The Rendzner family

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It's so hot in Saska Kępa. Story of Magdalena Gross hiding at the Rendzner family

Magdalena Gross, a sculptor, hosted her first solo exhibition in 1926. Several years later she went through a creative crisis and thought she was “finished, artistically,” but her visit to the Warsaw Zoo convinced her that she was wrong. She became a familiar figure at the zoo and developed a deep fascination with the animal world. From then on Magdalena concentrated on sculpting animals, for which she acquired wide recognition. During the German occupation of Poland, as a Jew, she had to stay in hiding. She was helped by the director of the zoo Jan Żabiński and his wife Antonina, as well as by the Rendzner family.


At the ZOO

Magdalena did not move into the Warsaw Ghetto when it was established and instead chose to live “out in the open” adopting the name Gościmska. But as a well-known artist, she ran the risk of being recognized and denounced to the Germans, so the Żabiński family agreed to help her.

They Żabińskis hid Magdalena in their villa, giving her the code name of “the Starling”. Whenever an unknown guest arrived, the Starling would flee upstairs and hide from danger in the attic, the bathroom or sometimes in the back of a built-in wardrobe. In her memoirs, Antonina emphasized Magdalena’s strength of character and calmness, which she did not lose despite her predicament. “She would whistle, as starlings do, at her plight,” Antonina wrote.   

It's so hot! Hiding in Saska Kępa

When the Żabińskis suspected that some of their workers had found out that Magdalena Gross was being hidden at the zoo they organized a new place of refuge for her. With the help of Janina Bucholtz-Bukolska from Żegota, Magdalena moved to Saska Kępa to live with the Rendzner family at 31 Zakopiańska Street. Jan Rendzner, an engineer, togehter with his wife Janina and daughter Zofia lived in the house. Magdalena and Zofia met during one of the round-ups on Nowy Świat Street in Warsaw, before the Ghetto was established. 

Magdalena was given her own room in the attic, far enough from the main part of the house to remain hidden, but near enough to be able to hear what was going on downstairs. Whenever an unexpected guest arrived at the house, one of the Rendzners would exclaim: “It’s so hot!”, and thus warning Magdalena not to move from the attic. She used to come downstairs when the coast was clear in the evenings and sometimes even joined her hosts on the terrace. In all Magdalena spent a year and a half with the Rendzners.

One day the Germans turned up unannounced at the house in Saska Kępa, searching for male inhabitants; all men from the area were being rounded up to be deported to forced labour camps. But when they entered they were confronted with a baffling scene, specifically concocted by Janina Rendzner to divert their attention. Magdalena was standing in the middle of the living room, wearing an apron and working on a sculpture of Janina (which actually was already finished), while her subject was posing in front of her. As planned, the Germans became very interested in the sculpting process and started to ask various detailed questions. When they eventually left, Magdalena and Janina looked at each other with relief and both sat down at the same moment, feeling very faint. 

Maurycy Fraenkel (Paweł Zieliński), a dear friend of Magdalena, was visiting her in Saska Kępa. After the Warsaw Uprising Magdalena and Maurycy Fraenkel, who were now married, moved to Lublin. There, she was invited by her artist friends from the “Palette” café to collaborate with a local puppet theater, by sculpting heads for the puppets. Magdalena and her husband returned to Warsaw a year later but her health was starting to deteriorate. The trauma of the war had taken its toll on Magdalena, who she got progressively frailer, eventually dying aged 57, in 1948. 

Other Stories of Rescue in the Area

Bibliography

  • Igor Bloch, Interview with Magdalena Czerwosz, daughter of Zofia Rendzner, Warszawa 26.08.2014
  • Mieczysław Wallis, Magdalena Gross, Warszawa 1957