The Nowak Family

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Story of Rescue - The Nowak Family

The Righteous

Rozalia and Wiesława are from Zawiercie, a town located 50 kilometres north-east from Katowice. The sisters used to live with their parents, Franciszek and Genowefa Nowak, as well as Genowefa’s mother and unmarried sister, Maria.

The Jews

In 1921, the Jewish community of Zawiercie amounted to 21 per cent of the whole population of the town. There were Hasidic Jews, Zionists and families who had assimilated. There were associations of traders and artisans, as well as a trade union of workers. In 1925, two Jewish banks were opened. Zawiercie was a witness to two anti-Jewish riots, the instigators of which were tried by the court and punished.

The World War II

The Nazis started the occupation of Zawiercie on September 4, 1939. The town, located between Cracow, Częstochowa and Katowice, was incorporated into Third Reich.

In April 1940, around six hundred Jews were moved from Upper Silesia to the town. In July that year, a Jewish district was established. In the beginning, it was open and surrounded only by a wooden fence. The following streets marked its borders: Marszałkowska, Robotnicza, Szkolna, Apteczna, Górnośląska, Hoża, Ciasna and Nowy Rynek.

For the Nowaks, it meant moving — the tenement house, in which they had been living, was now in the ghetto. They moved to Nowy Rynek 3, in front of the fence.

Sztajnkeler

On the ground floor of the new tenement house there was a locksmith workshop. Before the war, it was connected with the first floor, where its owner used to live. Now the floors were separated and the Nowaks took the first floor. There was a Jew, whose name was Sztajnkeler, working in the workshop. He had been moved from another town to the ghetto in Zawiercie, together with his wife and a little son Fryderyk, called Frycek. The man spent his days in the workshop and after work went back to the ghetto.

 “So we only met that man there, or in the gate, in the street. (…) He was really nice. Besides, during the occupation we used to go with my sister to a village to get some milk. Sometimes we sold him the milk, and we carried it to the ghetto. On the one side of the street there was our house, and on the other — there was ghetto”, recalls Wiesława.

Life in the ghetto

Bad sanitary conditions in the ghetto, overpopulation, malnutrition and cold resulted in many epidemics in the winter of 1941/1942. In August 1942, the ghetto in Zawiercie went through its first liquidation action, during which the Nazis captured and transported around 2500 people to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. It was probably then that Frycek’s mother died.

Sztajnkeler and his son survived another year in the ghetto. In the summer of 1943, rumors started to spread that Jewish children with the so-called Aryan features would be transported to Germany.

Frycek: the escape

It is not clear whether it was the rumors that made Sztajnkeler look for a shelter for his son, a blond boy with blue eyes, or whether he did it regardless of the town talk. Nevertheless, he asked the Nowaks for help getting Frycek out of the ghetto, which had already been closed and surrounded by a wall with barbed wire.

“We did not even consider taking him upstairs [to our apartment]”, says Wiesława. Rozalia adds: “He was supposed to spend withus one day and one night and then go to some place which he [Sztajnkeler] had arranged… He was supposed to have some documents and maybe he would even run away with the child (…). Anyway, we did not know any details.”

The Nowaks agreed and the persons responsible for the action were Rozalia and Wiesława. That is how they remember it:

Wiesława: “It was Sunday, a beautiful Sunday, in the afternoon. (…) Mr. [Sztajnkeler] said that the child would wear a pink shirt and shorts. He had told the boy that two girls would come and pick him up. The gate was slightly bent, so we could pull it a bit and let the child through. We were playing with a skipping rope, jumping, and when he went out, we quickly moved to his sides so that he was between us.”

Rozalia: “She was on the one side, and I was on the other. We started to skip and then went to the (…) workshop. There was a counter and a shelf. He [Sztajnkeler] had put a comforter there for the boy (…), so that he would have something to cover himselfwith. He had also left some pictures of himself and his wife.”

The liquidation of the ghetto: 1943

Sztajnkeler hid his son at the last moment. That night it became clear that the Nazis had not planned a deportation of children, but the liquidation of the ghetto. It was August 1943. Rozalia recalls:

 “It was night. I remember horrible shouts, crying, lights, searchlights. (…) We were woken up by those lights. (…) We went to the windows. (…) We were looking outside through a slit and there were cars, dogs, soldiers and shouting. They kicked them and beat them with their rifles… It was Sodom and Gomorrah…”

Wiesława adds: “First there were platforms and some cars, but mostly there were horses. They used the platforms to take Jews directly to the trains. They moved the old and the sick ones to Nowy Rynek and they told them to lie face down and not move. (…) When they had cleared the whole ghetto, they took the ones who were lying down but I do not know what they did to them. There were some bodies left on the cobblestones.”

The Nowaks thought about the boy hidden on the ground floor. Franciszek ripped off the plywood separating the apartment from the workshop and took the child upstairs. When the Nazis, who went on looking for any Jews who might still be hiding in the ghetto, started to search the tenement houses located near the ghetto, the Nowaks were terrified.

“The Nazis had a list of inhabitants of every house. They went with the list to each apartment (…) and checked if there was anyone else in the house (…). They came to our house as well. The father was not in but there was my grandmother, who was so old. There were the two of us and our aunt. I do not even remember if our mother was in (…). They came with the list looking around. I was really scared because I was afraid that the dog would recognize a Jewish child. However, when the Nazis came to our apartment, they saw that there were just a few of us and they let us be. We did not have to go out and they did not search the apartment”, recalls Wiesława.

After those events, there were only between four and five hundred people left in the ghetto in Zawiercie. They were supposed to work in a factory of uniforms. Among them was Sztajnkeler, whom the Nowaks contacted about Frycek. There still was a talk of the documents and another shelter. Wiesława remembers that the father and the son met two more times.

After that they were no longer in touch: on October 17, 1943, the Nazis sent the last Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

At the Nowaks

Frycek was now all by himself. With no family, no documents, no chance of another shelter. The Nowaks understood that they were his only chance of surviving: “It is hard to say that it was a conscious decision, that we decided to be heroes and take care of the child. We just realized that it was a child and there was no other option. We could close our eyes and notify the Gestapo but nobody ever thought about it.”

Hiding

They prepared a hiding place for Frycek in the wardrobe. The inhabitants of the tenement house, whose apartments had no windows looking out on the street, used to come to the Nowaks’ to peep out and see what was going on in the market. It was also common to borrow things from the neighbors. Thus, the apartment’s door was always open and it could not be anticipated who and why would drop by. That is why Frycek had to spend most of his days in hiding.

The boy only came out of the wardrobe at nights. The Nowaks opened the window and made sure that the child, who had already had some problems with walking, moved as much as possible.

Although it was hard to get any food, the Nowaks shared with Frycek whatever they had — they treated him like a member of the family.

The threats

In July 1944, Franciszek Nowak died, having been sick for a few months. In compliance with the tradition, the coffin with the body in it was supposed to remain in the house for several days so that people could come and say goodbye to the deceased. The lid of the coffin was put in front of the house’s gate to inform the passers-by about the person’s death. Little Frycek had to spend all that time hidden in the wardrobe.

Later on, the Nazis decided that the Nowaks had to make the apartment accessible to the Nazi airmen, whose wives were visiting. There were two couples, each of which spent two weeks in the Nowaks’ apartment.

“In the final period of the war, they were looking for accommodation for the officers of the higher ranks, because their wives were going to visit them. They occupied the whole room in our apartment. My dad was already gone and my grandmother slept on a small bed in the kitchen. There was only one bed in the kitchen. We moved the table and put something on the floor. When the Nazis occupied the room, they took everything, including sheets. The whole room was for their use”, says Wiesława.

The women hid Frycek in the corner, behind the table with buckets filled with water. Wiesława recalls: “There was a shelf here and there were pots standing on top of it. There was a lace curtain here. (…) We prepared a place to sleep for Frycek on the shelf, close to the wall, where he could lie down. And next to him there were the pots.”

The women were constantly afraid that the child would move or cough and give himself away. “We were on our tenterhooks”, says Wiesława. They were alert to every noise that could catch somebody’s attention: “When there was any noise, we said that it was one of us and we moved a stool on the floor”. Wiesława talks about Frycek: “He was an amazing child. We saved his life but he saved our lives as well. (…) He never cried, he never sneezed. (…) He was virtually invisible. (…) He survived, the whole family survived.”

After the war

In January 1945, the Russian Army entered Zawiercie.

The fears

Although the war had finished, Genowefa and her daughters did not reveal the truth about the two-year-long hiding of a Jewish child in their apartment. They were afraid that the occupant would come back, they were afraid of the Russians, they were afraid of the neighbors.

They thought that Frycek had to appear at their house legally. They decided to take the boy to an aunt living outside of Zawiercie. The aunt would officially bring him to the Nowaks and present him as a cousin from the countryside, Januszek.

“We took him to the aunt’s place (…) just to take him back later as a non-Jewish child. (…) They treated me at home like a hero and said: »Wiesia, you are not afraid, (…) so you will go to the aunt’s«. So I went the same night. There were no lights, so it was completely dark. I was not even eleven then and he was seven. I was terrified because there were still some bodies on Górnośląska street (…), uncollected (…). I found my way between the bodies. (…) I was less afraid when I was carrying him than when he was walking besides me. I carried him all the way from our house to the aunt’s. (…) I only came back the next day. He stayed there. Later our aunt brought him back home.”

Although now Frycek could officially go out, he did not join other children on the playground. He kept aside, quiet and sad.

The difficult decision

Looking for a job, which was difficult to find in Zawiercie after the war, Genowefa found the owner of a factory of stockings, whose name was Rotmensz. She asked for work, explaining her difficult situation. When she mentioned the Jewish boy she had been hiding, at first the man could not believe:

 “»Where do you live?«, he asks. »Here, on Nowy Rynek«. »There? No, it is not possible that you managed to hide a Jewish child. (…) No, it is impossible, but it makes no difference — I have no job to offer and I cannot help you.«”

However, two days later he came to our apartment and asked if he could talk to the child alone in the room. He went to the room and talked [to Frycek]. He knew it was a Jewish child. He came again some time later. And then again. He once brought one kilo of flour to thank us for everything and said that it would be best for the child if we let him take him.”

Genowefa and her daughters did not want to part with Frycek-Januszek, but Rotmensz convinced them that it would be best for the child. He promised that Genowefa could be in touch with the child. Faced with difficulties with finding a job and having little money for everyday necessities, in the end Genowefa decided to give the boy away. They all cried when they were parting.

“We did not even have money to buy him any clothes”, recalls Wiesława. “He went in that jumper [which he wore before], in the coat and in the hat. I remember him leaving with that man as if it was today. We never heard from him again for the next fifty years.”

Searching: 1945 – 1998

In spite of the promises, Genowefa did not manage to contact Frycek. She never came to terms with that: “As long as she was alive (…), she said that she would not die before she knew anything about Frycek, whether he survived, whether he remembers us, whether he is alive, whether everything worked out for him in his life.”

It took a long time to find him. Rozalia and Wiesława asked for help both the Embassy of Israel and the Committee of the Zawiercie Jews in Israel, as well as the press. Later it turned out that Fryderyk, who lived in Israel, was looking for them as well. However, the incorrect name which he remembered — Jakubowska, the maiden name of Genowefa used to address her mother — made it impossible to find anyone for many years.

The meeting

Their efforts proved successful in 1998. Fryderyk, now Efraim, took hold of a newspaper with Wiesława’s letter describing the boy she was looking for. He realized the letter was about him. He replied:

“Dear Mrs. Wiesława. I was moved when I read in »Nowiny Kurier« the letter about searching for a person called Freederik Steinkeller. I want to inform you that this is me. I was hiding during the occupation in your mother’s apartment and I was called Fricek as a child. I know that you were in great danger. I know that you saved my life and I owe it to you…”

“And so we found each other”, Wiesława finishes her story. “We are still in touch with him, he is so warmhearted. We feel as if we were close family.” She adds: “[Efraim] is an amazing person. He is so full of calmness and self-possession, and so intelligent. He is so cheerful to be alive, in spite of all the bad experiences. He has two children, grandchildren (…) and a beautiful wife.”

More

Bibliography

  • Czyżewska Anna, Interview with Rozalia Włodarczyk, 22.09.2009
  • Czyżewska Anna, Interview with Wiesława Kostrzewa, 22.06.2009
  • Archiwum Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, 349, 2379
  • Gutman Israel red. nacz., Księga Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, Ratujący Żydów podczas Holocaustu, Kraków 2009