The Milkowski Family

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Story of Rescue - The Milkowski Family

Righteous

The Miłkowski family lived in Koczery, a village near Drohiczyn, 114 km south of Białystok. It was a big family as Adolf and Bronisława had 8 children: Maria, Władysław, Lucjana, Aniela, Leontyna, Helena, Danuta, and Jadwiga.

Having owned 60 hectares of land, they fell into the category of wealthy landholders. Adolf was hard-working and resourceful –he planted cereal, maintained an orchard, kept swine, cattle and horses. Although the family needed to hire workers for such vast areas of land, Adolf never avoided field work.

Jews

Since Miłkowski had always something at his disposal (swine, cattle, horses, grain), Jewish traders often turned up in the farmyard. Miłkowski considered business with Jews more lucrative than with Poles. In his opinion, Jews aimed for small but certain profit. On the contrary, Poles were always very eager to make big money in a short time. The Miłkowskis’ children associated Jews with matzah and other sweets that Bronisława used to bring from the nearby town of Drohiczyn.

World War II

Soviet occupation: 1939-1941

In September 1939, under a secret agreement between USRR and Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union occupied the western side of Poland. The Soviet Union’s policy was to conduct immediate sovietization of people living on these territories. In order to achieve this goal, Stalin was to eliminate everyone who could launch a revolt against new authorities.

In 1940, Soviets started to deport previously selected people and their families to the remote areas of  the Soviet Union. The fourth wave of deportation was especially painful for Białystok, Grodzieńsk and Vilnius regions. The Miłkowskis’ relatives, wealthy landholders considered kulaks by the Soviets (a negative term for the class of wealthy peasants), were among the deportees. Also Miłkowski, who had been denounced by his previous employee, was arrested and put into prison in Brześć Litewski after a fake law case. His family was included on a deportation list.  Broniława, who had somehow managed to learn about this, quickly collected food and other things that could be useful during deportation.

Leontyna remembers that some Jews were happy with the presence of communists.  She recalls: ”When the Soviet troops entered Poland, Jews welcomed them as if they were their best friends”. The lyrics sung by Jewish girls stayed in her memory:  “Żydzi na urzędy, Ruscy na kołchozy, Polscy na wywozy” (Jews for offices, Russians for collective farms, Poles for deportation).

 

Nazi occupation

The Miłkowskis avoided deportation due to the outbreak of the Nazi-Soviet war in June 1941. Even though Adolf came back home, he never recovered after his stay in prison. When Nazis entered Podlasie, Jews and communists became their first target of persecution.

In July 1941, Nazis established a ghetto in Drohiczyn. It confined about 700 Jews and was operating until 1942, when Nazis decided to transport its inhabitants to the extermination camp in Treblinka. Leontyna has only one image of the liquidation period – deserted ghetto areas and carts carrying the remains of Jewish belongings.

Rescue

One frosty day (it was probably winter 1942/1943) a feverish neighbor turned up at the Miłkowskis’. She had seen a child, probably Jewish, in the vicinity of the farmyard. Bronisława run to check this and came back with a little girl, poorly dressed and freezing cold.

The girl was Jewish and was about 4 or 5 years old. Her name was Sara. Her words implied that her parents had left her in the care of a family living in Bujaki, 2 km of Koczer. For some reasons, the family told her to leave: “They said to Zosia: >>Go there. Your mommy is waiting for you in the woods.<< And the child went.”

Bronisława decided to keep Sara. They already had 8 children and another one, especially Jewish, could cause trouble.  But it did not discourage Bronisława . After the Miłkowskis’ children called her Zosia, everyone started to use this name.

It was not before the end of the War when the Miłkowskis managed to find out something about Zosia. Her father was said to be a communist activist, and her mother’s family name was probably Meńżyńska. Zosia had a younger sister, Esterka, who was also left in the care of a Polish family. Leontyna knows that the girl died, but she does not know what exactly happened to her (after the War students from a nearby school looked after Esterka’s grave on the initiative of Maria, Leontyna’s sister).

For the first few weeks everyone knew about a strange child living at the Miłkowskis’. When the situation started to get tense, Leontyna found Sara a hiding place at Janina Orzepowska’s , a relative from Skiwa. The girl spent there a few weeks. “She was supposed to be me”, Leontyna recalls. “There were so many of us that people got lost. Miłkowski’s children were simply Miłkowski’s children”.

Hiding

People assumed that the Miłkowskis got rid of the Jewish child. Bronisława secretly brought the girl back and started hiding her.  She lived in a bedroom of Bronisława’s older daughters. When a stranger turned up at the house, Zosia hid in a special nook.  As she was very young, there were no problems with care, food or hygiene issues.

However,  Zosia’s disconcerting behavior started to pose a considerable risk for the family. Even though Bronisława cared well for Zosia and sometimes even her own children used to say that “there’s nothing but Zosia, Zosia, and Zosia”, the girl tended to talk to herself, laugh or scream without reason. If someone had heard her, the family would have run into serious trouble.

Moment of danger

When Nazis arrived in the village, Bronisława hid Zosia in the kitchen. She put her in a pot closet over the bread stove. Nazis once requested a dinner at the Miłkowskis’. It could have ended tragically.

This is how Leontyna remembers the situation: “Mom is baking a bread, it’s hot in there. Nazis ordered a dinner from us. There are pots and there is Zosia between them. A Nazi cannot wait, so he is stirring in the pots. He is going back and forth to stir. Mommy almost died of fear.  Zosia could have sneezed or something.  The whole family would have been immediately executed. I remember I was terrified that she would shout. There was no air inside. Mom didn’t know if she would come out alive. It was a horrible moment.

Not only Zosia

Leontyna was too young to be fully aware what was going on. She remembers though that Zosia was not the only one who received help from the Miłkowskis. She recalls: “Jews used to come at night. Dad steamed potatoes in a steamer and mom baked bread. They were always dirty and shabby, so mom would also boil their clothes in a kettle. Sometimes I saw them at night. They didn’t come by day because they were afraid of being noticed.  They sat at the table and ate. And mom would fire a stove and stir food with a stick...”

The Miłkowskis helped as much as they could. After the War there was an exhumation of Jews who had been killed and buried in the vicinity of the Miłkowskis’ farmyard.  The son of one of these Jews recognized a sheepskin coat that his mother had received from Adolf.  Many years later he said to Leontyna: “If Miłkowski had come to Israel, he should’ve been welcomed by the National Guard.”

After World War II

In Koczery

Zosia lived with the Miłkowskis until the end of the War (it was the half of 1945 in this region). The children and Zosia went to school. Bronisława planned to bring up Zosia as if she was her own child. Jewish organizations tried to convince her to give them the girl. Bronisława declined.

Leontyna claims that Zosia was finally taken by force. 

Pełta, a smith, was a pre-war friend of Adolf. After World War II he worked for The Ministry of Public Security of Poland. When it turned out that Zosia was his relative, he sent secret officers to kidnap her.

Leontyna was at home at the time: “Mom was baking bread when the troops arrived. So mom said:  >>Zosia, go to the Czerkowskis. For safety’s sake.<< So she went. And she was taken from there. Kids came to say that some people had grabbed Zosia’s arm and were dragging her away.”

Orphanage

Separation from the Miłkowskis was hard for Zosia. She was placed in an orphanage in Łódź. Bronisława unsuccessfully tried to get her back. They started to correspond. In her letters Zosia invariably called Bronisława and Adolf her mom and dad.

Zosia also kept in touch with her relative, Pełta. Due to his help, she managed to leave for Israel. On her way she met her future husband, Abram.

She never lost contact with her occupational family.

The Miłkowskis

The Miłkowskis, who used to be wealthy peasants, suffered severe hardship in Polish People’s Republic: “Can you imagine all the hell we went through after the liberation? When they took our possessions? And someone informed that Miłkowski has gold and pays for his children’s education… Officers would regularly come to carry out a search. It wasn’t so bad during the War as we still had some supplies under the ground.  Before the War we were rich but after….only misery. I used to eat rye dumplings with cod oil. And we still had to to pay school fees…. nobody cared, because we were <>. But what was the use of these hectares? They came and took our seeds….they didn’t care that they were for sowing. The whole family contributed.  But the father  couldn’t sow, because they had come and taken everything.  We didn’t sow so we had waste land….and we lived in poverty.

Also neighbors had unfriendly attitude towards the Miłkowskis. They used to take advantage of their difficult situation and steal their land.

However, each time Bronisława had to go more than 100 km to Białystok, she could always stay the night at her Jewish friends’. She does not know the names. During the war the Miłkowskis learnt not to talk too much, so later they also preferred to avoid names.

Adolf and Bronisława Milkowski lived in Koczery until death. Despite their hardship, they managed to provide education for all their children.

Maria became a scientific worker at Potato Institute Warsaw University of Life Sciences. Lucjan graduated from Academy of Arts and was a sculptor. Helena moved to Drohiczyn and worked as a teacher. Władysław stayed on the farm.

Leontyna became a nurse. In 1956, she got married and moved to Szczecin. She had 2 sons.

Meeting

Zosia, already Sara Gold, came to Poland in 1989. She kept in touch with the Miłkowskis unit death.  Also Leontyna visited Sara in Israel. She remembers her great warmth and kindness

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Bibliography

  • Czyżewska Anna, Interview with Leontyna Leśniewicz, 29.04.2009
  • Gutman Israel red. nacz., Księga Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, Ratujący Żydów podczas Holocaustu, Kraków 2009