The Sobolewski Family

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“Mum isn’t Mum, Dad isn’t Dad”: the Story of Joanna Sobolewska-Pyz (Grynszpan) and her Polish Parents, Walerian and Anastazja Sobolewski

In May 1943, Walerian and Anastazja Sobolewski took care of Joasia. Her parents, Halina and Tadeusz Grynszpan, probably perished in the Treblinka extermination camp. In November 1942, the little girl, placed in a basket, was thrown over the Warsaw Ghetto wall thanks to help from Stanisław Gombiński, a policeman of the Jewish Order Service (pol. Żydowska Służba Porządkowa). On the “Aryan side”, for some time, she stayed with Wanda Bruno-Niczowa, a Polish language teacher, a Jewish woman on false papers”. Joanna, later called “Inka”, discovered that she was a Jewish child rescued from the ghetto, when she was eighteen. In 1991, when the Association of “Children of the Holocaust” in Poland was established, she became an active member and, betwen 2012 and 2018, she served as its President.

“Mum woke up and motioned me to bend down”, says Joanna about maintaining a vigil by the hospital bed of the dying Anastazja Sobolewska. It was 1958. Her mother then shared a secret with her. “I realised that I was born our of wedlock. Of course, I fantasised that I was the fruit of some fiery romance”.

After Anastazja’s passing, Walerian Sobolewski expected that his daughter would takeover responsilibity for the household. As a result, there were frequent conflicts. “You’re not my child or mum’s child. You’re a child taken from the ghetto”, he said during one stormy conversation. “I took out the cigarettes stolen from my father and lit one. Dad didn’t notice that I was smoking. He’d lit one himself and so didn’t notice”.

Who am I? What am I?”, I wondered. “Mum isn’t mum, dad isn’t dad, aunts are not aunts, cousins are not cousins – everything around me isn’t true. I’m a strange, lonely person. […] but there are many things on my mind… school, ball games, bicycling, romance… I was preparing for matriculation and for university entry examinations. I forgot about the issue and, when I remembered again, I began living with it”.

– said Joanna Sobolewska-Pyz (Grynszpan) in an interview for POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in March 2019.

A little girl from the ghetto. Help from Stanisław Gombiński and Wanda Bruno-Niczowa

During the German occupation, Anastazja and Walerian Sobolewski lived in Warsaw at 8 Wilcza Street, apt. 26. He was the owner of a company dealing with sanitation and water supply installations in many Polish cities. She was a housewife with Russian aristocratic origins. They had met in St. Petersburg in the 1920’s. They were affluent, childless and planned to adopt a war orphan. They tried to take in a child from the Zamojszczyzna – a region taken over by the Germans who had forced the eviction of children. They were not successful. In the spring of 1943, through a friend, they found out about a girl who had been smuggled into the “Aryan side” from the Warsaw Ghetto.

From 18th April 1943, she was being cared for by Wanda Bruno-Niczowa on Krasińskiego Street in Żoliborz. Mrs Niczowa, being a Poilish language teacher, conducted secret classes and was involved in rescuing Jews. It should be added that she, herself, was also Jewish and was related to Joanna’s family. She was living on “Aryan papers”.  

The child, placed into a basket, was thrown over the Warsaw Ghetto wall onto the “Aryan side”. A lawyer, Stanisław Gombiński (pseud. Jan Mawult), serving as a policeman in the leadership of the Jewish Order Service, helped to organise this. There are two – somewhat contradictory – accounts of what later happened to Joasia.

According to Jadwiga Skrzydłowska who, after the war, testified at the trial of Stanisław Gombiński before the Verification Commissioner of the Warsaw District Bar Council, Gombiński helped to smuggle Joanna from the ghetto to the “Aryan side” in November 1942. The girl then went to an unknown Polish family.

In turn, according to Wanda Bruno-Niczowa, who, at Joanna’s request, submitted a written account in June 1961, the girl was brought to Niczowa’s apartment by a Polish policeman from the Blue Police on 18th April 1943. Niczowa wrote, “When I was hiding Joanna, people began to blackmail me. The Sobolewski couple family came to my aid”.

The first memory. The Sobolewski Couple

“I remember how my parents came to get me. I liked my mum very much, she had such makeup. Mrs Niczowa said, ‘This is your mummy and this is your daddy’”.

Anastazja and Walerian Sobolewski saw the little girl for the first time on 2nd May 1943, on their way to celebrate the name day of their friend Zygmunt who lived in Żoliborz.

“On the way, we went to see Mrs. Niczowa to see Inka [Joanna – ed.]. She was a very pretty girl, with platinum blonde hair and blue eyes. My wife liked her very much and so we decided to take her on our way back from the party”, recalled Walerian Sobolewski in 1962, in a letter to Inka’s Jewish family, whom she located in Israel in the early 1960’s.

“The name day event was held in a depressing mood, so we hurried back to collect Inka. We were afraid that she would cry and that it might arouse suspicion, especially as she was dressed so terribly – in an old hat and in an old lady’s jacket. [...] Public transport was disrupted due to the liquidation of the ghetto [the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – ed.]. When we sat down on one of the five benches on a cart, people began looking at us suspiciously, because our clothes were very different from Inka’s. The only thing missing was the crying but, luckily, she didn’t cry. For the sake of appearances in front of these people, my wife and I began complaining about cousins from the countryside, who had sent Inka to the doctor so badly dressed. Nobody probably believed in this theatre but, fortunately, there were no nasty people there”.

Joanna, called “Inka”, lived with the Sobolewski couple in their home in the Śródmieście district of Warsaw.

“Two young nieces were in the apartment, so they began bathing Inka, while my wife, together with a friend, began sewing a dress for her. After some time, we began to get nervous again. The neighbour, who lived one floor below, was intently watching Inka on the stairs. We were afraid that he might suspect something”.

“In a tenement like that, it’s a little like being in a village. Everyone knew everyone else. They all knew that there had been no child and suddenly a four-year-old appears”, adds Joanna Sobolewska. 

Fearing denunciation, the Sobolewski turned to Mrs Niczowa to formally transfer the child to Father Boduen Children's Home, where, during the German occupation, many Jewish children were hidden. From there, the Sobolewski couple were to take Joanna on the basis of a prepared declaration dated 28th June 1943.

Raids and Arrests. Everyday Life in Occupied Warsaw

“As a child, I especially liked screaming of the sirens. Then, we would descend from the fourth floor to the caretaker’s apartment in the basement. It was a great attraction for me and the other children from the tenement”, Joanna Sobolewska recalling the moments when the air raids on occupied Warsaw were carried out by the Soviet air force. They bombarded German military facilities and transport hubs, but bombs also fell on densely populated residential areas.

Another important memory dates back to the winter of 1943. At that time, Walerian Sobolewski was arrested by the Gestapo and was taken to Pawiak prison:

“Every day, prisoners’ families kept close watch on the lists, posted on the walls, of those shot dead. One of them was Stanisław Sobolewski. Upon hearing about this, her mother fainted at home [...] Distraught, she forgot that her father was called ‘Stach’ [Stanisław – ed.] only by [his wife] and he even celebrated his name day on 8th May. It was his middle name, so the tragic news was about someone else. My father came back after a few months”.

In July 1944, just before the Warsaw Uprising, the Sobolewski family moved to Milanówek. “To my father’s friend. We lived in the Michałowicz family’s villa. We ate apples. For many years, I couldn’t look at apples. Probably due to the hunger, we [later] went to the village of Murzynki near Mszczonów”.

One day, the Germans came for Walerian. “I was screaming so badly that they left. We had a puppy called Lalka. When we went for walks, I yelled, ‘Hold Lalka! Hold Lalka, otherise the Germans will take her’. A Jewish child worrying about a dog…”.

Searching. The Jewish Grynszpan Family 

In the 1960’s, Joanna Sobolewska located Mrs Niczowa.

“She gave me the names of my mother, father and grandparents. My grandfather was Marian Zylberbart and he was an ear, nose and throat specialist. He worked in Otwock sanatoriums. My grandmother’s name was Rozalia Ewelina (nee Gesundheit) Zylberbart and was a bacteriologist. [...] Mrs. Niczowa was my grandfather’s patient and my mother was her student. [...] I also found out that Felicja, Adam Czerniaków’s wife, was a close cousin of my great-grandmother […]”.

When she began searching for her Jewish family, Inka included this information in an advertisement in an Israeli newspaper. “At that time, relations with Israel were severed because of the Six Day War [between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria in 1967; The Israeli Embassy in Poland had closed – ed.]. So I took the advertisement to the Dutch legation, who passed the information on to the appropriate Israeli office”.

Her mother’s uncle, Bolek (Dov) Prusak, responded:

“[...] they lived together, at 57 Nowolipie Street. [...] my mother, Halina was like his sister. In 1935, [uncle] went on vacation to organise basketball in Palestine and he stayed. He corresponded with his mother. In a letter dated 28th August 1939, she wrote to him, ‘On July 31, Halina gave birth to a daughter. Her name is Joanna. Both are well’. And I had it written in my documents that I was born on 31st August. And I have that to this daye, the day before the war”.

“Communist Poland would not let me go [to Israel], I traveled illegally via Denmark. In the 1950’s, Uncle Bolek also brought the aunt to Israel, a distant family who had survived in Russia [Soviet Union – ed.]. They both picked me up at the airport. […] It was an insane experience. I’ve since been in Israel four more times”.


Children of the Holocaust. Joanna Sobolewska’s Fate After the War

Joanna Sobolewska graduated in sociology at the University of Warsaw. She worked at the National Library and later at the Youth Research Institute. For most of her professional life, she was associated with the Institute of Sociology of the University of Warsaw

In 1991, she became a member of the Association of “Children of the Holocaust” in Poland, uniting Jews who survived the Holocaust in Poland, who were born between 1926 and 1945. This began his communal activity.

“I was active from the very beginning of the Association of ‘Children of the Holocaust’. My son was familiar with it, as I am with Catholicism. […] He believed that every mother belongs to the Association of ‘Children of the Holocaust’”.

In the years 2012–2018, she served as President of the Association.

She was a co-cordinator of the publication of five volumes of memoirs entitled “The Children of the Holocaust Speak…” and a website contained videos – “A Record of Memory”. She was the initiator of the exhibition “My Jewish Parents, My Polish Parents”, presenting the stories of fifteen children who survived the Holocaust. It was presented at POLIN Museum in 2015.

“Nothing interests me more that the fate of people during the Holocaust. Livingin such a time... What did they feel when they left their child? Can you imagine what it must have been like to separate from your child?”.

A Medal for the Sobolewski Couple. Righteous Among the Nations 

It never occurred to me to apply for a medal for my parents. People have children and no medals. After all, they were my parents. They took me because they wanted to. But, when I was applying for a medal for Maria Prokopowicz-Wierzbowska, Director of the Father Boduen Children’s Home, so that she would get a medal. I wrote my biography. And my parents received a medal which I didn’t ask for. But I’m glad that they got it”.

On 19th July 2006, the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem honoured posthumously Walerian and Anastazja Sobolewski with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Years later, Joanna Sobolewska-Pyz found a photo in which she saw her mother, Halina Zylberbart, in her youth: [...] when I saw this photo, I saw my hands”.

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Joanna Sobolewska-Pyz wants to commemorate Jews who, like Stanisław Gombiński and Wanda Bruno-Niczowa, lived in mortal danger during the Holocaust, helping other Jews. Such people are not recognised by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem with the title of Righteous Among the Nations”. Joanna believes that, regardless of their origin, they are still worthy of being honored and being remembered.

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