Ostrowski Janusz

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Story of Rescue - Ostrowski Janusz

Janusz Ostrowski was born in 1926 in Warsaw. He was the youngest of the three children of Władysława and Aleksander Ostrowski. Before the war, his mother worked as a teacher and his father was a construction engineer. His parents were socialists and Aleksander was a member of the Polish Socialist Party. They were open-minded and there were Jewish families among their friends. Their children grew up in an atmosphere of tolerance for cultural differences.

After WWII broke out, the Ostrowski family went to Łódź and were re-settled from there to the Zamość region. They managed to return to Warsaw after some time and they stayed there until the end of the Warsaw Uprising. “I, like a small hero, would crawl under German cars. [...] I had a drill and I made holes in their tyres [...] I only had to make sure that they were not too large because if they were, the hissing sound would be very loud,” Janusz Ostrowski recalled. In 1942, he enrolled with the Polish Warsaw Fire Brigade. Initially, due to his young age, he worked as a kitchen help. In time, he was promoted and started working as a fireman, just like his elder brother Olek.

When the uprising broke out in the Warsaw ghetto, Polish firemen were ordered to put out burning tenement houses there. “Every two days I would fight fires in the ghetto for 24 hours. How to explain the fact that firemen had to extinguish fires started by the Germans? The main task of the fire brigade was to limit the area on fire,” Janusz Ostrowski explained.

While he worked as a fireman, he helped the Jews hiding in the ghetto. He recalls one of the first such situations as follows: “We entered another room together with Andrzej Judycki and saw something move there, sticking out from behind the door. We drew our hatchets, just to be on the safe side. We moved the door and saw that there were people crouched behind it. They raised their hands up, even though we said nothing. And we asked them a silly question: ‘What are you doing here?’ They replied: ‘Oh, nothing, just sitting around.’ After a moment, seeing that we were firemen, they added: ‘We’re hiding from the Germans.’ Andrzej tried to comfort them and it was just as silly as the question: ‘Don’t be afraid. They won’t come in here because we are fighting fires here. There are a couple of them in the streets, though, with helmets and guns.’ And they said: ‘Maybe you happen to have something to eat with you, firemen? We’ve been hiding here for three days, afraid to go out and without anything to eat.’ ” Ostrowski brought them food and told them how to leave the tenement house without being seen by the Germans. He also told them about a place best for leaving the ghetto and getting to the “Aryan side.” There were more situations like that.

Janusz Ostrowski also took part in saving several Jewish girls from the fourth floor of a burning tenement house in the ghetto. “Stairs were so crumbled and blocked with rubble that we could not use them and there was too much smoke on the stairwells and the heat there was unbearable. It was not possible to enter the building or leave it. And then, suddenly, we heard a muffled scream coming from the top floor: ‘Help us, we’re on fire!’ Billowing smoke made it impossible to see who was there. The voices were female and the despair we heard in them terrified us. [...] Moments later, a stream of water reached the fourth floor and dispersed the smoke a bit. There was no way we could have put that fire out, even if we were to contradict German orders. We could see their heads in the windows from time to time. We just gazed in terror, a team of eight firemen, and only Tadek kept pouring water at the windows,” Janusz recalled after the war.

“The sergeant then said: ‘A fireman must not let people burn.’ We had no ladder long enough to reach the girls so we had to use the hook ladder - it’s a ladder with a hook at one end which is attached to a window opening and used to climb to higher floors. ‘Hook it up, climb up, hook it up, climb up,’ Ostrowski recalled. And then you had to slide down using a rope. “We made the climb, three of us. That was the first time I ever slid down using a rope outside and with a girl tied to me, too. And was she frightened. I told her: ‘Stop, you’re strangling me,’ because she was clinging to me so tight. ‘You’re already tied to me, you won’t fall.’ And I did manage to bring her down safely,” Janusz says in his account of the action.

The firemen took turns climbing the ladder and evacuating the women from the burning room they were in. After they were safe, they were presented with some food, a map of the sewers and a flash light. The firemen explained to them how to get to the Marymont district and where to look for a hiding place. Zuza, the youngest of the women, was taken away by one of the firemen, hidden inside a fire engine, and transported to Mińsk Mazowiecki. Others managed to get out of the ghetto and find shelter in a convent. In time, they joined guerilla fighters.

Janusz Ostrowski also helped a Jewish girl under the name of Krysia who had been hiding for a year and a half in a locked apartment in the Stare Miasto district of Warsaw. She could not leave the apartment and had to be very quiet while in it. She did not know what happened to any of her relatives, even her mother. Due to her prolonged solitude, the girl started suffering from nervous fits which could have had tragic consequences for her. Ostrowski, accompanied by a friend and a female friend, drove a fire engine to the tenement house in which Krysia was. The female friend talked with Krysia and promised her that she would meet her mother. This was actually arranged after several days. All this calmed the girl’s worn-out spirit and made it possible for her to remain in hiding.

One of the first occasions on which she left her hiding place could have ended tragically for her. Andrzej Judycki and Olek Ostrowski, wearing their uniforms, took her to ul. Miodowa in the evening, arriving in the area after a false fire alarm they themselves rose. They just strolled around, believing they would not be accosted by anyone. Suddenly, they were stopped by a German patrol. Luckily, they all managed to keep their cool and pretended that Krystyna was just a prostitute. One of the Germans lit up the girl’s face with a flash light, congratulated the boys on their fine choice and let them go.

Janusz Ostrowski also smuggled firearms to the ghetto. He was an underground activist, operating under a nickname of Cyprian. He also fought in the Warsaw Uprising but only took part in one operation in the Żoliborz district, having been wounded. He kept his armband from the uprising as a keepsake.

After the war, he started studying at the Physics Faculty of the University of Warsaw. From 1954 until 1969, he was the head of the Faculty of Photoelectric Phenomena in Semi-Conductors at the Physics Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences. From 1970 until 1993, he worked as a Professor in the USA. He occupied himself with the physics of solid objects and medical electronics. He returned to Poland in 1993. After the war, he maintained no contact with the Jews he helped during the occupation.

Other Stories of Rescue in the Area

Bibliography

  • Janusz Ostrowski, Gasiłem getto
  • Klara Jackl, Interview with prof. Janusz Ostrowski, 3.02.2015