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“Our apartment became a hiding-place for people who were being persecuted”. The Story of the Kukulski Family

During the occupation, Maria Kukulska and Anna, her teenage daughter, lived in a two-room apartment at 15 Markowska Street in the Warsaw suburb of Praga.

Maria Kukulska (nee Kaliwoda) came from a traditional, patriotic family. A teacher, who was associated with the pre-War Polska Partia Socjalistyczna (Polish Socialist Party; then: PPS), she raised her daughter in a spirit of openness. Before the War, Anna was friends with a Jewish girl with whom other girls her age did not want to play.

During the occupation, Maria ran several secret locations (among them, in the basement of the basilica on Kawęczyńska Street) and was involved with the underground. Among other activities, she gave shelter to those who needed it. She became friendly with Irena Sendler. They worked together. Jews were directed to her apartment, some of whom stayed long-term. At that time, her daughter, Anna, was frequently visited by her friends. The girls played the piano, sang and danced in one room. However, they were not allowed to enter either the kitchen or the second room. In her 1993 statement for the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem, Anna wrote:

During this period, my mother tried not to completely involve me in the secret details of her activities, although I figured out many things for myself.

Those Under Her Care

The first to hide there – most probably in 1941 – were brought to Markowska Street by a relative, Kazimiera Trzaskalska. They were two middle-aged, “cultured ladies”. Soon after, a lawyer and “another man” came to live there. In a 1997 interview for the Shoah Foundation, Anna said that the lawyer “[…] was so frightened. He didn't want to sleep in the room. He slept in the kitchen. He stayed for a few months. I think that he perished”, and the other man “had a very semitic appearance, tall, thirty-years-old, pleasant and also frightened”.

In 1942, when I was sixteen, my mother decided to let me in on all her activities and, at the same time, asked me a question: “Do you agree with us continuing to let people who are Jews come to hide with us? Do you understand the danger that threatens us in doing so?”. I replied, “Yes, where else would they go?”.  

Those who came were brought by Irena Sendler and “auntie” Trzaskalska. The apartment provided “emergency care” where, children brought out of the ghetto, were taight the Polish language, Catholic prayers and were cared for after being separated from their loved ones.

Ten-year-old Irka Wojdowska was brought by Sendler after the fall of “At Jadwiga's” in Kole. Jadwiga Bilin and Jadwiga Koszutska lived on Obozowa Street. They were involved with the communist movement and with the underground. Their home served, not only as a place of refuge, but also as a transfer point, “from where Jews were directed to the partisans and were doctors carried out the aryanisation of noses and foreskins”. The raid took place in July 1943. Blackmailers had discovered the “den” by following one of those in hiding. Irka, after leaving the ghetto, wandered around with her brother Bogdan [Bogdan Wojdowski, a writer and author of the novel Chleb rzucony umarłym (Bread Tossed to the Dead) – ed.]. She had to part from him. Sendler took her to an orphanage in Świder and then, later, brought her to the Kukulski home.

Leon Szarak and Stefan Zgrzembski (occupation aliases) stayed longer at Markowska Street. They lived in one room.

Leon (Mojżesz, Adam or Roman Baseches), a doctor and pulmonary specialist, came from Lwów. Together with Irena Sendler, who brought him to ulica Markowska, he was contacted by Maria Palester. They knew each from before the War. He was close to suicide then they met in occupied Warsaw.

Stefan Zgrzembski (Adam Celnikier) , a lawyer, was involved with Sendler. They met in the 1930's. She would visit him in the Warsaw ghetto where, most probably, he ran a discussion club and drew young people into news distribution. On the "Aryan side", he wrote for underground newspapers. He certainly hid in the Kukulski home from April 1943.

At the end of 1942, the Kukulski mother and daughter met fifteen-year-old Jerzy Korczak and supported him until the end of the War. Jerzy had come to Warsaw in the late autumn of that year, after extracting himself from the ghetto in Kraków where he had lived, with his mother, since 1941. When she was transported to Auschwitz, a friend helped him to escape. Jerzy made contact with the undreground. “Thanks to 'favourable' external conditions, I acted quite courageously”, he wrote in a statement for Yad Vashem.

According to Anna Bikont, who writes about this in her Sendler biography, Jerzy accosted Anna Kukulska in a park. He was wondering how he could earn money, needing to support himself. “Anna invited him home and they became boyfriend and girlfriend. It was only years later, after the War, that she found out that he was a Jew”.

He had no permanent place to live.

[…] but [I was] constantly safeguarded by quarters on Markowska, where I stayed almost every day, where I was fed and, if necessary, where I was supplied with some cash. I slept there many times. I sometimes brought friends, who were in danger, to spend the night.

One of them was Marian Wiśniewski (Jurek Gross).

Stefan Zgrzembski became a mentor to the boys where were supported.

He prepared lessons for them on ancient history and sociology. He gave them notes which he had written himself.

Underground activity at Markowska Street was centred around him and Irena Sendler.

People would come for meetings (at which time my mother and I would go out and wait, on the street, until those meetings ended). I know that there were weapons hidden, underground newspapers were distributed and instructions were given to the underground people who came. There were young people as well as older.

One day, on nearby Ząbkowska Street, the Germans executed a roundup. The Markowska residents watched it from their windows.

If they had come into the apartment, the situation would have been hopeless. […] When we saw a German in the yard, we stood in the hallway with mother and hugged each other. They came into the yard, but they never knocked on our door.

In the autumn of 1943, Irena Sendler was arrested by the Germans and was sent to Pawiak prison. After a few weeks, having been ransomed by Żegota, she hid with the Kukulski family. Sendler stayed on at Markowska, with other Warsaw friends. Everyone on Markowska agreed that, since her release from Pawiak, the apartment would not be safe. She had been there too often prior to her arrest. With funds from Żegota, she rented a small house in Świder. She, Anna Kukulska and the others in hiding all moved there.

They left at dusk, before curfew. Celnikier “bandaged as though he had toothache, me, mum, Irena and the doctor. Behind us came a whole bunch of young boys. They loved Adam's philosophical discussions”, recalled Anna. The summer home did not have a kitchen. Irka Wojdowska delivered food which had been prepared by Maria at Markowska Street. “She travelled by suburban train”, wrote  Annie Bikont.

Zgrzembski and Baseches were blackmailed by Karolak, a Polish policeman in Świder. According to Anna Bikont's research, the daughter of the house's owner had denounced them to the police. Ania told Maria Kukulska about this. A couple of hours later, Maria came with Irena Sendler who, in the meantime, had arranged for money to ransom the men. They returned to Warsaw, to ulica Markowska. Anna recalled that “for a month or two we lived in great fear. Adam spent a few nights at mum's brother's. Michał stayed with some friend”.

At the end of 1943 or in the spring of 1944, using money from the Council to Aid Jews “Żegota”, a small room was rented in Otwock, at 7 Akacjowa Street (now Goldfama). The Kukulski women lived there and, apart from Zgrzembski and Baseches, there was also Irka Wojdowska, Jerzy Korczak, Jerzy Gross and after some time, they were joined by his brother Natan. “There was a double bed and I slept between the legs of the Kukulski women”, recalled Wojdowska, admitting that this did not suit her very well and that she really did not like Maria. After some time, she returned to Koło, to the “Jadwiga” apartment on Obozow.

In 1944, Żegota Chairman Julian Grobelny and his wife Halina also lived on Akacjowa Street. Jerzy Korczak recalled:

At that time, he was quite seriously ill with lung problems and, as a result, a group of his associates began appearing at that address. […] I also lived there permanently and carried out “Trojan's” [Julian Grobelny's underground pseudonym – ed.] orders, mainly delivering money and documents to various places around Warsaw and the surrounding area. For security reasons, I was usually accompanied by Hanka. […] My friend Yoram [Jerzy – ed.] Gross, then known as Marian Wiśniewski, also participated in those endeavours […].

After the War

After the War, Stefan Zgrzembski found Maria Kukulska and her daughter. They were staying with a relative in Garwolin. He brought them to Warsaw, to Belwederska Street, where they moved in with Irena Sendler. “They were in the room, allocated to Sendler, which was divided into two”. Irka Wojdowska also lived with them.

Roman Baseches became the director of a sanatorium in Otwock. 

Jerzy Korczak settled in Poznań. He adopted the name under which he had survived. He remained in contact with the Kukulski women:

To me, meeting them was an extremely important event, thanks to which, in large measure, I survived the occupation in such a physical and mental condition.

The Gross brothers eventually left Poland. In his memoirs Life Chose Me, Jerzy Gross wrote:

After World War II, when the communist Polish authorities wanted to rid themselves of the Jews, out of necessity I emigrated to Israel. There. my name was changed from Jerzy to Yoram so that, to this day, I have the double first name of “Yoram-Jerzy”.

He became a film screenwriter, director and producer.

Natan Gross,Yoram-Jerzy's brother, also became involved in film. In Israel, he worked as a screenwriter and director. He also wrote his wartime memoirs entitled Who Are You, Mr Grymek? Maria Kukulska appears in them under the surname “Bogucka”.

Maria Kukulska died in 1993.

[…] my mother […] during the occupation, receiving only a minimum amount for teaching primary school children, received money from Irena Sendler, solely to be used for the support of people in hiding. My mother and I treated helping those who were being persecuted purely as a humanitarian act, in accordance with the elementary concept of Christian ethics.

She was posthumously honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations, together with her daughter, in 1995.

Jerzy Korczak wrote:

[…] After much resistance and a lot of persuasion on my part, Anna agreed to write her story. She repeatedly stressed that she helped Jews during the occupation out of a deep conviction that people under such circumstances must be helped., that one cannot remain indifferent to such tragedies.

Other Stories of Rescue in the Area

Bibliography

  • Bikont Anna, Sendlerowa. W ukryciu, Warszawa 2017
  • Archiwum Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, 349/24, 2125