "Alina Kowalska". Teresa placed her into a friend's apartment, later arranging her a job as a governess for a Polish family in Podola. When Alina decided to return to Warsaw, Teresa rented a room for her. However, one day, someone recognised her on the street and informed the apartment owner that the girl was Jewish. The woman demanded a large sum of money for her silence. Since Alina had no money to pay, the woman took her personal belongings as collateral. 

After this incident, thanks to help from Teresa and the well-known, pre-War actor Mieczysława Ćwiklińska, Alina changed her hiding places, moving from district to district. A few days before the beginning of the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, her brother and parents were also moved onto the "Aryan side". Using false papers, the boy went to work in Germany, while his parents hid in towns near Warsaw until the end of the War.

In the autumn of 1941, she cared for a young Jewish girl whom she met at the gateway of a Warsaw tenement building. She recalled the incident this way:

"In September or October 1941, as I was returning home (at ul. Jaworzyńska 3), just prior to the curfew, at the gate, I saw a 3-4-year-old girl begging. She was crying, emaciated and in rags. Her features testified to her origins. There was no time to think - the rain was bucketing down. I put my own jacket on the little one, covered her under an umbrella and brought her home. At that time, I was living with my parents, who were afraid to take care of a Jewish child - mainly because me, my sister and my younger brother were all living together. At that time, however, the whole family was working on a leased horticultural farm near Warsaw, and I was alone at home. For a week, I was able to take care of the girl - feed her, obtain clothes for her and to teach her many Polish words. I then had to re-locate her.”

Ania, as Teresa called her, only spoke Yiddish. Teresa placed her in the Nazarene Sisters' orphanage on ul. Czerniakowska. 

"I went there with the little girl and, after arriving at the orphanage, I left the girl in the care of the gatekeeper's sister. (I had put a letter in the pocket of her apron with the request that they look after her.) I went out 'for just a moment' and never returned. From the street, for two hours, I watched the convent to ensure that the sisters  would keep the girl. They did, indeed, keep her. The girl probably lived there until the end of the German occupation.”

In the autumn of 1942, she and  her husband Mieczysław moved to a house in Skolimów. There, at the reqquest of her brother, she hid the father of his subordinate. Admittedly, he had papers under the name of "Jan Zieliński", but Teresa well knew that he was a Jew: 

"He had escaped from an officers' prisoner-of-war camp, hiding in Warsaw under a false name. At the beginning of 1943, [my brother] asked me to shelter the father of his subordinate - the subordinate had died in the September 1939 campaign. He was a Jew. I agreed. Formally, the new 'tenant' was considered a distant relative of mine. However, we made it clear to those closest to us who might quickly discover the hoax, that he was a high-ranking underground Home Army activist, who was forced to go into hiding."

When mass arrests of underground activists began in the area, "Zieliński" left the Prekers' home. A few months later, he informed them that he had found another hiding place. He probably remained there until the end of the War.  

On 4th March 1985, in recognition of the help provided to Jews during the Holocaust, the Yad Vashem Institute honoured Teresa Preker with the title of Righteous Among  the Nations. However, in Poland, she was denied veteran's rights, for which she applied a year later. In response, the committee of the Society of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy (ZBoWiD), adjudicating the granting of an allowance, stated that "providing assistance to people of Jewish descent is not a basis for obtaining such entitlements”.

An editor and historian - Teresa Preker's work on the monograph about the "Żegota” Council to Aid Jews

"We finally have a book which should have been written a long time ago. Teresa Preker's monograph […] is an attempt at a comprehensive and scientific study of the history of this most important organised form of helping Jews in occupied Poland. This work is the result of the author's painstaking research, rummaging through archives, looking for witnesses. But this effort was not in vain and the result is a book of great historical value”, wrote Monika Adamczyk in her review in Tygodnik Powszechny.”

Just after the War, Teresa left her husband and, with her son, went to Warsaw. She worked as a secretary in the editorial office of the "Robotnik” newspaper. From April 1946, she headed the publishing department of the Ministry of Industry and Trade, which published textbooks and teaching aids for students in vocational schools. From 1949, she worked at the State Correspondence Technical School and, from 1952, at the State Scientific Publishing House. In the meantime, she began studying in the Departemt of French Philology at the University of Warsaw. For personal reasons, she abandoned these studies.

At the PWN, she met Władysław Bartoszewski, who was one of the authors of entries which she edited for the Small Encyclopaedia of Knowledge About Poland. It was thanks to his persuasion that she decided to study history. She began her external studies, in this field, in the difficult year of 1968, when she was forty-years-old.  

At that time, during the antisemitic campaign of 1968, the PWN encyclopaedia editing team was subjected to crushing criticism. Purges in the PWN affected circa forty people. The "Nazi concentration camps" entry, in Volume VIII of the 1966 encyclopaedia became the pretext for the purge. Emphasis on the martyrdom of the Jews, and not of the Polish nation, was regarded by the communist authorities as a provocation.

Preker was then transferred to the Commissioned Publications Department, where she was deputy head of the editorial office of the Natural Science Publications. This was not compatible with her interests or field of study, which is the reason she applied for a job at the State Publishing Institute (PIW), with the recommendation of Zofia Bartoszewska.

Teresa Preker was employed by the PIW, on 1st October 1971, as a senior editor in the History of Culture editorial office. In that same year, influenced by Władysław Bartoszewski, as the topic for her master's degree thesis, she chose the "Żegota” Council to Aid Jews. Bartoszewski knew "Żegota"perfectly and he put Teresa in contact with activists and co-workers, indicated sources and consulted with her on individual parts of the work.

Her master's thesis, entitled "The Underground Council to Aid Jews and its Activities in Warsaw", was completed in April 1973. She received very good reviews from her promoter and reviews - Professors Stanisław Herbst and Aleksander Gieysztor.

"The first, mature approach to the issue. The author managed to obtain basic documents and to interview surviving activists", wrote Stanisław Herbst. 

In that same year, she published partial results of her research, on the Council, in the"Jewish Historical Institute Bulletin”. Her master's thesis, highly rated by reviewers, became the basis for her monograph, entitled "The Underground Council to Aid Jews in Warsaw 1942-1945", published by the PIW in 1982. Władysław Bartoszewski, who had motivated her to work, was consulted, on an ongoing basis, on the manuscript and the supplemented master's thesis. Proof of this is a small sheet of paper, preserved in the Preker legacy, on which, in large letters, Bartoszewski wrote, "Teresa! Finish the book!”.

In his review, Bartoszewski wrote: 

"The author has, for the first time, systematically examined and presented, in detail, the activity of the Council to Aid Jews in Warsaw. This is a matter of not only historical significance, but also of moral and educational (as a presentation of humanitarian attitudes) and even political significance.”

Following the publication of "Żegota”, Teresa Preker continued her academic work. She published in scientific journals and in collective works - including abroad. Her research concentrated on the fate of Jews during World War II and on Polish-Jewish relations during that period. She took part in discussion meetings run by the Research Committee of the History of Warsaw and the Research Laboratory, on the Second World War, of the Instiute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN), as well as in seminars, at the University of Warsaw, on the history of Jews in Poland. From August 1981, independently, at PIW, she ran a series entitled "Classic of Historiography" and headed a team of editors who prepared items for this series.

Preker retired a year later. However, she remained socially active, involving herself in the activities of the Committee for the Care of Cemeteries and Jewish Cultural Monuments, the Friends of History Society and the Jewish People's University. She was also involved in the underground "Solidarity” movement, helping its interned activists.

After suffering from heart problems for a long tme, Teresa Preker died on 19th May 1998.

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The above text is a modified and abridged version of an article by Aleksandra Namysło, which is an introduction to the second, supplemented edition of Teresa Preker's monograph, "The Underground Council to Aid Jews in Warsaw 1942-1945”, 2nd ed., Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warsaw 2020. 

Other Stories of Rescue in the Area

Bibliography

  • Prekerowa Teresa, Konspiracyjna Rada Pomocy Żydom w Warszawie 1942-1945
    A monograph concerning the Council to Aid Jews, an organization operating during the war in the Government Delegation for Poland and providing help to Jews, especially those hiding on “the Aryan side”.