Kotarba Maria

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Seven Hundred Days in Auschwitz. The Story of Maria Kotarba

In the years 1943–1944, Maria Kotarba, a political prisoner in the Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, helped a Jewish woman, Lena Bankier. With her help, Lena survived Auschwitz, as well as the “death march” and her imprisonment in the Ravensbrück camp and the Neustadt-Glewe sub-camp inside the Third Reich.


Lena’s hands were frozen. She had just undergone a selection – she had just been transported from the Białystok ghetto. When bread was distributed, she had said that she was from Warsaw. The slice of bread seemed to be too big for her hands to deal with, until they had warmed up. Years later, she wants to believe that it was Maria with whom she had shared her bread – even before they had got know each other. “In Auschwitz, I didn’t see any point in living. She changed my determination to kill myself”, recalled Lena Lakomy (nee Bankier).

Lena’s Family – Life Before the War and During the Holocaust

Lena was born in Warsaw to a well-off and educated family with Zionist sympathies. Pola, one of Lena’s four sisters, left in 1939 to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

In 1940, just before the closing-off of the Warsaw Ghetto, Lena married Symsze Mańkowski, the ceremony being conducted by her grandfather Cwi. Lena’s siblings – Sonia, Rachel, Guta and younger brothers Michał and Dow (Berale) – remained with their parents Izaak and Ester.

When the deportations began in the summer of 1942, Sonia committed suicide. She thus avoided Treblinka where, apart from Guta, the remaining members of her family perished. Lena and Symcha ended up in the Białystok Ghetto.

The Ramp – Arriving at Auschwitz

Lena and Symcha arrive in Auschwitz on 8th February 1943. Symcha  is one of the 1,830 prisoners from a transport of 2,000 Jews from Białystok who, soon after their arrival, are sent to the gas chamber.

“They took my young husband, Symcha Mańkowski, to the chimney only because, during the ’trip’ from Białystok to Oświęcim, he had not shaved. I fought with an SS-man, explaining to him that he was so young, that he was only twenty-six years old”.

Lena changes her surname – she becomes Helena Hankowska. With ninety-four women and seventy-five men, she is admitted into the camp. She receives the number 34800. She looks like an “Aryan”.

Her sister, Guta Scharf, recalled:

“Lena came in a Jewish transport and had a number tattooed on her arm with a Jewish triangle. But, fortunately, that tattooed number convinced an SS-man that Lena was there by mistake, that she was Polish and, with a tattoo, over-wrote the triangle. From that moment, Lena becomes Polish and goes to the Polish Block [No.13 - ed.] with other Polish women”.

Suffering – Lena’s Suicides Attempts

Lena is in a bad physical and mental condition. She has typhus. Others guess that has three weeks to live. She decides to commit suicide. She tries to hang herself using clothing elastic. They save her. On the second attempt, she tries to jump onto stones from the roof of one of the buildings, hoping that this would crack her skull. She lands on another prisoner, who is using the latrine.

Guta noted:

“I met my sister in Auschwitz. […] When we had found each other, Lena told me everything. She showed me her number. She said that she was suffering badly and that, often, they would call her to the Gestapo for questioning. […] At that moment, I understood that we could no longer meet. We looked too similar – but one was a Jew, the other a Pole. This could have harmed her a lot. Lena helped me a lot and Maria Kotarba helped her a great deal. So that I was also receiving [help – ed.] indirectly from Maria Kotarba”.

“Mateczka” – Lena Meets Maria Kotarba

Maria Kotarba came from around Nowy Sącz. During the German occupation, she was active in the underground. She carried messages between partisans. As the result of being denounced, she was imprisoned in Tarnów from where, in January 1943 – as a political prisoner – she was taken to Auschwitz. She worked in the garden commando in Rajsko, a few kilometres away. She looked after vegetables and fruit for the SS and would smuggle some into the camp.

Lena Lakomy recalls: “I met Maria Kotarba in April or May 1943 in KL Auschwitz. […] Maria Kotarba was in Block 22”.

That day, Lena, as a “nurse”, escorted sick prisoners to the camp hospital. Maria joined the group in order to smuggle in illegal medicines obtained from the local resistance. From then on, she would often join this group. At night, she began sneaking into Lena’s barracks:

“[…] She smuggled in onions and other vegetables for me and for the block flowers, so that she could meet with me”.

Most often, she brought potatoes and carrots. They did not have a strong smell, so that the dogs would not react to their scent. She used vegetables to make soup for Lena. She did that despite the disapproval of other prisoners – instead of saving Polish Christian women, she was helping a Jewish woman. Guta wrote, “[…] we would meet in secret”.

“[Lena – ed.] told me how Polish women resented that Maria was helping the Jewish woman, Lena, and was not helping them. […] It’s hard for me to write about the thousands of small and constant activities carried out by Maria Kotarba in the camp. […] She was punished with a beating for helping me”.

At some point, Maria sews a special corset, into which she creates pockets for carrying vegetables. When Lena goes to the punishment section – Block 18 – Maria provides her with food, pushing the food under the door. After Lena is assigned to the river commando, she arranges for her to perform lighter duties. In 1944, she works in "Canada", sorting items left behind by Jews.

Lena calls Maria “Mateczka”.

The Death March – Ravensbrück and the Neustadt-Glewe Sub-Camp

On 18th January 1945, the Germans evacuate the camp and the prisoners are forced onto the “death march”. The women are separated from each other. Along the way, they both witness the suffering and death of dozens of prisoners.

On 23rd January, still separated, they reach Ravensbrück. Maria looks for Lena. She finds her sleeping in the snow. She puts some bread next to her and then off goes in search of a place to sleep for the night.

In mid-February, the prisoners are transported to the sub-camp in Neustadt-Glewe. Lena is ill, she can barely walk. Maria attends to her.

Seven Hundred Days Together

On 2nd May 1945, the camp is liberated by the Red Army. Maria leaves while Lena is asleep. She leaves a farewell note with a mutual friend. After seven hundred days, during which Lena survived thanks to Maria, they part.

Lena escapes to France with the US Army. From there, in 1952, she emigrates to Great Britain. In around 1963, she begins searching for Maria. Her husband is reluctant to return to the times of the Holocaust. He destroys documents, among them being the farewell note. Lena’s efforts continue for years. She looks for Maria through the Red Cross, Polish Radio,. the Bishop of Kraków’s office, priests in Tarnów and in Nowy Sącz and through the Auschwitz Museum. In 1997, the cultural department of the Polish Embassy in London makes a discovery via Telewizja Polska (TVP).

“It’s the Least I Can Do” – Honouring Maria Kotarba

Maria Kotarba had died from cancer in 1956. Lena travels to the  grave of her friend.

“Maria Kotarba’s only family is her sister-in-law and a nephew Jan Kotarba, who live in the village of Owczary - where Mateczka’s grave is located”. It is only through contact with Lena that they learn of the help which she had provided. “Maria Kotarba never spoke much and I think that she didn’t want to talk about it and she couldn’t bring herself to talk about what she had done for me. She only told her family that she had survived hell and, on four occasions, ’almost went up the chimney’”. Lena also supposes that Maria never spoke about her rescuing her, because she didn’t want for Lena to be thought about badly.

“She had a wisdom which was gained from working on a farm, among animals. She never complained. I don’t know of any other such person”.

On 18th September 2005, the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem honoured Maria Kotarba with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. Lena said: “This was the least that I could do for Maria. She was someone who treated me just like a mother would treat her own child”. 

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Bibliography

  • Archiwum Instytutu Yad Vashem w Jerozolimie, Dokumenty ws. uhonorowania Marii Kotarby tytułem Sprawiedliwej wśród Narodów Świata, M.31.2/10214