The Kanabus Family

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Story of Rescue - The Kanabus Family

Feliks Zenon Kanabus was born in Warsaw. His father, Andrzej (1883-1963) was a cook. For a few years, during the inter-War period, he served as head chef on the ocean liner Batory. His mother, Adela (nee Dąbrowska), was a midwife.

Irena (nee Budzilewicz) Kanabus was descended from the well-known Landy medical family. Everyone in inter-War Żoliborz knew Irena’s mother, Dr Helena Budzilewicz, a paediatrican, and her mother’s brother, Dr Aleksander Landy, also a paediatrican. Both were active in the community. In Żoliborz, Aleksander Landy organised Poland’s first professional  medical and pedagogical counselling service for mothers and children. Their sister, Wanda Landy, taught all the Żoliborz youth to play the piano. A couple of years before the War, new doctors appeared in the Landy family – Irena Kanabus, a paediatrician and her husband, Zenon, a surgeon.

Irena’s grandparents, on her mother’s side, were Stanisław (1855-1915) and Feliksa (nee Lewandowski 1857-1942) Landy. They were socialists, independence activists who had been exiled to Siberia.

Irena’s mother, Helena (nee Landy 1883-1975) Budzilewicz, was born in Siberia. She studied in Switzerland and, in 1910, upon returning to Russia, married Włodzimierz (1883-1919) Budzilewicz, a lawyer, with whom she settled down in the Ukraine.

Irena was born on 20th October 1911 in Kiev. There followed two other daughters (in 1913 and 1917). Their father died shortly thereafter. Now widowed, Helena then lived in the small town of Konotop in eastern Ukraine. In 1925, she decided to move to Warsaw where her mother, also a widow, had moved earlier with her younger daughter and son, together with his family.

With the departure of Helena Budzilewicz from Konotop, the small town lost its only doctor. With great regret, they farewelled her at the railway station. Helena’s youngest daughter counted eighteen people who were crying.

Irena graduated from the Słowacki high school in Warsaw and, during her medical studies at Warsaw University, she met Feliks Zenon Kanabus. They were married in 1936. Even while a student, Zenon frequently spoke publicly against the spreading of anti-Semitism. The Kanabus couple had many Jewish friends. So that when war broke out and Jews began to be persecuted, many people turned to the Kanabus couple for help.

This help came in various forms – sheltering them in their home, aiding them in obtaining false documents and finding apartments for escapees from the ghetto. Today, it is not known who stayed at the Kanabus apartment or for how long they stayed there. What is known is that there were many people. Maria Tursz lived there for around two weeks. Her husband, Mieczysław, lived apart from her in an apartment found for him by the Kanabus couple. However, the greatest help that Dr Kanabus could provide to Jews was to conceal their Jewish origins. As a surgeon, he performed plastic surgery on the faces of those whose appearance was obviously Semitic (e.g. shortening the nose). With men, he removed any signs of a circumcision.

These were major operations which should have been performed in an operating theatre, under sterile conditions. Of course, this was out of the question. Finding an appropriate place to perform these operations became a serious issue. The other difficulty was the lack of a professional, and equally trusted, anaesthetist and surgeon’s assistant. At first, Dr Kanabus performed a few operations in his own apartment in Żoliborz. He was assisted by his wife, who was also a doctor but who, previously, had never had anything to do with surgery. However, performing operations in his apartment meant transporting the patient through the city, and perhaps revealing his identity and the address of the doctor. It would be too risky.

Later, Dr Kanabus made contact with Adam Drozdowicz (Adam Gutgisser), a practising paramedic, who became his assistant. They operated under very difficult conditions. Sometimes, a door taken off its hinges served as an operating table. Today, it is difficult to count just how many operations were performed by Dr Kanabus in helping Jews but, in any case, there were more than a dozen or so.

In the Warsaw Ghetto and during the Warsaw Uprising, Dr Irena Kanabus work in a hospital for the insurgents on ul. Śliska, while Dr Zenon Kanabus worked in the hospital in Żoliborz. During the German invasion, the Kanabus’ two-year-old son and Irena’s mother, Dr Helena Budzilewicz were injured.

Following the Uprising and displaced from Warsaw, they ended up in Bukowina Tatrzańska. They then moved to Kraków and only returned to Warsaw midway through 1946.

Irena Kanabus specialised in cancer of the blood in children. Her whole life, she worked in the Children’s Clinic on ul. Litewska. She retired in 1981 with the title of ”Professor”.

After the War, Feliks Zenon Kanabus worked at several Warsaw hospitals as a surgeon. He spent the greatest time at the Omega hospital, where he was Senior Registrar of Children’s Surgery. Because of his close contacts with the Home Army (AK), especially during the period of the Warsaw Uprising, as well as his later contact with the Government-in-Exile in London, during 1953-1956 he was imprisoned by the PRL authorities in the Rakowiecki Prison in Warsaw. He worked there as the prison doctor.

Many of his wartime Jewish patients, whom he had helped to hide from the Germans and from the blackmailers (szmalcownicy), emgrated to America. As a token of their gratitude, they organised a trip for him, which enabled him to tour throughout the United States.

The Kanabus couple died in Warsaw -  Irena on 15th September 1994, Feliks Zenon on 6th January 1978. Feliks Zenon Kanabus, in 1965, was one of the first to be awarded the ”Righteous Among the Nations” medal. Irena Kanabus was awarded the medal in 1995.

Other Stories of Rescue in the Area


  • Jadwiga Rytlowa, Intreview with Marta Jerzmanowska, a daughter of Feliks and Irena Kanabus, 11.02.2010