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The "Institute of Beauty” in Occupied Warsaw - the Story of Matylda (Mada) Walter and Her Family

Matylda (Mada) Walter - doctor, social activist and promoter of healthy eating - ran a beauty salon in occupied Warsaw, which became of place where she aided Jewish women who had escaped from the Warsaw ghetto. The help provided by Walter and her colleagues took various forms - including make-up and cosmetic treatments which covered up a "bad appearance", after which introducing the women, in hiding, to Catholic religious practices in order to disguise themselves on the "Aryan side". Mada Walter, working wth the "Żegota" Council to Aid Jews, organised false identity papers, safe hiding places and employment for escapees from the ghetto. Together with her husband Edmund and son Ryszard, she also hid Jews, and those in need, in her apartment.


"[...] For many years, Mada Walter was socially active, giving all her effort and great intellectual abilities to the weak and oppressed. What should be especially highlighted is her activity during the [ed" German] occupation. She tore many victims out of the clutches of the occupiers”, wrote Emil Sommerstein in a testimony dated 17th October1945.

Doctor, dietitian, vegetarian - the education and professional activity of Matylda (Mada) Walter

Matylda Walter, known as "Mada", came from Galicia. She was the daughter of Władysław Zontak, a well-known naturalist and museologost, founder of the Nature and Ethnographic Museum in Lwów, and Józefa Zontak née Pawulskia, head of the Dietary Instiute in Rymanów-Zdrój.

In 1904, Mada graduated in medicine in Zurych. She then practised in European treatment centres, including in Germany, Austria-Hungary and in France. She undertook further studies in the fields of pregnancy dietetics, infant and child dietetics, metabolism and in other fields of study, after which she gained her doctorate. She married Edmund Walter, a composer and musicologist, with whom she had two sons, Ryszard and Robert, as well as a daugher (tday, name unknown).

Following the outbreak of World War I, the Walter family became involved in helping refugees, including preparing a rescue action project for destroyed Galician towns and for the Polish, Ukrainian and Jewish people displaced from them.

"After the end of the [First World] War, I moved to Warsaw where, from 1920, I conduced journalistic promotion in the field of Health Culture in the daily and professional press, as well as in women's magazines. Having aroused the interest of women's organisations, in the area of promoting health, with their help, I toured cities and spas all over the country", wrote Mada Walter in her biography.

In inter-war Poland, her activity focused on promoting a healthy lifestyle, including vegetarianism. In the 1930s, in Warsaw, at ul. Nowy Świat 64, she established the "Na zdrowie” ["For Health"] Dietary Centre, which included a dietary clinic with an analytical laboratory, hygiene and dietetics courses, a nutritional factory, a dietetic eaterie and a plant juice room.

The "School of Health", of which, as a medical doctor, she had dreamt of establishing, was to be opened in Warsaw in the autumn of 1939. However, the outbreak of war thwarted those plans. In the German-occupied city, she opened a beauty salon which, after her first premises was burned down in September 1939, she moved to the prestigious address of  ul. Marszałkowska 137.

Cosmetic treatments, religion courses, plastic surgery - help provided by Walter and her associates to Jewish women in occupied Warsaw

"Lifting the cover off in the hall, we can make out voices. What is this? Instead of creams and lipsticks, there a harmonious voice enumerating "the seven deadly sins" and then, as if to alleviate the abomination of human weaknesses, there is a story about the beautiful rites and customs of Christmas, Easter and other holidays. The contrast of a serious topic, discussed amongst an audience dressed in masks and bands, strikes with a sharp edge”, describes Mada Walter.

The "Beauty Institute", the "Health Institute" and the "Cosmetic Hideaway" - this is how Mada Walterowa called the place where, apart from her usual activities, she helped Jews. She entrusted the running of the cosmetic salon to her pre-War student, Róża Szwajcer, whom she had helped to extract from the Warsaw ghetto in 1941. Walter wrote, "I found her in a state of total apathy, in nightmarish conditions, in an overcrowded, dirty hole in the centre of the ghetto. Literally, by force, I took her out through a secret passage to the 'Aryan side'".

Jewish women, who had to hide after escaping from the ghetto, found help in the beauty salon. Women underwent cosmetic treatments to hide a "bad appearance". They were acquainted with Catholic religious practices and, finally, they were taught how to behave on the streets - to walk with their head held high and with a firm gaze to prevent being denounced by hostile Poles or being arrested by the Germans, which could result in death. 

"One day, a grey-haired lady, referred by one of my friends, came to me. She presented me with a list of a dozen or so names in need of help from 'Żegota'. She lived just a few houses away from me. That's how I met Magda [ed: Mada] Walter”, recalled Władysław Smólski, years later.

After the establishment, in December 1942, of the "Żegota” Council to Aid Jews, Walter turned to its representative, Władysław Smólski, with a request for them to work together. This is how he described his visit to Walter's cosmetic salon:

"At first, I went crazy when I heard my friend questioning some goodlooking, cream-smeared brunette, about the truths of her faith. Then she tells her to say a prayer and a few other prayers. […] She teaches them prayers and catechism. She teaches them how to behave in church, at weddings, funerals and in similar circumstances […]. Each of her charges has a prayer book, a cross or a medallion.”

Those Jews, whose appearance did not allow them to move safely on the street, Walter sent to a surgeon whom she knew. Among other things, he could reduce the effects of circumcision, in men, by restoring the foreskin. Help at ul. Marszałkowska was provided until 7th January 1943, when the Germans searched the premises. Fortunately, they found nothing. After that, Walter said to her "clients", "My dears, just as today's unpleasant incursion has passed, so will the entire turmoil of the war become a memory. And life will call us, we women, without social and religious differences, to carry out heavy duties, but illuminated by the blessing of peace”.

Hiding places, "Aryan papers", employment - the Walter family helping Jews during the Holocaust

"In the dark of an occupation night, the Walter family and their apartment, on ul. Kaliska, were always a shining light to anyone who was being persecuted, regardless of the origins or religion. They would come, knowing that, there, they would find help and care.”

Apart from her beauty salon activity, Mada Walter was involved in other activities together with her husband Edmund and son Ryszard. For escapees from ghettos in Warsaw, Tomaszów Mazowiecki as well as Łódź (Litzmannstadt), there were false identity papers, organised employment and hiding places found. Shelter was provided in such places as an apartment in Ochota - a place which friends called "a branch of the ghetto":

"In Ryszard Walter's apartment at ul. Kaliska 17,despite its small size, there was always room for a few more people who were in mortal danger and were looking for care and support. As the wave of terror increased and the number of people, who needed support also increased, when the apartment could take no more, Ryszard Walter moved out of his own apartment and lived in a small cubicle next to his place of business”, wrote Krystyna Wysokińska in a statement in 1952.

Mada Walter helped to find hiding places for Leopold Lind from Lublin and his relatives, as well as for the Kokotka and Cieślik families from the Tomaszów ghetto. She also organised "Aryan papers” for the Krawczyk family from Tarnów - she placed the children in an orphange in Otwock and found emplyment for the adults.

In her memoirs, she wrote that she had helped about 300 people (not only Jews). After the War, some gave testimonies in her support, among them being Celina Sandler (Janina Czajkowska) with her grandson Andrzej Krauthammer (Czajkowski), a famous post-War pianist, as well as Celinka Berenstein, Malwina Kowalska, Samuel Silberstein, Mojżesz Haftel and Dwora Rosenberg.

Weapons for the Home Army and People's Army - the Walter Family's Other Underground Activity

"[...] guided only by a profound humanitarianism and compassion for the oppressed Jews, she helped everyone who needed help. She totally never took into account the possible dangers, nor the inconvenience of a narrow apartment, nor the costs that the presence of so many strangers entailed”, wrote Rachela Honigman.

A person close to Mada was Rachela Honigman, whom she sheltered in her apartment until the Warsaw Uprising. Together, the women hid an arsenal of weapons for the Home Army [AK] and the People's Army [AL]. As Mada Walter recalls:

"The horror of the occupation atrocities, which increased with the increasing repression of the enemy, made me recognise the importance of prioritising tasks, including cooperating with cells of the AK and AL, for whom my son, a radio technician [ed: Ryszard Walter] operated his own type of broadcasting stations. During his time in Pawiak prison in 1942, as before, I delivered these dangerous items, in baskets of vegetables, to known underground cells.”

Ryszard was released from Pawiak prison, during the Arsenał Operation, on 26th March 1943, upon which he left for Piotrków. His long-time partner, Irena Durska, was not so lucky - she was murdered by the Germans on 20th August 1942.

Mada Walter and her son Ryszarda honoured with the title of "Righteous Among the Nations"

After the fall of the Warsaw Uprising in October 1944, the Walter family evacuated from the city together with the civilian population. In May 1946, Mada Walter, writing her biography in Łódź, and referring to testimonies, submitted by Jews whom she had helped during the German occupation, wrote:

"Joining 'Operation Żegota', from its inception, included me in the joint efforts to rescue unfortunate victims of the occupant. [...] Attributing heroism to me, as the result of constantly endangering my life, is unfortunately an incorrect judgment. I was simply acting subconsciously, not selfishly, feeling the suffering of others as my own.”

On 24th January 1978, the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem, posthumously, honoured Matylda (Mada) Walter with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. This highest award given by the State of Israel, was also bestowed upon her son, Ryszard Walter.

Other Stories of Rescue in the Area

Bibliography

  • Archiwum Instytutu Yad Vashem w Jerozolimie, Departament Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, Dokumenty Mady Walterowej, M.31.2/1222
  • Archiwum Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego w Warszawie, Zbiór relacji Żydów ocalałych z Zagłady, Relacja Mady Walterowej, sygn. 301/5286
  • Bartoszewski Władysław, Lewinówna Zofia, Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej, Warszawa 2007
    This publication consists of 3 parts: monographic outline of the issue of aid given to the Jews; collection of German and Polish documents concerning the histories of Jews and the aid given to them; collection of the post-war reports created by Poles and Jews about the aid.