The Banasiewicz Family

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More about the Banasiewicz family

The Banasiewicz family lived in Orzechowce, a village located 10 kilometers north of Przemyśl. Franciszek Banasiewicz was born in Warsaw, and his wife Magdalena came from Handzlówka, a village near Łańcut.

The couple met and married near Zbaraż situated near Tarnopol. After moving several times, they settled down in the village of Orzechowce, near Magdalena’s hometown, where her brother Antoni lived as well. 

Franciszek was a decorative painter and worked from spring to fall. Magdalena was responsible for running a small household. They had four children: Maria, Władysław, Antoni and Tadeusz.

The War

The Nazis overtook the city of Przemyśl on September 15th, 1939. Twelve days later the Red Army entered the area. The city was divided into two occupation zones, the San River marking the border. In June 1941, after the breakout of the German-Soviet War, the Nazis began occupying the part of Przemyśl situated on the right bank of the river.

From the very beginning, the Nazis who were present in Przemyśl were ruthless toward the Jewish residents of the city, many of whom were shot dead or chased away to the Soviet zone. On July 16, 1942, the occupiers established a ghetto where they imprisoned the Jews from Przemyśl and the surrounding area, 22,000 people altogether.

The Poles suffered from repressions too. One of the components of the Nazi policy toward the Polish population in the General Government was forced labor to deliver free man power to the Third Reich. It was as early as 1939 when all the Poles aged 18 to 60 were covered by the forced labor order. Later,  the age limit was lowered to 14 years of age.

The moment the war broke out, Tadeusz Banasiewicz, son of Magdalena and Franciszek, was 14 years old. Sent to Germany to work in forced labor, he ran away and in 1942 returned to Poland. At first, he remained in hiding in Handzlówka in fear of the Ukrainian police, and then went back home. 

The Rescue: 1942

For the Jews of Orzechowce, Maćkowice and Ujkowice the Nazis issued a separate order. The people were to gather in an estate in Maćkowice where they were allegedly supposed to work. Salomon (Szlomko) Ehrenfreund, a Jew from Orzechowce, ended up there along with his family.

After a few days it was clear what the true intention of the Nazis was. The Jews crowded in Maćkowice were transported to a forest where they were killed. “Lined up in a queue, sobbing and praying, deprived of will, we approached the Nazis one by one”.This is how Szlomko related the story to the Banasiewicz family; Tadeusz’s sister, Maria Kurek, cites the same story in her account for the Jewish Historical Institute. He[Szlomko]saw how the Nazis, shooting only once,  killed his mother-in-law, then his sister and his two children, then his other sister, brother-in-law, and finally, his little daughter and wife. “When it was my turn, something inside me rebelled, and I asked myself why should I die like a meek lamb? Why should I agree to that? Some new force got into me and I started to run. Junek Frankiel followed me. They shot at us but they missed. Bushes and trees stood in their way. They were not looking for us, nor were they chasing after us. We were saved.”

Miraculously saved, Szlomko returned to Orzechowce, his home village. He counted on his neighbors’ help and he was not disappointed. Józef Kościak got him some clothes and let him stay in the attic for the first few days. Later, Szlomko hid in the farmyard belonging to Antoni Lenar, Magdalena’s brother. Ultimately, he found some shelter at Franciszek and Magdalena Banasiewicz’s, who let him hide in the barn. Tadeusz, the son of the owners, who was an escapee himself, took care of Szlomko.

Szlomko’s brother, Izaak, stayed in Przemyśl. Szlomko left his shelter in Orzechowce twice and went to his brother, to the ghetto from which he also fled twice and thus avoided transportation. At last, he asked Franciszek to help his brother. After some deliberation, the Banasiewicz family decided to accept Izaak.

He came to us and then ran away, he stayed during the winter, then he came again and again he ran away. He said there was going to be some action [Aktion] or something… And he mentioned that he had a brother,  to take him, you know, the one who had been staying at our place. There were seven of us in the house. So we gathered for a discussion. My father, mother, sister Marysia and I, and we were thinking what to do… I was for letting him stay, as I have always been compassionate.

Ehrenfreund wrote a letter to his brother. Banasiewicz passed it on to Maria Kuraś who helped organize escapes from the ghetto. Her apartment, with the ghetto commander Schwammberger’s lodgings next door, was a peculiar “transfer point”. Maria found Izaak and gave him the letter. Informed of the possibility of hiding outside the ghetto, Izaak jumped at the chance and joined his brother.

Along with him, there came two others in need: the Ehrenefreunds’ relative, Kuba Nassan and Marcel Tajch.

The Rescue: 1943

Some time later, probably in May or June 1943, Tadeusz brought to Orzechowce another three persons, Janina Tajch, Marcel’s relative, Eugenia (Giena) Nassan, Jakub’s wife, and Fajga Wajdenbaum.

In the subsequent months, the Banasiewicz family accepted the following persons: Edmund Orner, a Jew from Łapajówka, the circumstances of whose arrival Tadeusz does not remember clearly, Beniamin (Bunio) Sztampater and Fela Szatner who, thanks to Marcel Tajch, ended up at the Banasiewiczs’ in October 1943. She stayed in Orzechowce for two, maybe three months, until her parents found a shelter for their entire family on Basztowa Street – and then Tadeusz accompanied Fela back to Przemyśl.

Banasiewicz did not know the Jews he saved beforehand. The newcomers arrived at his farmyard usually at the request of someone who had already been staying there.

Supplying food

In the second half of 1943, as many as 10 people were in hiding in the Banasiewiczs’ barn. Tadeusz’s mother Magdalena and his sister Maria were the ones who took care of the laundry and preparation of meals and Tadeusz was responsible for delivering food. For the jewelry and dollars he received from the hiding Jews he bought food in a trusted shop.

As for the shopping, they used to make a list of what they needed. The shop was on Franciszkańska Street and you could get there anything you wanted. (…) A Polish shop. I always showed up with a piece of paper in my hand, and some jewelry and dollars (…) I gave away everything and they gave me everything that was on the list… I don’t know what kind of relationshipthey [the hidden Jews] had with them before and after… They had contacts everywhere. It was enough for me to come and they gave me everything...

However, the food for so many people could not be bought in one store and taken home unnoticed. That is why the shopping was done in different places, and Tadeusz’s sister Maria helped him do this.

The Shelter

The winter was approaching and sleeping on the ground could lead to illness, and a doctor’s visit was out of the question. A decision was made to build a shelter. It was to be an underground bunker with an entrance in the cow barn beneath the trough so that the cows could tread the footprints. It took two weeks to do this.

Stage by stage, we would dig under the ground and board the shelter without delay (…) It was Nassan who was the leader. The Jews dug themselves. (…) I myself took the soil to the field, to the dung heap. (…)They brought the baskets, I only emptied them and gave them back to them. Two plank beds, one for two people, were placed in the shelter whose walls were covered with straw matting. 

The Rescue: 1944

In the early 1944, a decision was made to accept new people to Orzechowce. Someone with money was needed this time: “We had to live on something…for there were seven of us [the Banasiewiczs], and fourteen of them [the hiding ones]… And so they came up with an idea to take Reinharz, for he had money, because he was a shoemaker who made shoes for the SS,for all of them…,” Tadeusz recounts.

The Reinharz family had three members: Beniamin, his second wife Berta and his son Samuel (Samek) from the first marriage. Marysia, the Reinharzs’ daughter, had already been placed with nuns in Przemyśl. The plan for Samek, who was a supplier for the ghetto and could leave it legally, was that he would hide the family in a carriage and take them away. Józef Wajdling, a Jewish policeman from Wolbrom, was to be a third passenger.  

The Escape from the Ghetto

Tadeusz had been waiting for the escapees near the gates. The deputy commander, Brzdok, noticed him and ordered to arrest him. Wajdling, who was a guard in a detention house, informed Reinharz about it and together, they bribed Brzdok and Tadeusz was set free.

The second time everything went according to plan.

Next day we agreed to meet at Kopernika Street, situated near Reymonta Street, I was to wait there, and it was quite a while I had been waiting and he didn’t show up. In the evening he broughthis parents, she wasn’t his mother, as the father married for the second time, but he broughtthem to the platform, the horse Kubuś and the policeman, oh! They left and arrived where I had been waiting, they got off, with a whip he made the horse turn back and the horse headed for the ghetto itself… and only then,he raised an alarm, some guy - Maślanka was standing at the gates, someone gave an alarm…

Getting from the Przemyśl ghetto to Orzechowce was not an easy thing to do given the fact that four Jewish escapees, including lamely walking Berta, were being transported. However, they made it. As it turned out later, Franciszek Banasiewicz and Beniamin Reinharz had met before the war, as they both were engaged in the Socialist movement. Beniamin recognized Franciszek when the latter came to the shelter: “Franek! I didn’t know I was staying with you!”

Lotka Pepper was the last to arrive at the Banasiewiczs’. It was around March 1944. She was a friend of Wajdling and before that, she and two other Jewish women had been hiding at Mr. and Mrs. Kapitan’s on Słowackiego Street in Przemyśl.

Maria Kuraś from Przemyśl, who was mentioned before, helped Izaak, Janina, Giena, Fajfa, Wajdling and the Reinharzs to escape for which she was arrested by the Germans and sent to a camp in Płaszów. Yet, she managed to survive.

The Life in Hiding

In spite of all the terror, Tadeusz remembers the hiding people as far from depressed. “There were some cheerful situations sometimes, laughing and jokes,” Tadeusz says. He also reminisces with a laugh how Reinharz, a Socialist, was trying to teach others the philosophy of Marx and Engels.

The Banasiewiczs and the Jews they were hiding celebrated Christmas Eve of 1943 together. Fela Szatner composed some rhyming Christmas greetings:

                                                    To the hosts our greetings
                                                    May they live happily
                                                    And the Bunker people
                                                    Hope they get rid of them easily
                                                    Up the glasses
                                                    To the hosts’ health!
                                                    Hope for the quick comeback
                                                    Of the two elder sons

Tadeusz’s attitude is well illustrated by the following recollection. The hiding people asked him: “»What will you be doing, Tadek, when we are gone?«. »What will I be doing? Well, I’ll take Schwammberger and Brzdok [the ghetto commander and his deputy – editor’s note], for you’re here because of them. They will then come here, and you we will be free«”.

The only disagreement Tadeusz remembers was between Reinharz and Kuba Nassan. Tadeusz tried to ease the tension but there was no use.“Listen to me, Tadek, they’re going to kill me here… I want to go to Tarnawce [to a shelter at the Kurpiel’s family – editor’s note]”. This was what Nassan asked him for in May 1944. Tadeusz went to find out whether moving would be possible, but before anything was decided, the Nazis hunted down the shelter in Tarnawce and killed all the hiding Jews and the Poles who helped them.

The news frightened the Banasiewiczs and their protégés. In order to avoid being caught, they decided to connect the bunker with the house by means of an underground tunnel. The execution of the plan proved to be too difficult to accomplish. Heavy rainfall caused that the tunnel they dug collapsed and the works were abandoned.

The Liberation

Soon afterwards, in July 1944, a rumor was spread that the Russians had reached Przemyśl. The next day, when the Russian tanks appeared in Orzechowce, the shelter inhabitants were safe to leave their hiding place.

According to Tadeusz, a few people knew or guessed that the Banasiewiczs had been hiding Jews. It can be stated for sure that one of these people was Antoni Lenar, Tadeusz’s mother’s brother, and several other people he knew. Tadeusz remembers that not all of the people were favorably inclined toward Jews, however, nobody denounced them to the Nazis.

After the War

Soon after the liberation, Tadeusz’s wartime protégés returned to Przemyśl. However, they gradually began leaving both the city and the country. At least for some time, Tadeusz kept exchanging letters with most of them. 

Jakub Nassan became director of a brewery in Ostrów.

Izaak Ehrenfreund and Janina Tajch got married. The two of them, along with Salomon Ehrenfreund and Edmund Orner emigrated to Australia. Orner and Izaak with his family settled down in Australia for good.  Salomon returned to Europe and settled in Vienna. Fela Szatner ended up in Australia as well. She married there and assumed her husband’s name, Midalia.

Beniamin Sztampater, who married a Catholic and the Reinharzs emigrated to the USA, where Beniamin and Samuel lived for the rest of their lives. At the end of her life, Berta, Beniamin’s wife, went to Tel Aviv, where Fajga Wajdenbaum lived as well.

Lotka Pepper and Józef Wajdling got married after the war. From Berlin they kept writing letters to Tadeusz, but when they went to the United States, they lost contact.

Maria Reinharz, current name Miriam Klein, Beniamin Reinharz’s daughter,got married and probably lives in Israel now. She, Fela Szatnerand Janina Ehrenfreund applied to the Yad Vashem Museum to award the Banasiewicz family the Righteous Among the Nations title.