The Miniewski Family
Story of Rescue - The Miniewski Family
There were 6 people in the Miniewski family: Stefan and Agrypina and their 4 children. In his account for the Jewish Historical Institute Jan wrote, “I was born in 1929 in Smarżów, Tarnopol province [now Ukraine – editor’s note] in a peasant family. My father owned a small farm, we were very poor. (…) We lived just by the forest which joined our farm. We lived calmly and quietly, in seclusion. The nearest neighbor was 200 meters away. Nobody came to visit us, except for the forester.”
Before the war
This is how Jan described the pre-war relations with the neighbors in his account:“During peaceful times it did not matter who was whom, a Pole, a Jew, or a Ukrainian. Everybody lived in peace and love. The Jews were always very good to us, willing to help when one was in need, whether they had the money or not. At any time of the day they would be giving out loans. Our father was blind. We lived in great poverty and thanks to our friendship with the Jews, we were able to survive the hardest moments. At times we would help the Jews as well. And that is how we led our lives: poor but happy and safe.”
In the east regions of Poland, the Second World War started on September 17th, 1939 with the attack of the Soviet Union. Only when the Third Reich attacked the USSR in the summer of 1941, did the Miniewski family come in contact with the Nazis. This is how Jan remembers their first apparition: ”The Nazis came on 23rd June, 1941, with »Got mit uns« written on the belts of their uniforms, which means »God is with us«. We were surprised, we couldn’t believe that it could have worsen so much, because at the beginning nothing indicated that. The racial harassment started right away, which was shocking.’
The first ones to be harassed were the Poles and the Jews. The Ukrainians collaborated with the Germans. At that time it wasn’t clear who was an enemy or a friend. We started to be careful with what we said, we stayed away from the Nazis and the Ukrainians. The Nazis came up with special bands for the Jews to wear on their left arms. They were, 10 centimeters wide and made of white cloth with six-pointed stars on them. The Jews expected and were ready for the worst. They knew, from the information smuggled form the west of Poland, what had been happening to the Jews there since September 1939. They knew very well about their future destiny. Each day they were treated worse and worse; beaten, tortured, killed. They would be shot down in masses and then buried in big mass graves.”
“We realized that the Jews needed help” writesJan in his testimony. Most of the time it was about delivering them food.“Some of the Jews managed to escape round-ups and found shelter in the woods. Since we lived right near the forest, we had to help them. So we would go to the woods at night to offer some food to those people. We did not really know who we were helping, but it was necessary to help those who needed it most.”
„One day someone knocked on our window. Father went outside. Two Jews, acquaintances of my father’s [Izaak Sterling and Józef Parnas], came to ask for help and shelter. And this is how on that day our family grew larger and so did our worries and problems. But we had a kind of liking towards those people who needed care and shelter.”
The hiding place
Józef, Jan’s older brother, and the two Jews set up a hiding place in a shed near the forest. During the interview with a researcher from the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Jan recalls:”I kept guard when they first dug a hole in the ground and later rolled wooden beams on top of it to make a shelter underneath. (…) So inside that shed they dug out this big hole, then they gathered all those thick beams: in case some missile fell there it wouldn’t destroy it. So first they put a plank there but later replaced it with the beams, then covered it with dirt. If someone walked on top of it he wouldn’t feel a thing! It was so well done that no one would figure it out. Later we covered it all with straw, as if nothing was there, just plain old dirt floor.”
The shelter’s hatch was hidden under some branches on the other side of the shed. Inside the bunker, the rescued had a little handmade table, straw to sleep on and some blankets. The room was big enough for them to stand up and even walk around a little.
The Miniewskis’ farm was rather small and two extra people to feed was quite a burden for the family. Their everyday diet consisted of: dark bread, buckwheat or barley, potatoes from time to time; beans, peas, everything in small amounts. In exchange for herding cows or sheep for other farmers, they would receive some bread or rye. Sometimes they had to wait quite long for their “payment”. The rescued gave them valuables, for which they could buy food on the black market. The local priest, father Mazak, was the one who looked for appropriate people to act as middlemen in those transactions.
The Maniewskis delivered food to the shelter secretly. From time to time they would organize a bath for the Jews in a wooden tub. They did not interfere in the life at the hiding place. They knew that sometimes other Jews would come to visit the shelter. The hosts of the bunker would put them up for some nights and shared their food rations with their guests.
„The Nazis would often come by and ask if we saw any Jews, and we had them hiding in our shed. Each time they threatened us that if they found Jews in our house we would all die. Mother and father just nodded but inside they were thinking:»Godforbid they should do a house search now«(…) The Ukrainians also started to search for the Jews. They first robbed them and then killed them as well as those who gave the Jews shelter. The risk was growing day by day, month by month.” Jan recalls in his accountfor the Jewish Historical Institute.
Sometimes, the Jews would come out and helped around the household. One time it was very close to a disaster: a neighbor, who came by the Maniewskis’ house to borrow some water, saw one of the fugitives walking around the yard. The dusk had already fallen so he did not realize right away that it wasn’t one of the Maniewskis, but he got suspicious. He returned the next day: „He came in the morning to ask who that was, because he had a feeling it might have been a Jew. The smell of the dugout kept him wondering.” Maniawski could not deny the presence of a stranger, so he confirmed that there had been a Jew in the yard. “And what did he want?” the neighbor kept asking. „Oh, he came because he was looking for the way to Zawidczew (…) he got lost (…) so I showed him the way. He thankedme and left.”
The neighbor believed the story and stopped inquiring further. Although, he did regret having missed the opportunity to catch the Jew: „Ah, if I could find a Jew I would have 10 thousand marks right away!” [a very exaggerated sum; normally it was a bottle of vodka or 500 marks at most – editor’s note]. He talked about the money the Germans had promised for turning the Jews in.
After the war
In April, 1944 the Soviet Army occupied Tarnopol. The war with Nazi Germany was over. The Jews could leave their hiding place. They were free.
„This is how all the worries and the fear of losing our lives ended” writes Jan in his testimony. “What is left are the memories of how we were going through this, how many dangers were lurking at these defenseless people. But it was all done out of love towards them in order to save their lives. I am proud that I could have helped all of those who really needed it. At the same time I would like to extend my kind regards to everyone who is going to read this and wish them that such rough times would never happen again.”
Jan summarizes his family’s post-war fate as follows:„Freedom for the Jews, slavery for us.” In 1945 the Ukrainian partisans killed Stefan. Jan is convinced that it was revenge for hiding the Jews. He must have been denounced by a neighbor. Józef, chased by the same partisans, left the village and managed to get himself a permit to go to Poland [within the first repatriation between 1944-46 – editor’s note]. He left together with both Jews and father Mazak.
Jan, 16-years old at the time, his mother and younger siblings could count only on themselves. The local authorities tried to force them to join a collective farm, a so-called kolkhoz.They had no scruples (in convincing the family). Jan tells the resarcher from Museum of the History of Polish Jews:“When the Russians burst into the house, they took everything we had: beans, peas in small sacks or big bags, or some cereal, or whatever else – everything. Just to put screws on us so that we signed up for the kolkhoz. Signing up seemed the only way to escape the hunger – but the Ukrainian partisans threatened they would kill everyone who did.”
In order to escape the dangers and earn a living, Jan found a job. He was hired at a pig farm at Zaporoże. Later, he worked at a vineyard in Caucasus to finally land in Syberia in Tomsk, where he was a construction worker. He read in a letter from his brother that there was a chance to go back to Poland [there was the second repatriation between 1955-59 -editor’s note]. He went back to Ukraine and tried to get a permit to leave.
After 10 years of wandering, Jan and his mother left the USSR. He recalls:”We were on our way and I couldn’t believe that it was Poland where we were heading. I thought it was impossible, no way. Around us just the fields, everything plowed, no balks, nothing. And then we crossed the border and we saw: there was a balk, a piece of field, and further down another one. We saw some soldiers gathering stones. My Lord, how we started to cry (…) it was such a joy.”
The Miniewskis, Sterling and Parnas maintained good realtions while in Poland. Some time later, Sterling moved to Germany and then to Israel. Parnas, following his love towards a woman he had met before the war, left for the USSR. Slowly the contact with the two Jews loosened up.
Later when the Maniewskis wanted to find them, both men had already passed away. But there was someone else. A Jew called Friedman, who confirmed the truthfulness of Maniewskis’ account. He knew about the Jews hiding at their place because he was one of those who would spent some nights at the hiding place in the shed.