Story of rescue

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The Righteous from the Barłogi Hut - the Story of the Kozak Family

In monographs about the history of Kurów and the surrounding region, one can find only a few names of people who, during World War II, saved local Jews. These names come from one text - a text regarding helping Jews in the Puławy district, written around 1960 by Stefan Rodak, at the time of the War, commander of the Puławy Farmers' Battalion. In the fragment about Kurów, Rodak relied on a report by his deputy Józef Stankiewicz, who was born Kurów and who lived there during the occupation. After the War, he lived in Lublin.

That fragment of Rodak's typescript, quoted by other authors, is presented here in its original form:

According to a report by Józef Stankiewicz, pseudonym "Kula” (…) a dozen or so Jews were in hiding in Kurow. At this time, not all their names have been established, since there was no selfless help offered to them. Mieczysław Kutnik provided a great deal of aid. He hid Jewish tanners. He provided them with food and organised all the help they needed to survive. One of  the Jewish women, Małka Stern, hid there until the end of the War. Today, she lives in Israel and corresponds with her saviour. Adam Turczyk of Kurow hid the butcher Lejbuś (surname not established). Antoni Wiejak, together with the son of the cooper Mazurkiewicz of Kłoda, transported Jews in barrels on the Wisła River. Wacław Mańko of Barłóg hid and cared for the Jewish Najmark woman, the daughter of a shoemaker from Kurów. After liberation, he married her.

The surname of the "Lejbuś" mentioned above is Wejnbuch and, after the War, he was killed in Wąwolnica. The first name of the Najmark woman was Małka and she died in Kurów. The shoemaker Piotr Mazurkiewicz of Mała Kłoda had a son Marian. The "young Mazur" could have been him.

In the local memory, in the recollections of Kurow Jews and in the archives, many more names can be found of people who, at the risk of their own lives, saved the lives of their Jewish neighbours. Some have even been honoured by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerulsalem with the title of "Righteous Among the Nations” and have their own memorials there. The extraordinary bravery of others is still awaiting discovery, substantiation and public recognition - in the first instance, by the local institutions and community. Such an endeavour, so important to the identity and image of today's Kurow, has yet to begin.

In Yad Vashem's Book of the Righteous Among the Nations of the World, three families from a village near Kurów are featured. Saving Jews was always a joint family endeavour, rather than being an individual effort. In 1978, the Righteous medal was awarded to Andrzej and Katarzyna Zarzycki who, during the War, lived in Wólka Nowodworska and hid the Jewish Kotlarz family. After the War, they left for "the Ukraine”, to Hrubieszów. In 1993, medals were presented to Michał andi Franciszka Sikora, as well as to Władysław and Irena Zuchniarz from Płonek who, together, rescued Lewi and Ester Grossman, their daughter Chana and Lewi's sister Rita (later, surname Borg). The State of israel awarded all of them with the title at the initiative of those whom they rescued. In 2014, this time at the request of this article's author, Yad Vashem posthumously awarded the title of "Righteous" to the Kozak couple. During the War, they lived in a hut near an "estate" forest, "in Podborze”, actually next to the village of Barłogi. A ceremony will soon take place in Warsaw during which the medal will be presented to their grandchildren.

Aleksander ("Olek”) Kozak (born 1892 in Barłogi), a forester, his wife Janina (born 1900), togther with their children Zbigniew (born 1923) and Krystyna (born 1924), his the already-mentioned Kotlarz family - Hersz, Chaja (nee Rosenson) and their daughters Goldele and Baszele (Golda and Baśka).

Olek Kozak served in the Tsarist army somewhere distant in the Urals. In 1922, following World War I, already "outside of Poland", he became an estate forester. He was responsible for a large section of the Dębin forest, separated from the peasant forest by a "line" running from Barłogi to the meadows near Wólka. Despite an excellent reference from the estate administrator ("He is a very honest, hardworking and efficient person, who detected each theft and caught those who were guilty of them”), for some reason, after a couple of years' service, Kozak left that job, moved to the village of Wolica, ran a shop there, but moved back to the forester's hut shortly before the War. The forest, just as the whole estate, was taken over by the Germans during the War and, after the War, it was nationalised. The Kozak family cultivated a piece of a sandy field near the forest. They had a cow and Krystyna learned to sew. Kozak had two brothers in Barłogi and his wife had two sisters in Warsaw.

Before the War, the Kotlarz family lived in the old market square "on the hill". They had a large shop selling "blue goods", namely textiles. Hersz was an energetic person, with a head for business, so that for those times, they were wealthy. They knew and were known by many people in the area - customers, as well as peasants who, as hired cart drivers, carried their goods to the local fairs. People referred to Mrs Kotlarz as "Herszkowa”. Later, that network of contacts helped them to survive. They belonged to a significant, active community and to a respected family within the Jewish community.They were on good terms with many from the Polish-Christian half of Kurow, among them being the local parish priest Wincenty Szczepanik. They read Polish literature and were pro-Zionist.

On 8th September 1939, for Christians the holiday celebrating the birth of the Holy Mother of God, for Jews the Sabbath Friday, Kurów burned from German bombing. The Kotlarz family moved to nearby Wąwolnice, but on returning to the site of their burned-out home, they made up a makeshift hut. On 8th April 1942, after two and a half years of persecution and humiliation, the Germans deported the Jews of Kurów to death camps in Sobibor and, in particular, Bełżec. The Kotlarz family, together with a group of several dozen Jews, remained. Those who knew the Kurów German Oskar Ulryk, at that time in the occupation administration, and who had the means to give a bribe, stayed to work in his tannery and factory making fur clothing for the army. Chaja Kotlarz remained to cook food for that work camp. With three-year-old Baszkele and Hersz, they managed to escape from Kurów when, in November of that same year, a German commando unit arrived in order to murder the remaining Jews.

Even earlier, the Kotlarz couple had wanted to save their older daughter, six-year-old Goldele (born 10th December 1935) by giving her up for adoption by a couple whom Father Szczepanik had found. , However, they were not prepared to have her baptised. So the priest found them people who agreed to just hide the girl, but they quickly became scared that someone from the village would easily recognise a Jewish child in their home, as they had no children of their own. So Goldele returned home. However, the third attempt was successful. The girl was taken in by the Kozak family, into their forester's hut. The Kurów parish priest also hid Kotlarz's gold rubles for him. Hersz would take a little at a time from the presbytery, just like he would have done from a bank. By then, Szczepanik had been the parish priest there for a dozen or so years. He knew his parish well and he also helped Hersz with advice without which it would have been difficult for him to survive.

Shortly after, the rest of the Kotlarz family ended up at the Kozak hut. For his younger daughter, Hersz found her shelter with the Zarzycki family in Wólka, on the other side of the forest. They were welcomed into the hut but, after a couple of days, Kozak, fearing for the lives of his own famiily, told them to find somewhere else to hide. He was right to be afraid. At the beginning of December 1942, in nearby Wola Przybysławska, during a sweep operation looking for Jews, the Germans burned the house and killed its owners who had been harbouring fugitives. Goldele, however, could remain with the Kozak family. As Mrs Kotlarz recalls, the forester told them that he would save her "irrespective of how difficult it would be and irrespective of whether he would be paid for it or not”.  

For a couple of weeks, the Kotlarz family wandered around from person to person and from place to place. A local, quite seriously, assured me that, "At that time, there were many single homesteads scattered around fields left behind by farmers. There were even pustki, empty farm outbuildings. By day, they hid from the Germans and, by night, from local thugs. The first hunted for Jews (Judenjagd), while the second group hunted for their mythical gold (almost every Jew had gold)". In the end, the exhausted Kotlarz family came to the Kozak home again.  

The hut was an excellent place to hide. It lay in an out-of-the-way place. It was difficult to travel there, but it was easy to see if someone was approaching. In winter, there was no reason for anyone to come there and it had some vicious dogs. Over two nights, the forester and his son dug a hole under the floor, covered by boards. By day, the Kotlarz family sat in this hiding place and, by night, they came out and cooked themselves something to eat. Chaja also helped the Kozaks' daughter with her sewing. On especially frosty days, they sat in the hall while their hosts watched for anyone coming their way. The Kotlarz family were well aware of what was happening around them. Kozak repeated to them what he had read in the underground newspapers - that "they are taking all the Jews to the crematoria”. Sitting under the floor, they heard what was being said in the home. In this way, they learned about two men who had jumped off a train heading for Russia. They had told Kozak that the War would last another year, maybe two. This broke the spirit of the Kotlarz family. But being cutoff from the world, this so-called information deprivation can be even worse than receiving bad news, when it immerses itself into the psyche of people living in isolation. When spring came, more people appeared at the forester's hut. They were planting trees. They could have noticed something. Again, the forester told the Kotlarz family to find a different hiding place. This they did with the Zarzycki family - but Goldele remained.

The Jewish child grew up in those surroundings. She learned when to hide. When necessary, the Kozak family referred to her as the girl who looked after the cows grazing - while, in truth, she spent the day with the Kozaks' eight-year-old nephew who had been brought to them from Warsaw, "Jerzyk” guarded the forest, the cows and the sheep. Goldele was given a new, Christian first name (Tereska?), which was the practice for Jewish children in hiding. In the summer of 1943, the Kozak family survived the invading Germans - actually, an "agent" found the "sleepy" girl on the stove and did not believe that she was a shepherd. But he did not point her out to the Germans. However, this time, her parents had to take her out of the hut - the Kozak family could no longer withstand the tension. Her parents took her to the Zarzycki family in Wólka, so that now the whole family was all together.

Kozak continued being interested in the fate of the Kotlarz family and helped them. He found them a buyer for the goods which they had hidden with someone. He provided them with food. Sometimes Hersz would spend the night at his home. Chaja called him "our old friend”. The forester also helped them with advice which saved their lives. He told them to forget going to the ghetto in Końskowola. He knew that it was a death trap. Looking back today, such a move would be unthinkable, but it may have occurred to the Kotlarz family. In the autumn of 1942, in the Lublin district, in among other places Końskowola, the Germans established "remnant ghettoes" (Restgetto). It happened that the Jews who were being searched for no longer had the strength to go on living as the hunted, and so turned themselves in. According to teenagers at the time, this is what Estera did. She had wandered into one of the local villages - "Everyone shut their door because they were afraid”, "She gave some boys money so that they would beat her to death with clubs. The boys refused and, in the end, she went to the Sołtys (village administrator) and asked him to take her to Końskowola, because she could no longer go on as she was completely scabby, frozen and hungry”.

They remained with the Zarzycki family until liberation from the Germans and the War ended. Amid the Red Army soldiers, they also met Russian Jews. Shortly after, they adopted the daughter of Chaja's sister who had been murdered in Ukraine and left Kurów, first to Lublin, later Łodż and then through occupied Germany, to America. They settled in California where they had relatives. They established a successful business - in 2013, it celebrated its 65th birthday. Helen (Chaja)  died in Los Angeles in 2012 at the age of 102. Harry (Hersz) had passed away earlier. All their three Holocaust-survivor daughters are still living - Gloria (Kagasoff), Genie (Goldstein) and Betty (Wiener), who is the Company Secretary of Harry Kotlar & Co.

After the War, the Kozak children moved away and, in the mid-1950's, the forester's hut was demolished so that the Kozak couple had to move to Gór Olesińskich where, thanks to agricultural reforms, they received a section of the estate fields. All that they could dismantle was a small barn which they prudently put on a neighbour's field so that the district forestry office could not, one day, order them to abandon it.

When Kozak died in 1964, his wife went to their daughter in Białystok, where she died in 1982. Both were buried in Kurów. His grave is marked with the word "Forester", the inscription being ordered by his widow. In the 1970's, Mrs Kozak applied to join ZBoWiD (The Society of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy ), but in her application, she omitted hiding Jews when providing her war service record. All that was left of the forester's hut was a clump of acacias, dried stalks, some holes, deer horns and a topographical sign bearing witness to the fact that a forester's hut had once stood there.

After the War, the Kotlar family only sought out the Zarzycki family. But, on the basis of their testimony provided to Jerusalem's Yad Vashem, the title of Righteous was also conferred upon the Kozak family.

Over time, Jurek graduated from the Electricity Department of Warsaw Polytechnic and, between 1982 and 1991, he was the Executive Director of Warsaw's public transport system. He has since passed away.

Father Wincenty Szczepanik founded "Caritas" in Kurów and supported families who had been most harmed by the War. He left the town in 1948, after being there for twenty three  years. He took on a parish in Bychawa. He lived to an old age. In 1985, he died at the oldest priest in the Lublin diocese. Thanks to a testimony by Helen (Chaja) Kotlar, he is acknowledged in research regarding Polish clergy who participated in the saving of Jews.

The Kozak children are no longer alive. Their grandchildren live in various parts of the country. Only now have they learned that, during the War, their grandparents had hidden a Jewish family in the forester's hut. One of their grandsons recalled that his mother and grandmother sometimes talked about a "little Jewish girl" and that, when a film about the Holocaust of the Jews was shown on television, one woman would say to the other that "it would be interesting to know if that little girl is still alive”. That was something that puzzled them. When asked, none of the older residents of the area knew anything about the Kozak family hiding Jews in the forester's hut ("Olek?!”). They hid the fact well. After the War, people, for various reasons did not talk much about what they did or whom they had hidden during the  War.

Hiding the Kotlarz family in the forester's hut was not the only service provided by the Kozak family. Other Jews were also hidden in the "estate" forest, among them being a group of around ten men, women and children from Kurów and some from Warsaw, probably their cousins, who had been brought there by Abraham Oberklajd, remembered in the village as "Jabrum”. They had a dugout there and bought food in the village. Kozak allowed them to hide in "his" forest and, during his morning rounds, he would look in on them sometimes, "while the borscht still steamed”. The forester's niece (born 1931) states that, "Once, uncle came to us and told us that those from Barłógi, to whom he brought food, had so trampled down the path, that anyone would be able to find them”. One night, those Jews were murdered.

It is difficult to speak categorically about the motivations behind such exceptional and complex behaviour in extreme situations, such as the hiding of Jews - expecially after seventy years. There is no doubt, however, that the miraculous survival of the whole of this four-member family was not only as the result of their determination and strong will to live, as well as their financial resources and "social capital" developed in their contacts in the region, but it was also due to the fact that they found someone who wanted to help and was not afraid to hide Jews. They, in turn, were not afraid to trust him. In the Kozak and Zarzycki families, the Kotlarz family found people of above average sensitivity and a developed conscience. Those Jews who did not meet such people, perished, usually in unknown locations and in unknown circumstances.

According to recollections of forester Kozak's family, "he loved to discuss politics” and, during the War, he would bring the underground newspaper to his brother in the village. His wife was someone of strong character and great courage - her niece (born 1940) remembers family stories of how her aunt, being afraid of being assaulted, would stand at the window at night, holding an axe.She was also a friendly and religious person. Mrs Kotlarz counted the Kozak family amongst the "good Poles" and recalled them as "good angels”. She appreciated their humane sympathy for the tragic fate of the Jews.

The Kotlarz family, recalls Helen, gave the Kozak family money for food and upkeep. But that was not a factor in the decision to provide shelter, nor a reason to refuse it. The Kozak family did not get rich "from the Jews" and when they had to leave the forester's hut, they did not have enough money to set up a wooden cottage for themselves and the family had to help them. Outstanding Jewish Holocaust historian Christopher Browning says of people, such as the Kozak family, that "Poles who helped Jews usually did not receive remuneration commensurate with the risk they were undertaking”. In this case, Helen, herself, says about their years of sheltering Jews, that it was "an act of kindness, even when (the rescuers) received financial recompense”. She also shared this opinion with the Yad Vashekm Righteous Committee.

After the War, Chaja Kotlarz, by then as Helen Kotlar, wrote her memoirs for the Kurów Yizkor (memorial) book, under the title Żyliśmy w grobie (We Lived in a Grave), which was published in 1955 in Yiddish in Israel, by the local Kurów landsmannschaft. On the cover of the American edition, there is a stylised drawing of the forester's hut and of the Kotlarz family in hiding under the floor, in the "grave". If it was not for that book, no one would have ever known that, in that no longer existing forester's hut in a former estate forest, a deceased forester and his family had hidden a family of Jews. It would be interesting to know just how many of these hiding places, about which we know nothing, still exist in the area, because there have been no traces left behind attesting to them. Because the Kotlar book was written from living memory and not that long after the War, it is an authentic source for the history of the Holocaust and of the survival of Jews in the Polish provinces. It also provides a full, rather than a one-sided, image of the attitudes and behaviour of the local community towards dying Jews and the diverse responses to the catastrophe within the Jewish community itself.

In 1994, Helen Kotlar spoke of her Holocaust experiences for the Shoah Foundation. The video of this interview is electronially accessible at the Washington Holocaust Museum (http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/vha23), as well as at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. About her youth in Kurów, Helen Kotlar speaks nostaligically. With tears, she speak about the war period and with bitterness about the state of the Jewish cemetery. After fifty years, she did not mention the Kozak surname, but referred to him by the Polish word "gajowy” (forester). It was possible to see that he was an important figure to her and her family.

Most of the information presented here has come from these two sources. The remainder comes from the recollections of other Jewish survivors, from conversations in recent years with relatives of Aleksander and Janina Kozak, as well as from interviews with the oldest residents of the Kurów area.    

After the first reading of the book "Żyliśmy w grobie", I did not recognise, in that article, the forester's hut nor its residents, In the forests, there were many forester's huts and also many foresters. Also the Kozak surname was common. What helped was my own memory, since I was born in Barłogi and I remember, as a child, I played with the dressmaker "Krysia from the forester's hut”. The forester's daughter, in the Kotlar book, was a dressmaker - that could be her! That could have been the forester. It was not difficult to substantiate that supposition.

However, the majority of places and people in the book remain unknown. Descriptions of the Kurów area from a memory in California are inaccurate and mixed up. Rarely do they contain the names of villages or the names of local peasants. Amongs the residents of Kurów, the Kotlarz name is unknown or has been completely forgotten. Not many people live there who are able to speak about those wartimes from memory - either their own or their family's. Some have died, while others have left. The homesteads, in which the Kotlarz family hid, have disappeared. The forests, sandmines and the villages  cut-off from Kurów have been irrevocably changed by a motorway. The landscape is now completely different. It is hard to imagine the villages, forests and fields amongst which the Jewish family would have wandered.

English translation: Andrew Rajcher 

Anyone who has more informationabout the Kozak and Kotlarz family are asked to contact the author at:

Sociology Institute, Warsaw University, ul. Karowa 18, 00-927 Warszawa; suleka@is.uw.edu.pl 

This article was originally published in "Zeszytach Kurowskich”, 2014 No. 25, pp. 3-14. 

 

 

Bibliography

  • Helen Kotlar, We Lived in a Grave, New York 1980
  • Gutman Israel red. nacz., Księga Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, Ratujący Żydów podczas Holocaustu, Kraków 2009