The Slawik Family
The Story of Henryk Sławik
Henryk Sławik was “a hero to three peoples” – Polish, Jewish and Hungarian. There are very few individuals who fully deserve such a title. It is no exaggeration to include Sławik among the noblest of Poles of the Second World War – those who took up the fight against Germany, outside Poland, and who helped Polish citizens there, among them Jews. Henryk Sławik was murdered in the Mauthausen concentration camp. In 1977, the Yad Vashem Institute honoured him with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
It is not only Śląsk people who have the right to be proud of his achievements in prewar Śląsk and, especially, of his heroic and extraordinary deeds between 1939 and 1944 in Hungary. He also earned the grateful remembrance of a Jewish community spread all over the world.
It is hard to believe that, from 1923, he was editor of “Gazeta Robotnicza” (The Workers’ Gazette) and that in the years 1928–1939, he headed this organ of the Śląsk socialists. For many years, he was President of the Polish Journalists’ Syndicate of Śląsk and Zagłębia Dąbrowskiego. He was co-organiser of the Association of Workers’ Universities and Workers’ Sporting Clubs. Also, for many years, he served as President of the “Siła” Śląsk Cultural-Educational Association for Working Youth. He achieved all this while he, himself, had barely completed elementary school.
Śląsk Before 1939 – Education and Employment
His parents – small village farmers from Szeroka, lying at the time on the outskirts of the Pszczyna District – could not afford to provide their son with a further education. He received a good lesson in patriotism during the three uprisings about the Polishness of Śląsk, all of which he participated in.
He was required to put a great deal of work into educating himself to so successfully perform so many functions, which requried both knowledge and organisational skills. It should be added that, in 1929, the Śląsk socialists nominated Sławik to the Katowice City Council and, in 1934, to the Supreme Council of the Polish Socialist Party.
In his public-political activities, what was most important to him was Poland and the Polishness of Śląsk. Professor Mirosław Fazan, an expert on the fates of outstanding Ślązacy, described, in this manner, the principles which Henryk Sławik most probably followed, also in his personal life:
This is an example of a biography which shows the immense effort of a person who, coming from the lower social classes, advances through his own work and talent to leading positions in the public life of the region and the country. He represented the positive qualities attributed to Ślązacy – responsibility, diligence and, something which was significant to almost an entire generation born into captivity, ideological zeal.
He belonged to that turn-of-the-20th-century generation about which Professor Kazimierz Wyka wrote that “for us, regaining independence was an immense responsibility”. Also, for Sławik, that regaining of independence was a personal commitment which he made – to the point of even sacrificing his own life.
On 21st July1928, he married Warsaw-born Jadwiga Purzycka. Two years later, their daughter Krystyna came into the world. “He was a caring and loving father”, I heard Krystyna Sławik-Kutermak say while collecting material for the book Polski Wallenberg. Rzecz o Henryku Sławiku (The Polish Wallenberg. About Henryk Sławik). She remembered her beloved father thus:
He demanded a great deal – and from himself also. He exploited every spare moment to tell me something, to teach me something. He was always on about something. Even on our walks in Kościuszko Park, he treated me, a seven-year-old girl, as a partner.
I will never forget how, on some mountain trip, he explained to me, and told me to remember all my life, that a valuable, righteous and honest person is one who can always calmly look you in the eye. And how he cared about my education! He chose my extra-curricular reading material for me and would then discuss with me the heroes’ behaviours and attitudes. From occupied Warsaw – where my mother and I moved to be with her family – I had to send him my essays to Budapest.
After 17th September 1939, as one of over 100,000 Polish refugees, Henryk Sławik crossed the Hungarian border. He would have certainly reached the Polish Army, created in France by General Władysław Sikorski, had he not met József Antall in a camp near Miskolc, where he was temporarily quartered.
War and Refugees – Hungary 1939–1944
This employee of the Ministry of Interior had just been give the task of organising a governmental infrastructure to care for the unexpected arrivals and, for that reason, he had travelled to other camps in order to ascertain the needs of his future charges.
Antall acknowledged Sławik’s public statement, on behalf of the refugees, as a ready-made concept for his administration. In return, he suggested that this German-speaking Pole should go with him to Budapest and try to create an organisation which would represent the refugees’ interests to the Hungarian government.
In this way, in November 1939, with the help of Antall, Henryk Sławik began organising the Citizens’ Committee for the Help of Polish Refugees in Hungary. On 3rd March 1940, the Polish Government-in-Exile approved General Władysław Sikorski’s principles for appointing representatives in countries accommodating refugees from Poland.
The basic tasks of the Citizens’ Committee (KO) were to provide socio-medical and educational care to several thousand children and young people, and culural-educational care for adults, as well as to find work for those who were interested.
The performance of these tasks was possible thanks to the KO working in partnership with the Office of the Government Plentpotentiary, for War Refugees, of the Kingdom of Hungary. Sławik and some of his associates also took part in underground activities, including the preparation of candidates for transfer to the Polish Army in the West.
Henryk Sławik paid special attention to ensuring the safety of Polish-Jewish refugees. Among the 120,000 Polish citizens who came to Hungary, 12,000-15,000 were Jews.
Helping Jews – the Orphanage in Vác
Already by the beginning of 1940. the KO President had arranged for a secret method of obtaining new identity papers with “typically Polish” first names and surnames. Polish and Hungarian clergymen played an extremely important role here, readily issuing Catholic baptism certificates for those who needed them.
In accordance with Hungarian requirements, the relevant sets of documents were then sent to Antall’s office. He forwarded them to his trusted partners, in the Office of Refugee Control, for the appropriate stamps.
The danger of something going wrong multiplied in the second half of 1942 and in the beginning of 1943, when the Germans began the mass-murder of Jews. During this period, around 4,000–5,000 Jewish refugees from Poland (mainly from the eastern Małopolskie Province) had managed to reach Hunagry.
Among them were about one hundred orphans. Some of them, through a miracle, did not accompany their parents in the train wagons heading to the concentration camps and some had been thrown out of the wagons in order to save them. Good people had brought them to Hungary.
Established by Sławik and Antall in the spring of 1943, the orphanage for Jewish children in Vác-on-the-Danube became legend. Officially, it was called the “Orphanage for Children of Polish Officers”, but that was its camouflage. The children there were taught basic Catholic prayers and, on Sundays, they were openly led to the church so that everyone could see what the children’s faith was.
In turn, in order to dispel any suspicions held by Hitler’s Hungarian allies, Archbishop Angelo Rotta, the Apostolic Nuncio to Hungary, came to visit the children. At the same time, the orphanage’s founders and carers permitted Jewish teachers with Izaak Bretler (Władysław Bratkowski) to educate their charges in, among other subjects, the Hebrew language.
The whole operation was supervised by Polish teacher and scout Franciszek Świder. Thanks to precautions and an excellent evacuation plan prepared by the carers, none of the children in the orphange were killed or ended up in the hands of the Germans even though, on 19th March 1944, Hungary came under German occupaiton.
In 2004, Tzipora Lewawi (nee Cila Ehrenkranz), one of the older girls in the orphanage, described what Henryk Sławik did for and what he meant to the orphans of Vác:
I believe that he was God’s messanger. What the Germans did left me alone in this world. The fact that, today, I am alive and live in Israel and that I have my own, large family of children and grandchildren, numbering more than thirty people altogether, is all because Sławik rescued me.
However, Sławik did not use his position in personal matters. It was only when, in Warsaw, his wife Jadwiga’s interviews with the Gestapo intensified, that he asked Antall for help to bring her and their daughter to Hungary. Countess Erzsébet Szapáry was very active in caring for refugees from Poland, among them Polish Jews. Armed with two forged, Hungarian passports, she escorted mother and daughter out of Warsaw in December 1943 and so, after four years of separation, the Sławik family was reunited. Unfortunately, that situation only lasted for a few months.
Arrest and Death
After the Germans had occupied Hungary, Jadwiga was spotted by German intelligence and was arrested in Balatonboglár as one of the first refugees. After a period in a Budapest prison, she ended up in the Ravensbrück, an experience which she fortunately survived.
Sławik was not so lucky. After a few months of hiding, he was denounced, most probably by a Polish agent and, in July 1944, he fell into the hands of the Gestapo, as did József Antall.
Once again, his attitude proved his greatness. The Germans were unable to force Sławik to testify against Antall. During a confrontation, organised by the Gestapo, between the Sławik and Antall, he took all the "guilt" upon himself. Beaten and tortured, he denied that Antall, among others, had helped Poles in organising the transfer of soldiers to General Sikorski’s army or had helped him to save Jews. Thanks to Sławik, Antall survived. He, himself, on 25th or 26th August 1944, was murdered in the German concentration camp in Mauthausen.
Earlier, he had not used the three visas for Switzerland which Hungarian friends had prepared for him and his family. During his last meeting, in the hideout at Lake Balaton, with his fourteen-year-old daughter Krysia, when she asked him why they had not sheltered from the Germans in Switzerland, he replied that he could not leave those whose care had been entrusted to him.
After the end of the War, a grateful Antall found fifteen-year-old Krystyna wandering around the Hungarian countryside. He wanted to adopt her. Fortunately, her mother had returned to Katowice from Ravensbrück.
It was not until 1977, that Henryk Sławik was first recalled by Israeli lawyer Izaak Bretler, one of the teachers in the orphanage in Vác. It was Bretler who applied to the Yad Vashem Institute for have Sławik honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. The application did not reach a successful final conclusion until 6th November 1990. Henryk Zvi Zimmermann, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and Israeli diplomat, during World War II, had escaped from the labour camp in Bieżanów, reached Budapest and had helped Sławik to rescue Jews.
In addition, in 2004, Henryk Sławik was posthumously honoured by Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski with the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta. In 2010, Polish President Lech Kaczyński awarded him the Order of the White Eagle. Monuments dedicated to Sławik and to Antall have been erected in Poland and Hungary in, among other places, Katowice (2015), Warsaw (2016) and Budapest (2017). The square in front of the Katowice “Spodek” has been named in their honour (2014).
Over many years, numerous events and film screenings, in Poland and abroad, have proved to be successful in restoring Henryk Sławik to his rightful place in the historic awareness of not just the Polish people.
Other Stories of Rescue in the Area
- Gutman Israel red. nacz., Księga Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, Ratujący Żydów podczas Holocaustu, Kraków 2009
- Łubczyk Grzegorz, Henryk Sławik. Wielki zapomniany Bohater Trzech Narodów, Warszawa 2008
- Henryk Sławik. Polski Wallenberg, Marek Maldis, Grzegorz Łubczyk, Telewizja Polska - Agencja Filmowa (dla Programu 1 i TV Polonia), 2004, Poland, Documentary film, 50 min
“He had a street, here in Śląsk, named after him”, recalls Sławik’s daughter. Three days later, the local authorities realised that he had not come from their socialist circle of communists. So, they rapidly changed the street’s name to “Zbarska”. He had saved the lives of thousands of people. Just like Raoul Wallenberg, he paid the ultimate price for his courage and dedication. But, in contrast to the Swedish industrialist and diplomat’s mission known around the world, the activities of Henryk Sławik remain little-known, even amongst his own countrymen.
- Zimmerman Zwi, Przeżyłem, pamiętam, świadczę, Kraków 1997
The author was hiding on the "Aryan side", joined the guerilla troops of the Home Army, then he managed to enter Hungary, where he cooperated with Henryk Sławik during the action of issuing false documents for the Jewish refugees from Poland.