During World War II Krystyna Zambrzycka lived with three children Andrzej, Elżbieta and Jan in Warsaw at 67 Filtrowa Street. She rented a room to tenants who, as it turned out later, were Jews hiding from the „Aryan side”. In such circumstances, Krystyna Zambrzycka helped a Jewish boy, Gabriel Halbersztad.
The Wiernicki family lived in Warsaw at 67 Filtrowa Street since the late 1920s. That was when the “Wspólna Ostoja” cooperative houses were built for employees and officers of the State Police. Bogumił and Maria Wiernicki lived at no. 14 together with their daughter Krystyna Zambrzycka and her children, Elżbieta and Andrzej. During the war, Krystyna got romantically involved with Jan Wojeński. He ran an advertisement and creative publicity enterprise called “Echo” in Warsaw. Their son Jan was born in January 1942.
A room for rent
During the war, their living conditions deteriorated. Bogumił Wiernicki died on Christmas Eve 1942. The family decided to rent one of the rooms to fix their budget. Shortly thereafter, two unknown women moved in. “They were nice blondes. They got settled, hung a cross on the wall and pictures of saints”, Jan Wojeński, Krystyna Zambrzycka’s son, recalls.
One day, Gestapo broke into the house. “A German shouted at my mother: Don’t you know you’re hiding Jews?”, says Jan. The family was unaware of the tenants’ true identity. The women were taken out, and their personal belongings thrown away through the window to a cab stopped in front of the house. “It was driven by a Polish woman who was reportedly later seen with Germans in the Warsaw district of Ochota. She must have collaborated with them and taken those items for herself”, Jan Wojeński suspects.
The Gestapo officers ordered for Krystyna to be taken for a hearing. She begged to leave her alone explaining that she had little children in need of care. In the end, it was her mother who went to the police station on Szucha Avenue.
“My grandmother saw terrifying things there. Young boys standing up against the wall – Gestapo officers could shoot them dead at any time”, Jan recalls. During the hearing, Maria Wiernicka tried to prove her family was innocent. “She was very brave. In the end, the German served her a full glass of vodka and told her to drink it. ’If you drink this, we’ll let you out’, he said. And my grandma drank it”.
Dramatic experiences did not undermine Maria’s empathy. She risked her life to bring food to the Lembergiers, a family of six displaced from Błonie, Warsaw area, to the Warsaw ghetto.
Hiding of a Jewish boy
In 1944, Krystyna rented the room again. The new tenant was Mieczysław Hankiewicz, referred to them by neighbours. A few weeks later, he brought a 7-year-old boy named Gabryś whom he introduced as his godson. He asked them to let the child stay. Zambrzycka did not know at first that Gabryś was Jewish.
Jan Wojeński remembers the boy could recite the Catholic daily prayer with ease, knew several prayers and was able to make the sign of the cross. “He had probably been instructed previously. It was already the fourth year of the war”. His looks caused no suspicion either. “He looked just like me or my brother Andrzej. We could have passed for siblings”.
Krystyna agreed for Gabryś to stay. When Hankiewicz later admitted that the boy’s mother was hiding and his father had been taken to Auschwitz, she did not change her mind. She wrote many years later:
Mr Hankiewicz only paid me a symbolic amount of money for food, as I understood how difficult the Jews’ situation was at that time. I was also going through a hard time since I was a single mother of three, but my conscience wouldn’t let me refuse to accept this little boy who needed mother’s care.
Gabryś was introduced to their neighbours as Zambrzycka’s nephew.
Before he got there, a friendly family from Siedlce was taking care of him. They rescued him from the local ghetto, but the boy had to leave his shelter for unknown reasons in 1944. His father left him then with his brother, Natan Halbersztadt, who lived at 67 Filtrowa Street as Mieczysław Hankiewicz.
Zambrzycka’s tenants survived the Warsaw Uprising in the cellar. On 8 August 1944, the Nazi Germans took them to the so-called Zieleniak temporary camp, and then to the West Railway Station. From there, they were to be deported to a labour camp in the Third Reich.
Gabryś in the orphan
The train was stopped in Skierniewice by Tadeusz Zambrzycki, railman, Krystyna’s first husband. With the help of the Red Cross, under the pretext of preventing a typhus threat, some people from the transport could be released. “Gabryś probably remembers how, together with my 6-year old daughter, they walked out of the train escorted by Germans. Unfortunately, Mr Hankiewicz stayed on the train and probably went all the way to Wrocław”, Zambrzycka recalled. After a few days in Skierniewice, neighbours started suspecting what the boy’s true identity was.
They blackmailed us threatening they would denounce us to the Germans. I was terrified. With the help of my family, I managed to place Gabryś in an orphanage 30 km of Skierniewice.
In January 1945, the boy’s mother found Krysytna and they went to collect him together. “He was very emotional about meeting his mother and saying goodbye to me”, she related.
The meeting after years
After the war, Zambrzycka returned to Warsaw with her children. The walls of their home at 67 Filtrowa Street had been burnt, with the ceilings partially collapsed. By the time the rebuilt it, they lived in the cellar, struggling to make ends meet. The eldest son Andrzej suffered from asthma, which caused his premature death.
They lost contact with the survivors. “I waited for many years for someone to get in touch with us, to no effect”. In 1987, Krysytna published an advert in the Perspektywy review asking for help in finding the grown-up Gabriel. Her message reached the distant Tel Aviv where Halbersztadt lived after the war. “In the summer of 1990, he came to Warsaw to find me. It was a very emotional reunion”.