The Michalski Family

enlarge map

Story of Rescue - The Michalski Family

Before the war, Antoni and Helena Michalski lived at 6 Sowińskiego Street in Piastów near Warsaw. Antoni was an agricultural machinery fitter and a turner. He worked in the Polish Optical Works (Polish: Polskie Zakłady Optyczne). Their son Sławomir was born in 1931.

When World War Two started in September 1939, Antoni was evacuated to the east. Helena took her son to her family living in Warsaw at 12 Świętojerska Street, where the boy survived the siege of the capital. After Warsaw capitulated, his mother took him back to Piastów, where he started to attend an elementary school. He also had private German lessons and often served as a translator for their parents, particularly in contacts with German soldiers.

According to a post-war registration card at the Jewish Committee, Tola and Albert lived at 191 Grochowska Street in Warsaw before the war. When they were moved to the Warsaw ghetto, they started to live at 21 Smocza Street. In a 2014 interview for the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the Michalskis’ son Sławomir said that Tola’s mother Milka had died in the Warsaw ghetto and was buried in a cellar. In April 1943, soon before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising broke out, Tola escaped from the ghetto and sought the help of her Polish acquaintance Mieczysław Wróbel, who was a feldsher at a railway infirmary at the Warszawa Gdańska station.  Wróbel, Helena Michalski’s cousin, first found shelter for the woman at a flat owned by his relative Roman Górka, who lived in the Grochów district. He could not hide her but he asked Helena for help.

The Michalskis held a family meeting, also attended by their son, and decided to offer Tola a place in their home. The woman came to Piastów with her hair dyed blond and was introduced as the family’s cousin. “She was dying her hair with perhydrol, but she was so nervous that she spilt it and burnt her hands, because she wanted to become a blonde as soon as possible,” Sławomir Michalski recalls. Tola was already pregnant at that time, according to Sławomir. She was soon joined by her husband Jakub (Albert) who had documents in the name of Szwejkowski.  “He was very much interested in (Good Soldier) Svejk, he liked the novel very much so he said his name was Szwejkowski,” Sławomir reports.  Due to his so-called “bad looks,” he was transported to Piastów in a railwayman’s uniform with bandage on his face under the cover of toothache.

Tola started to use the name of Genowefa. She worked as a tailor and this way she helped the Michalski family. On 18 October 1943, she delivered her son Kazimierz in the Michalskis’ flat. Helena Michalska and Mira, a Jew, helped deliver the baby. Mira and her daughter Jolanta were hiding in the house of Helena’s mother Józefa Dąbrowska (died 1951), who lived at 6 Kopernika Street.

The Michalskis hid the Szwejkowskis in spite of the fact that German officers moved into a neighbouring flat. Albert pretended to be seriously ill and was sitting crouching behind an armchair, hiding the child under a blanket and keeping his hand on the child’s mouth. He went to the garden only during the night.

After the liberation in January 1944, the Szwejkowski lived for a short while at 39 Grenadierów Street in Warsaw. There they registered at the Jewish Committee in 1945 and then moved to Łódź where they probably got divorced. In 1948, Tola married Jakub Hempel who lost his wife and three children in the Holocaust. Jakub adopted Kazimierz. Their daughter Lidia was born in 1949. Tola ran a tailoring shop while her husband published press in Yiddish. In 1957 she probably went to France with her family. Kazimierz, who changed his name to Claude, worked as a typesetter for the Zionist publication Unser Wort and then became a prominent journalist. In 1998, he was awarded by Culture Minister Catherine Trautmann for his efforts to promote the Yiddish language. In 2000, he was awarded the Cukierman’s prize for his input into the Yiddish culture.

The Michalski family continued to exchange letters with Tola who in 1967 applied for the Michalskis’ to be awarded with the Righteous Among the Nations title. Sławomir attended the wedding of Tola’s daughter and visited Tola in Paris. After his wife died, Antoni married again. Sławomir worked as a pilot for LOT Polish Airlines for many years.

In an interview for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Sławomir summed up their parents’ motivation:  “Well, it’s simply a human thing. Well, we need to, because people are suffering.”

In 1999, the Yad Vashem Institute decided to grant Antoni and Helena Michalski the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Other Stories of Rescue in the Area

Bibliography

  • Gutman Israel red. nacz., Księga Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, Ratujący Żydów podczas Holocaustu, Kraków 2009
  • Michalski Sławomir, 50 lat pod znakiem żurawia, Warszawa
  • Klara Jackl, Interview with Sławomir Michalski, 10.01.2014