A Shoemaker Above All Shoemakers - "Defender of the Jewish People”
In the spring of 1948, Antoni Kordowski of Kurów (a small Lebelski town, on the road to Warsaw, of 5,000 before the War and 2,500 following the murder of its Jews), received a letter from Kassel, in the American-occupied zone of Germany. Jewish Holocaust survivors, gathered there in a Displaced Persons Camp, had created landsmannschaften, compatriots associations. One such committee had been formed by Jews from Kurów and it was from them that he had received this letter:
Kassel 17th May 1948
Dear Mr. Antoni Kordowski,
At the second meeting of the Committee of Jews from the town of Kurów in Germany, it was decided to send our ardent best wishes and our thanks for the help extended to Jews in the town of Kurów during the bloody German occupation.
We will never forget you in the work of the Historical Commission of the town of Kurów in Canada. You have been recognised as one of the greatest defenders of our people.
Sec(retary) Akerman M.
This paper is about what the addressee of that letter did for the Jews, during the period of Nazi occupation, which deserved such a title. It is a monograph about the story of the suffering and the saving of Jews in a Polish province, but also about something more. It shows how, in Polish small towns, the memory of the Jewish genocide is fading away. But, even more important, it demonstrates that, despite the passing of three-quarters of a century and a reluctance to remember the lives and deaths of the local Jews, the local memory of their Jewish neighbours, fellow countrymen and brothers in faith can be saved and retained, and that the "collective memory" of those communities can be enriched.
The basic source for this paper is the personal report of survivor Samuel Chanesman, written in 1948, in the camp in Germany, contained in his letters to a cousin. Antoni Kordowski is the central figure of the report. His name appears in it dozens of times, always in a positive context. Chanesman' report, written a few years after the War, is not based solely on his own memory, but also on notes made during the war period. It is a document of exceptional credibility, accuracy and authenticity. It is also significant that Chanesman wrote those letters with the idea of remembering the genocide and the suffering of Kurów Jews and to document it. He became the first historian of the genocide of Jewish Kurów. The report, written in Yiddish, was included in the Kurów Jews Remembrance (Yizkor) Book, published in 1955 in Tel Aviv, by the Kurów landsmannschaft in Israel. If not for Chanesman's report, no lasting evidence would have remained about the actions of Antoni Kordowski and many people of those surroundings. They would have vanished into the abyss of oblivion if not for someone like Samuel Chanesman who described their activities - for better or worse.
The second important source is the report by Barbara Czajkowska (b. 1950) of Puławy, recorded on 13th December 2014. A specialist in Polish studies, she is the sole living daughter of Antoni Kordowski and guardian of the family's memory. Her knowledge is derived from listening to household conversations and from the memories of her father and older half-brother. Mrs Czajkowska had no knowledge of the existence of Chanesman's report, so that she could not have extended her own memory with anything that his report contained. Such a "fabricated memory” (as defined by Elisabeth Loftus), the subconscious pasting into one's own memory the experiences and memories of others, is a plague and a nightmare of autobiographies. In this case, it can be ruled our.
The third source are the post-War letters, to Antoni Kordowski from Kurów Jews from around the world, carefully preserved by his daughter.
These three sources are connected. When, in 2012, I read the American translation of Chanesman's report, I tried to find any of Antoni Kordowski's descendants. But when I discovered that all that was left of him in Kurów was his house, I decided to at least find his grave in the local cemetery. A woman, a local who helped me find it, of course was curious as to why a stranger was looking for it. She was surprised when I replied that Kordowski is "distinguished" and she was even more suprised when I added that, during the War, he had saved Jews. In turn, I was surprised that she had not heard of that. A little confused, she said, "There was one who hid Jews here. Later they called him 'Altman', which annoyed him”, but what his name was, she did not want to say. I said, "So now you know why you never heard of Kordowski”. On departure, she let slip that "that Altman was called Górski”. I placed a light blue rribbon on Kordowski's grave. When I returned two years later on All Souls' Day, a woman was standing by the grave. When I repeated the gesture from the past year, she amicably asked me why I was doing that. I explained that I had found a Jew from New Zealand, the grandson of someone saved by Kordowski. "Chanesman?”, she almost shouted. This was how I found and got to know Antoni Kordowski's daughter, who understood the meaning of the light blue ribbon. She had thought that he who had left her had returned and that "something" had told her to stay longer and not to leave the graveside.
In my search for traces of Jewish life and genocide in the local area and within the local memory, I am using, material gathered in conversations which I undertook in recent years with many residents of Kurów and the surrounding area. I am preserving the anonymity of all those interviewed, naturally with the exception of the daughter of the hero of this article.
The Rescuers and the Rescued
Antoni Kordowski was born in Kurów in 1892. He had four children. His wife died in 1942. After the War, he remarried. From that marriage, he had one more daughter - the already-mentioned Barbara. The Kordowski family lived in the very centre of Kurów, in a side-street, but next to the main intersection passing through the small town. Before the War, Kordowski was prominent in Kurów. He was one of its most important citizens. Today, he would be described as a local leader.
Kurów was a town of shoemakers. A large section of its residents, both Christians and Jews, earned their living from the production of shoes and from the sale of footwear. To the Christians, the Kurów Jews were both competitors and partners in the shoe industry. They imported skins, manufactured uppers, ran shops selling shoemaker's instruments, organised the sale of shoes at markets, not just locally, but also elsewhere. So that there was a broad range of co-operation and common interest. At the end of the 1920's, Kordowski was an "elder" of the re-established guild of shoemakers, consisting of more than sixty Christian craftsmen. He was also one of the founders of Kasa Stefczyka (a type of credit cooperative). He, himself, also had a shoemaker's workshop. Not long ago, in the village, I heard, "Shoes from Kordowski were chic. Everyone wanted to have them. In the end, he had so many orders, that he out-sourced to Jews". He travelled to nearby fairs, even to Lubartów to Jewish merchants. He was also a trader.
He was a horse trader. He always had new ones and, as someone remembered, he liked "to race" horses with other farmers. The Kordowski family, like many in Kurów at the time, also had a small farm. For those times in Kurów, they were wealthy. From his daughter's stories, it turns out that Antoni Kordowski was a serious and responsible man. He cared for his family, educated all his children and was capable of keeping a secret. ("I remember how a friend came to dad ..... 'Mr Kordowski, I must tell you something. It's like a stone in the water'"). He was not exceptionally pious. He didn't drink. He didn't smoke. He was esteemed in Kurów - today, he would be described as an authority. "He also had a wide range of acquaintances within the Jewish community. Generally speaking, he had a very positive attitude towards the Jewish people. (The Jews) considered him to be someone who could be trusted”.
Samuel Chanesman was a maker of shoe-uppers and, just like Kordowski, was a relatively wealthy man. Kordowski and Chanesman knew each other well before the War. They did business together. In his report, Chanesman calls him "Antek, our friend”. He refers to him as krist, a Christian, which had a positive tone. It meant that he was a "good Pole". He never referred to him as a goy, a word with an unpleasant tone.
In September 1939, the Chanesman home was burned as the result of a German bomb. In April 1942, the Jews of Kurów, among them Chanesman's wife and two sons, was taken to a death camp by the Germans. But, for a few gold "świnki" (gold coins used in Tsarist Russia) handed over to Oskar Ulryk, the German adminstrator of Kurów, Samuel and his son Josef (born 1924) and thirty other Jews remained in a work camp, owned by Ulryk, which manufactured fur clothes for the front. Warned by a farmer from the village of Płonki, where a death squad was quartered for the night, they managed to escape from Kurów before the remaining Jews were executed in November 1942. They hid in nearby villages and within Kurów itself. They survived thanks to help from a long chain of residents of Kurów and the surrounding area, named and immortalised in Chanesman's own report.
Following their escape from Kurów, Chanesman, his son and a dozen or so other Jews, hid at first, for payment, in root cellars, dug out by a group of enterprising locals, in fields near the village of Podbórz. Later, they hid with Jan Molenda, also in Podbórz and then with Władysław Pawelec-Wójcik in Krupa. After, they returned to Kurów and hid with Jan Witkowski, near a windmill, on the outskirts of the small town. They then hid in fields near Kurów and, finally, in stacks of straw in Kurów, itself, where they remained until liberation. Even though every link in that chain was necessary for their survival, the greatest role was played by Antoni Kordowski.
The Chanesmans' trail of survival shows just how many local individuals and families were needed, sometimes, in order for just one or two hidden Jews to survive until the end of occupation. But it also shows just how small were the chances for survival. From the 16-17 Jews hidden in the root cellars in the fields, only three survived to see freedom - the two Chanesmans and the young child Sabinka Cymerman, hidden on the outskirts of Kurów by Agnieszka and Józef Macewicz. All the rest perished. We know that half of them were killed after they were betrayed following a long silence. The fate of the rest is unknown. Against this background, Antoni Kordowski's light shines brightly.
Under Kordowski's Care
Chanesman's post-War report contains a very accurate (in keeping with the details of the terrain) description of the suffering and endurance of the father and son. It also describes the role played by Antoni Kordowski in their survival. I will demonstrate, in ten points, have varied and versatile was Kordowski's help. It could be described as "totalitarian", if not for the negative connotations associated with this word.
1. Before Deportation. Kordowski helped the Chanesmans and other Jews even before they were deported from Kurów to a death camp. At that time, they were subjected to exploitation and persecution by the occupation authorities. Chanesman writes, "When German thugs entered our shtetl, those two Christians, in particular Antoni Kordowski, always supported the persecuted Jews in all matters and constantly helped everyone in every possible way. There are no words to express just how grateful I am for what they did for me and for my son." The other "Christian" mentioned was Stanisław Szeleźniak who, in the 1930's, was Guildmaster of the shoemakers guild and, until 1939, was Kurów Administrator (Wójt). He died suddenly in, possibly, 1943.
2. Refuge and Physical Safety. Kordowski, himself, searched for and identified hiding places for the Chanesmans in Kurów and in nearby villages. He felt responsible for them. He took them into his care and was always available to them. In critical situations, and there were many, they turned to him for advice and received it. Chanesman writes, "When we had to run away from one place to another, we contacted him and, with his agreement, we would move to hide in the other place. So, he always knew where we were”. Chanesman also writes that he hid in Kordowski's attic when Jews were being deported in April 1942. Kordowski's daughter remembers that, as a child, there was a "cubbyhole", made from boards and metal sheets, in the attic of a shed in the backyard. "It was a kind of hiding place, a hiding place for Jews. They were hidden there”. It was either a hiding place for the Chanesmans or Kordowski hid some other, unknown Jews there, apart from the Chanesmans. In any case, Kordowski did all this in the very centre of the small town, a few dozen steps from where Polish police and German miltary police were stationed!
3. Food. Kordowski regularly brought nourishing food from home to the hiding Chanesmans. In winter, he moved them into the empty barn near the windmill so that, on the edge of Kurów, he could bring them warm food twice daily. In summer, he brought them food every third day ("At that time, warm, sweet coffee was a luxury", wrote Samuel). He also stocked up provisions for them which, every two weeks, they collected from a hiding place in the stable.
4. Financial Support. From a farmer in a village near Kurów, Kordowski and Szeleźniak collected goods which Chanesman had left with him before the transportations or before the War. Kordowski sold them and passed on to Chanesman a large amount of money, which Chanesman would use to pay Witkowski, who was hiding him. When the money ran out, Kordowski gave him his own. Kordowski's daughter also remembers that, after the War, her father lent Chanesman money for travel from Poland to occupied Germany, and that Szmul Chanesman, after the War, had repaid that money.
5. Help in Sickness. When the Chanesmans contracted scabies, an extremely itchy skin disease commonplace during the occupation, Kordowski brought medicines to the hiding place. Kordowski's daughter confirms the story of her father and brother, She remembers that, when the Chanesman got an eye infection, "he simply lost his sight” and that her father bought medicine which healed him. Perhaps, those two stories relate to two different illnesses or maybe the same one, but remembered differently.
6. Information. Kordowski brought "Polish newspapers" to the Chanesmans in the field near Kurów. It is unknown whether they were the "rags" published by the Germans for the Poles or the bibuła, pamphlets from the underground press. Thanks to this, they were not cut off from the world and avoided plunging into mental isolation. In addition, the dates on the newspapers protected them against losing track of time. It is known that this kind of deprivation can be quite severe in situations of hiding and isolation.
7. Support, Advice and Hope Necessary for Survival. "Kordowski", writes Chanesman, "gave us hope saying that the Russians had begun a counter-offensive and that the German murderers were beginning to retreat and, as long as we were alive, there was hope. I have to say that, after his visits, our hearts were always full of hope that we would survive and that, with our own eyes, we would see an end to those damned Germans”.
8. From a psychological viewpoint, it was also important that there was someone in whom those in hiding could fully trust. The Chanesmans sought advice from Kordowski. Samuel writes, "We always took his advice with complete confidence”, and elsewhere he writes that "the whole time, Kordowski helped us with food and money, and was a constant contact”. Kordowski's daughter remembers it this way, "Dad always said that the Jews listened to him, I don't know why. Whatever dad said, the Jews listened and did what he advised, For them, a person such as that was reliable”.
9. For the same reason, it was important that Kordowski's help had a character that was not temporary or incidental, but permanent and systematic. That, throughout the entire occupation, one and the same individual was the Chanesmans' support. That permanence gave them life, extremely important is an extreme situation, an element of predictability.
10. A strong basis for this predicability was Kordowski's material disinterest. Chanesman's report leaves no room for doubt that his loyalty towards his pre-War business partner and his humanity were the only motivations behind his extending help. The report, itself, shows that someone's conscience was a more certain basis for the expectation of help that one's own money. Money would eventually run out and the host, as we know, could behave in a different manner to that which was expected.
When grasping the extent of Antoni Kordowski's work, it is necessary to see what it entailed. It not only included various tasks such as searching for hiding places, obtaining money, providing food and medicines, as well as newspapers and support - and all that in secrecy. It involved the organisation of all that, so it can be said that Kordowski did not so much hide Jews, as manage the hding of Jews. Conscience was not enough for this management - it needed a brain and considerable experience. Kordowski, as an elder of the shoemakers guild, had both. His tasks also included, perhaps, "neutralising" the Polish "Navy Blue" Police. Of course, Chanesman had no way of knowing this. But he must have given it some thought when, on two occasions, he had encountered a policeman in Kurów, one had looked the other way and the other said something which, in translation, could only mean "run away”.
Writing about the help which he was given, Chanesman is clearly aware (of the German orders) that for hiding Jews or even for not informing about the hiding of Jews, German occupation "law" mandated being shot on the spot and the home burned to the ground. He knew well that not only Kordowski, but also the eldest of his children, his son was afraid. His sister recalls that "as a boy, he was afraid. He was very afraid. He never said anything to anyone, but he was afraid that the whole family could be executed because of what our father was doing”. Because of this, one can only imagine the tensions in the Kordowski home. Only trust in the wisdom of their father, and his authority, eased that tension. We can add to that, that when Antoni Kordowski's (first) wife, Helena died (perhaps from typhus) in the summer of 1942, the home and the responsibility for the family also fell upon his shoulders, despite the fact that he had the help and support of his eldest children (in 1942, Marianna was twenty, Eugeniusz was eighteen, Witold was sixteen and the other daughter, Irina, was thirteen years old).
Antoni Kordowski, despite all that, took to saving Jews and continued doing so until the end of the War. That determination needs to be further highlighted since, hiding Jews in those surroundings raised so much fear and stress, they would often be told to find somewhere else to hide.
This exceptional, broad and selfless helping of Jews threatened not only his life, but also the lives ofis family. After the War, only they appreciated that fact - unfortunately.
After the War
The Chanesman family, who remained in a camp in Germany, in Bad Reichenhall near Munich, obtained visas to New Zealand in 1948. They left at the beginning of the following year. Nute (Kayla – ed.), Samuel's sister, had already managed to go there. Of all Samuel's letters from Germany, only one has survived. Preparing to leave Europe, Samuel wrote to Kordowski:
When, God willing, we successfully arrive, we will let you know immediately. We will never forget that you saved our lives during the Nazi occupation. (Bad Reichenhall, 12th December 1948).
In New Zealand, the Chanesman family established their own factory. They were traditionally, observant Jews and were respected members of the Jewish community in Wellington. For many years, Josef was responsible for the provision of kosher food for the community. Samuel established a new family. He wrote to Kordowski, but all that has been preserved is a cheque (a bank cheque so that it would still be valid) for five British pounds, with his faded signature, which was never cashed. Chanesman sent Kordowski parcels containing clothes and, for Christmas, food. At that time, clothes "from parcels" must have made an impression since, after so many years, Antoni Kordowski's daughter says, "To this day, I remember my two dresses, two lovely jackets - one red and one green. And I remember mum's black hat, lovely coat and black handbag”.
Other Jews from Kurów also long-remembered Kordowski and, until their deaths, they would write to him about various matters - literally from around the world. Although only some of these letters have been preserved and although all that remains of others are the torn-off pieces of envelopes containing the addresses of the senders, what has survived clearly indicates a solid network of Kurów residents and Kurów survivors and what an important part Antoni Kordowski was in that network. One survivor asked him for the addresses of Kurów residents who had saved Jews. Others asked him for information about their pre-War property. Still others wrote urging him to reply to earlier correspondence and wrote simply to express their gratitude and send greetings. To them, Kordowski was a man significant in their lives and a man to be respected. Mosiek "Krupnik” from Toronto complained, for example, that three farmers from Płonki - Figiel, Piech i Kowalik - never even replied to him when he offered them his land "in gratitude for the trouble they had (with him) during the War”. However, Róża Lerman from Tel Aviv stubbornly searched for "a certain Jan Górski" who, "was involved in glassmaking, sometimes painting”- namely him whom, after the War, they nicknamed "Altman", as I found out from the woman at the cemetery.
The memory of Antoni Kordowski has long remained with Kurów Jews. It has even out-lived the man himself. Even in 1974, thirty years after the War and after Kordowski's passing (he died on 15th March 1974), Benjamin Wejnryb wrote to Kordowski and his family. Wejnryb, before the War, was a passionate Zionist in Kurów and, in 1974, was Chairman of the Kurów landsmannschaft in Israel. He wrote that "the organisation of Kurów Jews in Israel has sent you twelve bottles of orange juice and we ask that you write to let us know that you have received them. (...) you deserve this gift for saving and helping Kurów Jews during the War against the gangster Hitler (Ramat-Gan, 23rd May1974)”.
In 1993, following the fall of Communism in Poland, Chanesman's son also wrote a letter to Kordowski. He recalled that "during the War, you saved my father and me, feeding us in hiding” and assured him that his father "until his death, always recalled, with immense regard and gratitude, your help and that of your family during that difficult period”. He also recalled that his father, before the War, "had a shoe and slippers factory” (in fact, a workshop making shoe-uppers) and asked him to check "the registeries to see if this property still exists" (Wellington, 18th June 1993). By that time, the letter's addressee (Kordowski) had passed away many years before. The sender, Joseph ("Joe”) Chanesman died in 2004, survived by children and grandchildren.
From 2012, Samuel Chanesman's story has only been available in Yiddish. It is also available in English on the Internet. However, from 2014, the Chanesman family's story of suffering and survival has become well-known to a wider circle of researchers into the Holocaust and its memory.
In 1996, Joseph Chanesman recorded his experiences of video for the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne.
Firstly in 2007, in a paper delivered at an academic conference on genocide in Sarajevo, and then in a book entitled "Remembering Genocide" published in 2014 in London, Pam Maclean, a professor at Deakin University in Australia, compares the memoirs of a father and that of his son, separated by a period of forty years. Based on their example, she demonstrated how a period of time causes changes in the collective memory and how the social patterns of talking about the Holocaust change individual memories of the Holocaust - survivors talk about their experiences as they are currently remembered. She also showed the significance of a different types of reports - para-documentary letters which, firstly, objectivise collective experiences and, secondly, interviews to camera which concentrate on the individual which reveal subjective experiences. In writing about the Kurów Jews, the Australian academic was pleasantly surprised when she received, from a researcher in Poland, confirmation that Samuel Chanesman's report is well-known and that his descriptions are so accurate that, after seventy years, he could locate the majority of places and people whom he described.
In her astute study of the Chanesman survivors, Maclean introduces the figure of Antoni Kordowski of Kurów into the world's literature on the Holocaust. She describes him as, "the shoe-uppers craftsman with whom Samuel did business before the War and who, at great personal risk, helped Jews during the War”. From the study, it appears that the son, spoken about years later by the local Poles, was not as involved as his father. Their post-War reports contain terrible descriptions of the murder of Jews, but also emotional descriptions of their rescue. Also, in an article written for a book published in 1995 marking the 150th anniversary of the Jewish community in Wellington, the entire credit for the rescue Joseph assigns to himself (in 1939 he was barely fifteen years old) and his father and wrote that both had survived the occupation "in the forest”.
The entire academic world remembers Antoni Kordowski, more favourably than does that small town.
In local historical publications, Kordowski does not appear amongst those Kurów residents who saved Jews. His name does not appear in the several lists of rescuers, drawn up in around 1960 by Józef Stankiewicz, an economist, living in Lublin at that time. During the War, Stankiewicz lived in Kurów and was Deputy Commander of the district Batalion Chłopski (Farmers' Battalion), a position in which he should have known a great deal - but he knew nothing about Kordowski. He only wrote, "All the surnames were not established, since there was no selfless help”. In Kordowski's case, the help was selfless, but Stankiewicz had not heard of it, which means that, during the occupation, Kordowski worked well within the underground and, following liberation, in Kurów, there was no feeling of respect for those who had saved Jews. In fact, the small town is only now beginning the work of locating and honouring those families and generally restoring the memory of its Jews.
In 1967, in response to a survey sent out by the Jewish Historical Institute (Żydowski Instytut Historyczny - ŻIH) in which questions were asked about individuals who had saved Jews, a respondent from Kurów wrote that "he had kept a couple of individuals (...) Antoni Kordowski of Kurów”. But that information remained in the ŻIH archives (301/6384). The provider of that information was Władysław Krupa, an administrative official from Puławy. After the War, he was secretary of the PPR (Communist Party) in Kurów, from which he fled from the underground. So, his information most probably originates from right after the War. After that, Antoni Kordowski was all but forgotten. After the War, his children went to school and moved to the city, taking with them their private, family memories. So that there was no public acknowledgement or official celebration of their father. Kordowski is remembered as a "shoemaker above all shoemakers” but, until recently, no one amongst the local "influentials" knew anything about his fine deeds in saving Jews..
Had it been known, then, as the hiding place for Jews organised by Kordowski in Kurów, perhaps it may have been preserved. When, in the autumn of 2014, Kordowski's daughter ordered that the timber part of their home be demolished, the workers would have come across another "strange" room which had been unused for years. She says:
It was strange, what had been done there, that (...) when you entered the attic, it seemed that this was where it ended (...) but it didn't end there. It was kind of camouflaged. ---- The entrance was covered with a board which could be opened, or even removed. It appeared that this is where the building ended, with this attic.But there was still one board to remove and you could go in even further. So that there were three rooms. (...) And this was all done against a wall and there were so many boards. (...) Air could enter. You couldn't see out much because of the building next door which was very close. (...) So that they had fresh air, between those boards. However, no one could see that someone was moving around there. It was camouflaged. In my life, I never would have supposed that, after so many years, I'd be talking about it.
This clever hiding place for Jews, miraculously concealed in the very centre of a small Polish town through which, today, tourist coaches with young Israelis pass, heading to Majdanek, should not only be a monument to history, but also an exceptional place of education. Because, sooner or later, Samuel Chanesman's story and the heroism of Antoni Kordowski of Kurów will become widely known. The Chanesmans' hiding place in the Kordowski home could become, once the necessary changes have been made, something along the lines of Ann Frank's house in Amsterdam.
This article was originally published in "Więź” magazine, No.4 (662) 2015.