The Family Szwaj

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Story of Rescue - The Family Szwaj

When, during World War II, in Parcew, talk began about Germans murdering Jews, Mumi Farbstein asked Jan and Julianna Szwaj for help. They lived in ul. Kolejowa. He asked if they could provide shelter should the need arise.

“Goldstein lived next door to us. A few thousand Jews lived in the town”, Mieczysław and Zygmunt Szwaj recounted in the memoir. “Our father Jan often did handyman work for the Jewish population. The Jews often paid him for various jobs without even asking the price. (...) The Jews were anxious during the Nazi occupation. They said that the time for extermination would come, because that’s what the Parczew Rebba said”.

At the start of 1942, the Szwaj couple, with the help of their sons (Mieczysław 16, Zygmunt 14, Ryszard  9), began preparing an underground hiding place. The entrance to it was under the oven in the kitchen. If someone were to look at that spot, all they would see was a small hollow contained chopped firewood. They would see nothing suspicious. Earth from the basement was taken into the fields, far away from behind the barn. The entire work took about a month to complete.

“For us, young boys, it was hard work”. They brought in timber pallets, a table and stools. A small basement window was camouflaged from the outside. Mumi Farbstein came to us when we had finished work on the basement (...) He could barely fit through the gap under the stove. A few days later, he brought two buckets and left them in the basement. He gave mum some bowls, mugs and plates”.

In the summer of 1942, the Germans began deporting Jews from Parczew. The previous day, they had surrounded the city and railway wagons had appeared at the station. Mumi came to the Szawj’s that day, together with his younger brother Icek, and Aleksander Motyl from Golub. Motyl was a pharmacist, highly respected amongst the Jews (according to Yad Vashem records, he was a merchant). He brought with him his son Mietek (or Michał according to Yad Vashem records) and daughter Rywka, known as Irena (or Renia). All of them went into the basement.

“Early morning on the following day, shots rang out in the town. Much of the Jewish populace was being brought to the station and loaded onto the wagons. (...) The Germans were shouting and shooting. That train transport then left for Treblinka. Those columns accounted for around two thousand Jews. Another seven hundred fled into the Parczew Forest. The Jew Migdał knew about the planned deportations from the stationmaster, Tomasz Witkowski”.

The Szwaj family made the effort to support the Jews. They obtained food. Julianna cooked for everyone. She washed the underwear and the bedding – all in a situation of constant danger, with a railway station full of Germans, who would come to their neighbour’s for vodka. There were several searches, but the Szwaj family were lucky. Not only were their lives in danger, but also that of their neighbour.

Hardly anyone knew about those in hiding. Pierogi stuck in the family’s memory. Neighbours came over once”, said Janina. “Why are you cooking so many pierogi?”, asked the mother-in-law.

At the start, the Jews would go out into the yard at night to stretch out. But one of the neighbours noticed. “Jan, they’ll shoot all of us!”. From then on, they only remained inside at night.

In the summer of 1943, Aleksander Motyl sent his son and daughter, on their own, to  Golub. He had earlier taught them how to recite Catholic prayers and had obtained medallions for them. The children were helped by the Kaczmarek family.

Mumi also left the hiding place and joined up with the particans in the Parczew Forest. When he succumbed to typhus, he returned to the basement. They had amazing good fortune when the young Mietek Szwaj, accompanying the ailing Mumi, came across a German patrol. The German waved them through (even though he saw a Jew right in front of him) saying that they would both die of typhus anyway so he let them go free. After restoration to good health, Mumi returned to the forest where he was killed in action. Icek and Mieczysław Szwaj also fought with the partisans.

The Jews remained in hiding until the Red Army entered in July 1944. Icek left for Lublin and, in 1951, he emigrated to the USA. He maintained correspondence with the Szwaj family, sending them parcels. Aleksander Motyl is thought to have perished on the way to his daughhter who was hiding in Zalesie near Borów Tucholski. His children settled in the USA and in Israel.

In 1994, Icek wrote to theYad Vashem Instititute in Jerusalem applying for the Szwaj family to be honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations (his story differs a little from that as remembered by Mieczysław and Zygmunt). On 20th October 1999, Yad Vashem posthumously honoured Julianna and Jan Szwaj with the title of Righteous. The medal was accepted on their behalf by their son Zygmunt in Lublin in 2001.

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