Chmielewska Apolonia

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Story of Rescue - Chmielewska Apolonia

Apolonia Chmielewska was born in Mińsk Mazowiecki, into the family of Stanisław and Małgorzata Chmielewski. Her parents had a carpentry and coffin-making business.

From the death of her father in September 1918, Apolonia and her older brother Stanisław helped her mother run the family business, located on ul. Siennickiej 23 and, later in 1925, on the eastern side of the Mińsk Old Market Square. For around thirty years, the business operated from the timber building at No.1 and from its basement. The shop was at the front, while the carpentry shop and the family home was at the rear.

In the market square, Apolonia would often meet little Chaja Oszlak (called Helenka and born in 1910). Chaja also worked in her family’s business. The Jewish Oszlak family’s butcher shop was next door to the Chmielewski coffin shop. Despite the difference in age, customs, religion and language, the girls became friends.

”It was a great friendship. Polunia was at my maternal grandparents’ for all the Jewish holidays. She spoke Yiddish well, which she learned from other children. My mum would go to them for the Catholic holidays”, recalls Danuta Berger, Chaja’s daughter.

In 1935, Chaja married Zygmunt Berger. Zygmunt’s family was quite well off, having a butcher shop.

War broke out. The Chmielewski shop and home found themselves near the ghetto which was established in 1940, and into which the Berger family was forced to move. Not long after, the Bergers had children – Cipra Dina, born 24th February 1940 r. and Barbara, born 21st January 1942.

On 21st August 1942, liquidation of the ghetto commenced. Just before she was meant to be transported, Chaja sought help from her Polish friends. The older daughter described the situation thus, ”... just before mum was to go the the Market Square along with the other Jews, she managed to run to Apolonia with Basia and me and asked them to save her children, For Apolonia, it was obvious – she had to save us.”

For a few days, the girls stayed with the Chmielewski family. But, shortly after, blackmailers came to the home, threatening to denounce them to the Gestapo unless they were given money. Apolonia was forced to hide the girls. Among  those who helped her was a Volksdeutsch named Hert. From recollections of the Mińsk rescued, he was not a Nazi and helped 47 Jews. Apolonia was also helped by a priest from the Mińsk parish who obtained a false birth certificate for the younger sister under the name of Jaworska. The child stayed with a Volksdeutsch as her niece  Basia. Apolonia visited her and paid for her keep. Basia lived there until 1946, even though Apolonia wanted to take her to her own home right after the War. In the beginning, her carer did not want to return the child because she did not wish to lose the money which that earned her.

Apolonia took the older sister, Danuta, to family living between Kałuszyn and Roguszyn but, as Danuta recalls,”quite soon afterwards, out of fear, they refused and I saw out the War in Warsaw’s Praga”. Apolonia visited the child there despite the fact that, during the journey, she could have been caught in any one of many roundups. After the Russians enetered in August 1944, she took Danuta back with her to Mińsk Mazowiecki.

After the War, the girls lived with Apolonią. Danuta recalls, ”She loved us more than many biological mothers would have. She also had a sense of mission and moral responsibility to our mother and always asked herself if our parents would have approved”.

No members of the Berger family living in Mińsk Mazowiecki survived – all perished in Treblinka. According to Marianna Majszyk, Chaja Berger perished in the Mińsk slave labour camp, in the Kopernik School. She was shot during the camp liquidation on 10th January 1943, when she jumped out of a first floor window. After the War, it turned out that an aunt of the girls’, Sara, was living in Palestine with her husband Icchak. They had left in the 1930’s. The searched for the girls, wanting them and Apolonia, to emigrate to Palestine. However, all of them declined to do so.

The sisters graduated from the Dąbrówek Elementary School and the Comprehensive High School on ul. Piękna. Everyone in Mińsk knew of the girls’ background, but the girls experienced no unpleasantness. After matriculating, the girls studied law at Warsaw University. Danuta completed here doctorate and post-doctoral studies. In 1957, she married Bohdan Plew and settled in Miłośnie. Barbara worked for the Polish Press Agency in the Western European editorial office. She married Mirosław Łysik.

Apolonia received her adopted daughters joyfully. They always warmly referred to her as Polunia. She died on 12th May 1978. In January 1980, the Berger sisters left Poland for Montreal. Their upbringing, manners, hard work and knowledge of the language helped them to establish a new life. Danuta became a lecturer at Montreal University. In 1981, she began studying psychology. Now retired, she continues to practise as a psychologist. After moving to Canada, Barbara worked helping immigrants, amongst them, Jews.

At her initiative, the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation was established in Canada in 1988. She served as its President for several terms. For almost eleven years, until her death, she was a member of the Immigrant and Refugee Commission. Barbara fought a long battle against leukaemia. A bone marrow donation from Danuta did not help. She died on 28th July 2008. 

Following Apolonia’s death, the Berger sisters began the process of having her honoured as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. In 1981, Danuta went to Israel, where she found former Jewish residents of Mińsk who knew Apolonia, and they attested to what she had achieved. Apolonia was awarded the medal in that same year. A year later, on the Avenue of the Righteous, Barbara planted a tree in memory of Apolonia Chmielewska, who had saved not one, but two lives.

Other Stories of Rescue in the Area

Bibliography

  • Gładyś Beata, Mińsk Mazowiecki. Z dziejów społeczności żydowskiej, Warszawa, 1970
  • Gontarek Alicja, Judenrein. Bez Żydów. Żydzi mińscy w czasie wojny i po jej zakończeniu, Mińsk Mazowiecki 1970