The Szalaj Family
The Story of Czesława Chojnacka
My name is Czesława Chojnacka, nee Szałaj. (I was born on) 25th February 1925 in Kolonii Natalin, where I have lived since my youth and where I met the Jews, my neighbours, whom I looked after and fed during the German occupation.
My father's name was Karol. The Germans beat him and he died soon afterwards. My mother's name was Adela. When she died, she was eighty three years old. I have a younger sister and the youngest is my brother Wacław. My father was a farmer. He grew cereal and potatoes and raised pigs and cows.
There were various people in Natalin - Germans, Jews, Ukrainians and Poles. Everyone lived in harmony. People liked and helped each other. No one harmed anyone.
We went toschool in Wolawiec. The school had four classes. Students included Jews, Ukrainians, Poles and the German who lived there. I finished grade four. Later, war broke out and no one could continue to study.
Those Jews also went to school with me. We grew up together from when we were tiny. They were very good people, very good neighbours. Soemtimes, my parents would go out into the fields and we were left alone. Then the Jew would come, take us home and laid us down to sleep. He was a good Jews. Mum milked the cow. A saucepan full of milk would be taken to him. We looked after their home when they were away. Mum would give them flour and eggs. He would come, bring some meat and then go. Mum would call out, "Don't bring it, because I have no money."I'm not asking you for any."
The Jewish family comprised a mother and father, His name was Symcho Bursztyn. He traded in veal. They had a tiny farm on a small piece of land. SHe raised the children. There were three girls and two boys - Hynda, Symcha, Chaja, the eldest son was Sznaja, then Symcha and Jankiel was the youngest.
There was terrible poverty. The Germans killed my father and it was very hard for us. I worked on the farm. There was not enough to eat. They took the last of the cows. When Easter came, there was not even bread. [The situation of the Jews was worse.
We lived not far away. We could see the road. We got up in the morning. We could hear people moaning and crying terribly. The Germans were driving the Jews out of the town towards the Pobołocki Forest - maybe twoo hundred people. They drove them into forest where the acacias were grew. There, all of them were beaten. They lined them up there and fired a machine gun. They all fell. As my father said, the worst sight was a Jew walking with a young woman who is carrying a swaddled child. She is crying and he is holding her. Suddenly, still holding the child, she faints and falls onto the road.
Later, the Germans came to the village with the Sołtys. They ordered all the peasants to take shovels and go to bury the Jews, whom they had beaten in the Pobolecki Forest. They dug trenches into which they threw the Jews. Our people took furs and boots from the bodies. How they could do that, I don't know. It can't be described. It has to be experienced.
My father was sick for three days, vomitting and unable to eat anything. We thought that he would die. Somewhere in Brzeźno, roads were being built. The Sołtys ordered wagons to be brought in order to take stone and sand there. Very few peasants came. The Germans were furious. They beat our neighbour and my father. My father came home, lay down and that's how he died. Shortly after, the neighbour also died.
They were terribly poor. They had to hide. (Symcho) couldn't trade. It was hard for them. They asked for bread. They helped out a little in the field, looked after animals. They were good people.
When their (the Jews') mother went into town and didn't return, the children hid straight away. In Kamien, the Germans drove up and beat all the Jews. They lay in the yard like herrings, with blood flowing. From then on, they started to flee. While it was warm, they could still hid in the forest, in the meadows and in the bushes. Later, when it became cooler, they wanted to come inside. We kept them inside but, during the day, they hid in the barn, because people were always coming to the house. But when the night was quite cold and frosty, at night we'd go out and called them to come inside. The got up early in the morning and ran to the barn, because they were afraid that someone might notice them... They were scared of other people. We pitied them, because they were hungry and also wanted to eat. The worst thing in life is hunger.
I knew quite a bit of Yiddish. Amongst themselves, they said, "Don't talk, because she understands everything”.
Someone must have known something, because Usyduska, a neighbour, came and warned us, "Be careful, because, in the village, they're saying that you're hiding Jews.” We denied it. Sometimes, they (the Jews) would wander out and someone had noticed them coming out of our barn. We told them (about the neighbour's visit). So as not to put us in danger, they moved into the forest. They dug a tunnel for themselves in the forest and settled there.
I arranged a time with them to bring them food. Mum had made soup in a large pot. I took the pot and carried it across the Udal River. Sometimes, my knees would get wet. I brought it to the pre-arranged place and left it there. Mum baked bread which I also took to them. They would come at night to take the food. Early in the morning, while it was still dark, I went into the forest to bring back the pot. Bringing it back, I put it into a sack and covered it with branches so that people wouldn't see that I was bringing a pot back out of the forest. And that's how it continued for a long time. Later, they moved somewhere else. Sometimes, at night, they would knock at the door. They came in, sat, chatted and then left.
In the meadows, they had dug a tunnel and were living there - two boys and two sisters. (Their) father was living somewhere else.
The younger boy couldn't walk. He had gotten rheumatism. The whole time he was in the damp ground, unwashed, not dressed and terribly dirty. When it became warmer, they would go to the river to wash. In the winter, when they ran over to us, we would always warm some water in a pot and they would wash themselves in that copper. We would stand outside and keep watch so that no one would come in.
Spring had come and snow was falling. Someone had discovered foot prints. Following them, he moved aside a bush and saw that there were Jews there. The older one took his brother on his shoulders (because he could no longer walk - he had some paralysis) and crossed the river into the forest. He returned for the sisters. When he came to the Udal River, he heard shots. Straight away, he thought, "They've shot my sisters". He returned to the forest, grabbed his brother and went near another village. People returned from town and were saying thatthe Germans had slaughtered two Jewish women. It was already spring and the weather had become warm. It's a pity that those Jewish women didn't survive. One had no hair on her head, only a scab. It's unknown who betrayed them. There was someone, but it's not certain. He was like that, but he denied it.
What was the penalty (for hiding Jews)? The burning down of an entire village. All the villagers would be killed and the village set on fire. There was no escape from that. They did that everywhere - in Kamien also. They set fire to house upon house. I saw it. We were young, so it took our interest. We ran over to watch.
Later, we lost contact. A partisan unit was set up and the (Jews) joined up. I remember that when the Russians came, they emerged from the forest. (One of them) had a rifle which was bigger then he was. We laughed at him, but he was so proud that he was carrying a rifle. He didn't know how to shoot it.
The father and two sons managed to survive. When the War ended, they all came straight to our yard. Straight away, mum invited them inside and offered them tea. They ate whatever we had, chatted, cried and told us what had happened. They cried for their sisters. (Symcho) cried for his children. After the War, they took them (from where they had been buried) and buried them in the Jewish cemetery in Chełm. When they came, from Israel, to visit me, they went to the cemetery to look for the graves.
Later, they settled into their own home. The father arranged something in town. He would travel there and one of the brothers tried to get work somewhere. He soon found himself a girlfriend. SHe was from Łuków. He brought her over and she lived with them. He intended to marry her. When he went somewhere, we could look after her, because there was a Jew at the inn, who owned a mill, and he wanted to steal her away from him. She also grew up in Wołkowiany. [(Once), she went out withher mother. They walked along the dirt road. Someone fired a shot. The bullet hit the mother and she fell. She terribly in depair her mother - all this after the War, after everything, at the last moment.
The father and the younger son (Jankiel) left for Israel. The elder, Sznaja, remained. They lived in Wrocław. (Later), they travelled to Israel and there he married (his girlfriend). She had a stroke or a heart attack and died. They only had one child, a daughter. She visited me and could speak Polish. She was ten years old (when she left for Israel).
We were in contact the entire time. He rang only a couple of years ago asking if he could come. I said, "Why are you asking? The door is always open to you. Come, we'll talk. I want to talk to you about everything, about my friends”. And so he came here. He was with his grandchildren. (We travelled) to the village where he had lived.
Later, he rang. I said, "Is it true that they give a medal to those who hid Jews?”
"If you want it, I can arrange for you to receive that medal for hiding us. But you need to write about how it was and send it to me. I'll go to the council with my brother. There, I'll confirm what happened.” I wrote about everything and sent it off.
A letter came saying that I was to be awarded that medal for hiding Jews. It took around six years. Later, they sent me a pile of papers. They set a date (and time) to came to Janowiec. We went.
I felt happy that I could save people's lives, because life is the most important. You have to love people.
I don't know if I'd do the same today, but maybe I would. Today, I'd be braver I think, because I have experience and now I'm not afraid of anything.
Somehow, they had survived and came into our yard. The Polish neighbours heard. Later, there was nothing that needed explaining. But some said that one had to be careful of one's actions, "because we could have all gone up in smoke. Why didn't you think about that?”
No one thought about that. They were hungry. In tragedy, one needs to extend one's hand to whomever comes.
"Whoever saves a single life, saves the world entire”. It's like the world is mine because I saved it. But that's not true, it's not mine, it belongs to all of us.
This article is from of the collection of Ośrodka "Brama Grodzka – Teatr NN” in Lublin; a part of the project "A Light in the Darkness - the Righteous Among the Nations of the World"