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The story of the "Krysia" Bunker

In 1942, the Wolski family, Małgorzata, her son Mieczysław and her daughters, Halina and Wanda, lived in the Warsaw suburb of Ochota, at 81 Grójecka Street (other sources state 84). Under their roof, they took in an escapee from the Warsaw Ghetto by the name of Wiśka. As Wanda Szandurska (nee Wolska) described her after the War, "That Jewish girl was of medium height, had red hair and limped on her left leg". Halina had brought her home. The Wolski family cared for her and, selflessly, treated her as one of their family.

Wiśka, who had hidden in the Wolski home to January 1944, was a liasion between "the Aryan side" and the Warsaw Ghetto. Information about the Wolskis' kindness towards the Jewish girl reached those active in the Żydowska Samopomoc Społeczna (Jewish Social Aid). They turned to Mieczysław Wolski, who had connections with the PPS (Polish Socialist Party), with the proposal of creating a shelter for future escapees from the ghetto. The area, where the two-storey Wolski home was located, was eminently suited to the task - the entire premises covered more than a hectare of land. Mieczysław Wolski was a gardener, so that the extensive garden also had a greenhouse. That became the base for the planned hiding-place.

Wolski received the precise plan for the shelter from the ŻSS activists, via Wiśka, with whom he had crossed the wall into the ghetto. According to the plan, the hiding-place was to be located under the greenhouse, in that part of the garden which adjoined the building on 77 Grójecka Street. To complete the task, several escapees from the Warsaw Ghetto were brought in. During the construction period, the Wolski family hid them in the basement. In order not to arouse any suspicions from the neighbours, the Wolski family said that they were preparing a cellar for the growing of mushrooms.

The area of the bunker, which was affectionately named "Krysia", was 28 sq.m. its depth being 1.83 m. According to Wanda Szandurska, "The entrance to Krysia was a hole located between window sills of the greenhouse, closed with a wooden flap. There were wooden stairs for coming and going. In order to get into Krysia, one had to cross two yards and a decent-sized garden all the way to the greenhouse which stood by the Piwer company building.” For those times, the bunker was impressively equipped. It had two rows of pallets for sleeping, enough for thirty four people. It also had additional camp-beds. A table and benches stood in the centre. The bunker also had a cooker connected to the chimney of the neighbouring building, running water, light and a makeshift toilet.

Fugitives from the ghetto were systematically brought to this prepared hiding-place. From the moment of its creation until the day it was unmasked in March 1944, it had hidden around forty people. Among them was historian Emanuel Ringelblum, with his wifeJudyta and son Uri. They had ended up in Krysia at the end of February 1943.

Ringelblum would quite often leave the hiding-place in order to help get others out of the ghetto into the "Aryan side". His last expedition, which he undertook a day before the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, ended with his arrest and transportation to the camp in Trawniki. Information about this event reached the Council to Aid Jews (Żegota) in July 1943. Thanks to the Council and Jewish underground organisations, Ringelblum was bribed out and eventually returned to Krysia, where his family was still hidden. At the end of 1943, he wrote the essay, there, entitled "Polish-Jewish Relations During the Period of the Second World War". That essay survived the War thanks to Adolf Berman.

In his work, Ringelblum characterised the attitudes of Poles towards Jews during the War and assessed them. In the part where he describes the positive behaviour of Poles, he included the Wolski family but, for their safety, he referred to them as "the family M." and to Mieczysław as "Mr W.". He refers to the Wolski family with the greatest of respect and gratitude. He writes this of Mieczysław, "When it was needed to rescue the currect residents of Krysia from the ghetto, Mr W. personally drove his cart to the finish, loaded the suitcases and parcels onto the cart, sat the people onto the packages and drove home. One time, he loaded on eight people, women and children, and, before the eyes of the police, the szmalcownicy (blackmailers) and the neighbours, he drove along the main streets of the city, arriving home safely".

The Wolski family's kindness towards the Jews motivated Ringelblum to write the following, "Before the War, Jews lived in their two-storey tenement. As neighbours, they were on good terms. A Jewish vegetable merchant and a Jewish fruit trader bought products from their garden and orchard. Old M. (Mieczysław's father) was known for his liberal attitude towards Jews. He was an honest man, of noble character. Modern trends had not touched him. He did not understand hatred towards Jews. It was in that spirit that he raised his children, in whom he instilled the principles of justice and to treat everyone the same, without regard to religion or nationality. Mrs M. (Małgorzata, Mieczysław's mother) adopted that family tradition from her husband".

The whole Wolski family was engaged in helping those in hiding. All the activity was supervised by Mieczysław. He was also the intermediary in contacts between those in hiding and Jewish resistance activists. He acted as liaison between Ringelblum and Adolf Berman and the Żydowski Komitet Narodowy (Jewish National Committee). Two of Mieczysław's five sisters, who lived at Grójecka Street, shared the responsibilities of caring for those living in the hiding-place. Wanda was responsible for the provision of meals and the cleaning of the hiding-place. Halina shopped for the food. The older sisters also helped - Eugenia Warnocka delivered the correspondence, while Maria Czekajewska, a nurse by profession, gave medical aid when necessary.  

In order to avoid any suspicion which could have arisen as a result of the large amount of shopping and accumulation of food, the Wolski family opened a little shop selling food items. Another of Mieczysław's sisters, Leokadia Borowiakowa, ran the shop. The family's matriarch, Małgorzata, sustained the spirits of those in hiding and supprted them. Of the Wolski family, Ringelblum wrote, "Mrs M. (Małgorzata) is the heart (of Krysia), Mr W. (Mieczysław) is the brain, and the eyes is Mr M.'s grandson Mariusz (Janusz Wysocki), Krysia's guardian angel, its inseparable companion". Ringelblum mentions Mariusz, who is Janusz Wysocki, Mieczysław's nephew, who was responsible, above all else, for the safety of the hiding-place. He acted as the security guard. When needed, he would warn those in hiding of impending danger.

The cost of the food and maintenance was borne by those in hiding, with some financial support from the Council to Aid Jews. Everyone who moved into the bunker was obliged to pay 10,000 złotych, and then to make regular payments during their stay One of those in hiding, someone called Borowski (his real name is unknown) was responsible for collecting the amounts due, the organisation and order within the bunker. However, in her narrative, Wanda Szandurska recalls that those matters were looked after by a committee formed straight after Krysia was opened. The committee comprised Ringelblum, a lawyer Tadeusz (Klinger), as well as two women.

Due to the large number of people, living conditions were quite difficult. Life went on, though mainly at night. That was the time for conversation, learning, cooking and playing with children. It was at that time that the Wolski family provided them with meals and take away the waste because, as Wanda Szandurska declares, "Krysia was our entire life". A lack of privacy, compelled to remain in one room the entire time with the same people, the stuffiness caused by a lack of access to fresh air and the bedbugs, all had a negative effect on interpersonal relations and, in turn, threatened the safety of the group. Ringelblum wrote, "Despite the favourable external conditions, there are many factors which threatened the safety of Krysia. The children, imprisoned in a cramped room, or rather a basement, too noisy, and adults locked into 28 sq.m. who talk too loudly, and even sometimes fanatically, Stacheldrahtkrankheit, argue amongst themselves".

The noise and voices arising from "under the ground" could arouse suspicion amongst the Polish workers working in the garden and greenhouse and could lead to discovery. That is what occurred when those in hiding did not close the entrance flap to the shelter. Voices arising from under the floor of the greenhouse unsettled one of the workers employed by Wolski. There were other situations which threatened the safety of the shelter when the Wolski home was often visited by the Gestapo.

It was probably as the result of being denounced in Warsaw by an eighteen year old informant, Jan Łakiński, or, as other sources suggest, by Mieczysław Wolski's former girlfriend who wanted to take revenge on his breaking their relationship, that the Germans found out about the hiding-place for Jews. On 7th March 1944, the Germans and officers of the Polish police, came to the Wolski home and headed to the place where they would find the bunker. Wanda Szandurska describes the event thus, "On the morning of 7th March 1944, the Germans and Polish police came to the kitchen where we were sitting – my mother, my brother Mieczysław, me and my sick sister Halina. They took my brother and led him straight into the garden to the greenhouse. I immediately went into another room and lowered the blind as a signal of danger. Janusz was in front of the greenhouse. When he saw the drawn blind, he jumped into Krysia and stayed there. Through the window, I saw the Germans standing near Krysia as the Jews emerged. They were then stood against a wall with their arms raised".

The Germans took all the Jews, including the RIngelblum family and Janusz Wysocki,  from the bunker to Pawiak prison. Mieczysław Wolski was also taken, as well as, according to Wanda Szandurska, Maria (other sources claim that Maria was not arrested, but Halina, who was released after a few days). All were shot, probably three days later, on the grounds of the now non-existent ghetto. "That same day, or the next, Krysia was pillaged and burned", Wanda Szandurska recalls. "Polish police stoood guard there for another three days before they were recalled".

Following this event, friends and relatives kept their distance from the Wolski family. Despite this, and years later, Wanda declared, "Until today, we haven't spoken with anyone about the story of Krysia. After all, it wasn't a crime to help save people's lives". 

In 1989, in recognition of their deeds, the Wolski family – Mieczysław, Małgorzata, Halina Michalecka, Wanda Szandurska and Janusz Wysocki – were all honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Other Stories of Rescue in the Area

Bibliography

  • Archiwum Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, Dział dokumentacji odznaczeń Yad Vashem, Akta sprawy Małgorzaty, Mieczysława, Haliny i Wandy Wolskich, sygn. 349/24/1274
  • Archiwum Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, Zbiór relacji Żydów ocalałych z Zagłady, Relacja Bronisława Anlena, sygn. 301/6461
  • Archiwum Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, Zbiór relacji Żydów ocalałych z Zagłady, Relacja Władysława Bartoszewskiego, sygn. 301/6463
  • Bartoszewski Władysław, Polacy – Żydzi – Okupacja. Fakty, postawy, refleksje, Warszawa 2016
  • Bartoszewski Władysław, Lewinówna Zofia, Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej, Warszawa 2007
    This publication consists of 3 parts: monographic outline of the issue of aid given to the Jews; collection of German and Polish documents concerning the histories of Jews and the aid given to them; collection of the post-war reports created by Poles and Jews about the aid.
  • Gutman Israel red. nacz., Księga Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, Ratujący Żydów podczas Holocaustu, Kraków 2009
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  • Paulsson Gunnar S., Utajone miasto. Żydzi po aryjskiej stronie Warszawy (1940-1945), Kraków 2007
    A description of the experiences of Jews hiding in Warsaw; contains excerpts concerning Polish rescuers.
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  • Ringelblum Emanuel, Stosunki polsko-żydowskie w czasie drugiej wojny światowej. Uwagi i spostrzeżenia, Warszawa 1988