The Lisowski Family

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Story of Rescue - The Lisowski Family

Before the breakout of the war, Witold Lisowski was living in Henryków near Warsaw with his parents and two older brothers. He came from a well-off family. His father was an officer in the Polish Army, a member of the Piłsudski camp; his mother owned a restaurant.

In the 1930s, a Jewish family, the Inwentarzs, settled in the vicinity of the Lisowski house. They built their house on a plot bought from the Lisowkis. Symche Inwentarz was a merchant running a colonial store. Both families were in close relations.

“We were growing up together, two friendly families. One had it good and so did the other. The head of one was a Pole, the head of the other, a Jew,” recalls Witold Lisowski, who befriended his Jewish peer, the thirteen-year-old Józef Inwentarz, nicknamed “Dudek.”

Early in the war the fathers of both the families were lost: in 1939 Józef Lisowski died fighting the Germans, and a year later Symche Inwentarz was murdered in Palmiry. “So we had something more in common – the loss of our fathers, of the heads of our two families,” Witold Lisowski remarks.

The ghetto and the escape

In 1941 the Inwentarzs, along with other Jews from Henryków, were placed in the ghetto of Ludwisin (currently Legionowo). Witold’s older brother, Jan, was a great help to them in surviving the terrible living conditions in the ghetto.

In October 1942 the ghetto was liquidated by the Germans and the Jews were taken to the Treblinka extermination camp. Józef Inwentarz managed to escape before the liquidation. He spent the summer and early autumn of 1943 in hiding.

Initially he worked as a cowherd – his aunt, the owner of a store in Ludwisin, arranged a job for him at a farmstead in Nowy Dwór. However, he had to flee the place because of a suspicion that he was Jewish. Witold recounts:

“But there was this terrible situation there. The boys who were grazing cows were bathing in this pond in a meadow. And Dudek didn’t. After all, no one had trunks back then, they were skinny-dipping. Dudek didn’t … So there was one, a leader, a village boy, [who] said: ‘You’re not swimming because you are a Jew.’ Dudek told me he was trembling with fear, but he said: ‘I’m not Jewish. I’m a Pole, like you.’ ‘Well then, let’s go to the station.’ And the whole bunch from the village and the pasture took off to the station. And there’s always an inn at the end of the village. And when they were approaching the inn, they saw that all the farm owners, their employers, sitting in front of the inn. So that ringleader stopped and said: ‘I believe you, [Józef]...’ And the boys turned back to the pasture. The leader said: ‘I believe you, because you were brave. And Jews are cowards.’ Dudek still wouldn’t swim. But he got very scared. He was really afraid. And after a while he split.”

He was later hiding in the nearby woods.

In November Józef, hungry and exhausted, came to Henryków, where he met Witold. The latter immediately took him to his house. Witold’s mother, Zofia, took care of the boy.

In hiding

Despite the mortal danger, the brothers Lisowski and their mother hid Józef at the house. The decision was made by one of Witold’s older brothers, Wiesław. Józef Inwentarz spent the several months until spring 1944 in a room in the garret in the Lisowski house. Witold recalls:

“All three of us would go to school, and Dudek had to go upstairs. There were these rooms under the roof, two bedrooms. Dudek was living in one of them. The conditions were great. He had plenty of food, as much as he wanted. Only he could not move around. He couldn’t walk, because if anyone heard footsteps... And he had windows, there were these small windows there, in those rooms, in the attic. And he could only look out at his beloved Henryków from afar, without going near… And in the evening, when everyone came back, we’d lock the house, cover the windows, Dudek would come down and we had a family life.”

In April 1944, unable to stand more inactivity in hiding, Józef decided to go back to cowherding and hide in the countryside. After long consideration, the Lisowskis agreed, and Witold Lisowski, keeping it secret from the rest of his family, gave his own birth certificate to his friend. Józef, accompanied by the Lisowski brothers, left his safe hideout and returned to the country.

The Warsaw Uprising began soon. The Lisowskis’ house burned down and the family themselves, having miraculously avoided death at German hands, made their way to the village of Wiejce in the Kampinos Forest, where they remained until the end of the war.

The fate of Dudek

Until the very end of the war Dudek was working in the countryside, keeping his ethnicity secret. Both his mother and sister died in the Nazi extermination camps.

After the war the boy was found by his aunt. “And she decided it would be best to move Dudek to Israel,” says Witold Lisowski. And so Dudek emigrated to Israel in 1945. He adopted the name Josef Carmeli. He initially settled in a kibbutz, and later married Sara, an emigree from Italy. The couple moved to Haifa and had two children, Jaron and Rachela.

Meeting after the years

Witold Lisowski did not contact Józef after they parted ways.

That changed when he came to New York as the director of the Museum of the Polish Army to promote a large exhibition of Polish militaria held at the Intrepid Museum. In response to the negative view of Poles and Poland in the American media, Witold Lisowski publicly admitted that his family was hiding a Jews during the war.

“I did not want to brag,” Witold says. “Someone asked me to tell more, I said that since I had no contact with the rescued, it would seem like boasting, and I didn’t want that. And imagine that: like with the wave of a magic wand, I was informed that Dudek was alive.”

After returning from the US Witold Lisowski received a letter from Józef, who decided to come to Poland and asked Witold to meet him. Some time around 1988 Józef came to his homeland; he and Witold then visited every place important for them. Since then they have rekindled their friendly relationship.

In 1996 Witold Lisowski, invited by Józef, visited him in Israel. Józef later travelled to Poland again. He considered settling here after retiring. He asked for Witold’s help in finding an appropriate plot to build a house, so that once more, like before the war, he could live near his friend. Their plans were upset by Józef’s death in 1997.

In 1994 Witold Lisowski and his late mother Zofia were awarded the medals and titles of Righteous Among the Nations. Witold says about the honors:

“I was named one of the Righteous, me and my mother – Righteous Among the Nations. But was not my brother [Wiesław] more of a Righteous than I? It was he who said that if father were alive, Dudek would certainly stay with us. He convinced my mother, a Righteous! He did not get the medal because he had already passed away. But it’s him who’s... And the entire family? Our family of four took upon themselves this burden of death that awaited us, isn’t that so? At any time, no matter what, there was no excuse, nothing you could say in you own defense. There was nothing you could say to defend yourself.”

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Bibliography

  • Okuniewska Elżbieta, Interview with Witold Lisowski, 27.04.2009
  • Grynberg Michał, Księga Sprawiedliwych, Warszawa 1993

    The lexicon includes the stories of Poles honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations in the years 1963-1989. The list of entries is preceded by a preface by Icchak Arad and Chaim CheferThe Righteous of the World.

  • Gutman Israel red. nacz., Księga Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, Ratujący Żydów podczas Holocaustu, Kraków 2009