Story of rescue

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“I’ve lived through hell on earth, but I have a clear conscience”. The story of Jakub and Zofia Gargasz

On 9 February 1944, most probably as the resullt of being denounced by a neighbour, the Germans came to the house of the Gargasz family together with Polish Blue Police and a guide from the town council. Henia Katz, who was hidden there, was shot, but Gargaszs were arrested. On 19 April 1944, by a verdict of the German court, Gargaszs were sentenced to death. The Gargasz couple’s older son pleaded for his parents to be pardoned.


Jakub and Zofia Gargasz lived in Brzozów near Krosno with their sons. That same place was also home to the Jewish Katz family who ran a drapery store and were comfortably well-off. Zofia Gargasz and Henia Katz knew each other and were friends.

The Germans occupied the town in September 1939. By the summer of 1942, the Brzozów ghetto held about one thousand local Jews, together with around five hundred Jews from the nearby villages. The liquidation of  the ghetto began in August. In the first instance, the young men (up to 35 years-old) were removed and sent to work. The remaining residents – the elderly, the women and the children – were condemned to extermination. Some were sent to the Bełżec death camp. On 9th August, others were ordered to assemble at the Brzozów stadium, from where they were taken into the forest and shot. Around eight hundred individuals perished in this manner. 

Henia Katz, at the time around 65 years-old, did not go to the stadium – she managed to flee. According to some accounts, she fled together with her son. According to other accounts, she had no children. She searched for refuge. She spent the first three days with some official but, as Zofia Gargasz recalled, “he got rid of her because he was afraid”.

Gargasz’s help for Henia Katz

Henia knocked on the door of her friends, the Gargasz family, but Jakub refused to help her. She hid amongst the hazel trees near the house. Zofia, having learned from her husband that Henia was in the area, sent her twelve-year old son Eugeniusz with bread and with a message: „I told him to tell her to stay where she was until the evening”.

However, Henia did leave her hiding-place before darkness fell. Zofia said:

It was still light and, upon a neighbour seeing her, she ran over immediately. As the Jewish woman barged into the stable, I was miling a cow. I told her to hide behind the door, so that my neighbour couldn’t see her. The neighbour said to me that I was hiding Mrs Katz. I replied that she had left because I wouldn’t let her stay. But the neighbour didn’t believe me. She had also had Jews, but she had robbed them and threw them out, because she had a Volksdeutsch lover. She spied on me for over eighteen months.

Despite the attitude of their neighbours, Zofia and Jakub Gargasz decided to help Henia and arranged a hiding-place for her on their farm. Zofia recalled:

We had three and a half acres of land, so that we had something to put into the pot and it was warm inside. She, Henia Katz, just like us, wanted to survive this war, but she had seen only death before her eyes. When she came to us, she was certainly hungry and tired. She had to keep going, knocking on one door after another. She wanted to go into the basement, even for just one night.

The couple were religious, which is something which also influenced their decision. Years later, Zofia recalled the conversation she had with her husband, that day, at the same time reading excerpts from the Bible.

Henia Katz stayed in the Gargasz farmhouse for about eighteen months. Most often, she remained in a hiding-place amongst straw which had been scattered in the attic of one of the farm buildings. At the same time, Zofia’s sister was also hiding members of the Katz family – Henia’s niece and two sons were living in one of the rooms. Only during times of danger did they hide in the attic of the house or in the woodshed behind trees. 

At the beginning, the Katz family entrusted some of their goods and assets to their former, trusted clustomers. Henia Katz sent Zofia to retrieve some of those things which were to be used to pay for the food for her and her family. Only some of the people, with whom she had left items, agreed to return them.

Search by the Germans, court process, death penalty

Although Henia spent almost all the time in the hiding-place, in 1944, when it appeared that the war was coming to an end and the situation was a little calmer, she would leave it more frequently. On 9th February, most probably as the resullt of being denounced by a neighbour, German officers arrived at the Gargasz family’s home, accompanied by Polish Blue Police and a guide from the town council. They conducted a search.

Henia Katz was shot on the spot. The Gargasz couple was arrested and imprisoned in Brzozów and then transported to Sanok. On 19th April 1944, by the verdict of a court, they were sentenced to death.

Special Court at the German Court in Rzeszów at the meeting on 19th April in Sanok, composed of the director of the Land Court Mr. Pooth  as chairman, District Court counselor Dr. Aldenhoff, councilor of the  District Court Mr. Stümpel as judges of the adjudicating panel, prosecutor Dr. Nauman as a prosecutor’s office clerk, court bailiff Mr. Hagelstein as an official of the Chancellery of the Court, rules: the accused Zofia and Jakub Gargasz are sentenced to death [...].

The Gargasz couple’s older son, who during the occupation was a forced labourer in Germany, pleaded for his parents to be pardoned. After the verdict had been handed down, the Gargasz couple were taken to Rzeszów and, two months later, the death penalty was commuted. Zofia was finally sentenced three years’ imprisonment and her husband to one year. Zofia testified that she, alone, had helped Henia Katz and that her husband knew nothing about it. At the end of July 1944, Zofia was taken to the prison on Montelupich Street in Kraków, and her husband was freed. After a week in the Kraków prison, she was transported into the Third Reich, first to Jator and then to Grozrochaim and the Dachau concentration camp. She then ended up in one of the labour camps. It was there that she was liberated by the Americans. In 1946, she returned to Poland.

After the war, Zofia wrote:

If our people had have been different, then more would have survived. I would not have been searched by the Germans if Poles had not betrayed me. I have lived through hell on earth, but I have a clear conscience, because I neither hurt nor betrayed anyone.

On 8th May 1979, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem honoured Jakub and Zofia Gargasz with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Bibliography

  • Archiwum Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, Dział Dokumentacji Odznaczeń Yad Vashem, 349/24/290
  • Martin Dean, ‎Geoffrey P. Megargee (red.), Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945, Bloomington–Indianapolis 2012
  • Grynberg Michał, Księga Sprawiedliwych, Warszawa 1993

    The lexicon includes the stories of Poles honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations in the years 1963-1989. The list of entries is preceded by a preface by Icchak Arad and Chaim CheferThe Righteous of the World.

  • Żbikowski Andrzej red., Polacy i Żydzi pod okupacją niemiecką 1939-1945. Studia i materiały, Warszawa 2006

    The publication consists of articles whose authors analyze certain aspects of Polish-Jewish relations during the German occupation. The book contains six regional studies and four thematic studies devoted to, among other things, Polish Righteous and the negative attitudes of Poles toward Jews.

  • 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.