The Sitkowski Family

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Story of Rescue - The Sitkowski Family

Before World War II the Kozak family lived in Częstochowa.The mother – Bronisława Kozak née Landau, Dawid Kozak’s wife – was a member of the board of directors and co-owner of the factory “ISZABE”, owned by the Landau family.Furthermore, she also ran the house and took care of her two daughters, Debora and Hadassa.“It was a factory producing cutlery, metal products […].They imported stainless steel from abroad, from England and Sweden perhaps. They manufactured knives, forks, tableware" – recalls Andrzej Sitkowski.

As a result of the war, the company was taken over by Germans and transformed into a munitions factory.In 1941, the family was transferred to the ghetto (including Dawid’s parents and Bronisława’s relatives from Łódź).In the fall of 1942, thanks to the help of a volksdeutsch (a term denoting a German living beyond the borders of the Reich) named Paulik, who managed their ex-factory, Dawid Kozak was able to organize an escape from the ghetto for his wife and daughters.However, he himself was deported to Auschwitz concentration camp, where he died.For a few months, Bronisława and her children hid in some peasants’ household in the village of Józefów.They also managed to obtain false identity documents.Andrzej Sitkowski cites the words of the elder daughter of Bronisława:“It was the only time that I saw my mother happy after the escape from the ghetto.My mother was joyful because she had learnt that the partisans had attacked the town hall in Częstochowa and had burnt all the documents they had found there. (...)And then my mother could procure, could buy somewhere false documents on the name of Kruszewska Stanisława.”The girls then became Marysia (Debora) and Wisia-Jadwiga (Hadassa) Kruszewska.Next, they moved to Warsaw, where their aunt, Cesia (Cecylia) Kozak, lived.Andrzej Sitkowski later learnt that “the aunt was (…) a pianist and because of her profession she had numerous social contacts and other connections.”“It was the aunt who put the girls in the convent, and their mother – as a housekeeper – in the Pujkiewicz family, in which the mistress was a dentist and the husband – an engineer” – adds Andrzej.Jurek Pujkiewicz was also involved in the underground movement.He participated and was killed in the Warsaw Uprising.

Both Marysia, for almost a year, and Wisia, for around 6 months, hid in two convents near Warsaw (one of them was located in Laski).Unfortunately, one day the nuns came to the conclusion that Wisia is a Jew.At the same time they could not believe that Marysia was also of Jewish origin, so they decided that both girls could not be sisters and that Marysia had been deceived by her family. They even tried to convince her that it was the truth.Eventually, “when the aunt learnt what was going on in the convents, she took, I mean, she did what she could to take Wisia out of the convent but leave Marysia there.And that was the time when my family appears on the stage” – says Andrzej Sitkowski.

THE SITKOWSKI FAMILY

Helena Sitkowska née Domańska was a widow and a teacher by profession.During World War II she did not work professionally, but ran the house and brought up her two children – 15-year-old Andrzej and Magda, who was 5 years younger than her brother.Before the war broke out, the family's financial situation was good – her husband, Antoni, was a senior police officer with satisfactory emoluments.They could afford to move from their apartment owned by the police on Cieplna Street in Warsaw to a rented house in Boernerowo, and then to a comfortable, 6-room house in the district of Bielany (at 5 Babicka Street, presently – at 15 Cegłowska Street), which had been built by the father of the family.Unfortunately, before long, Antoni died and Helena was left alone with children.Their situation further deteriorated when the war broke out.They suffered not only from the scarcity of provisions, but also their financial means became very limited – at the family’s disadvantage, the pre-war police pension was converted into the so called occupational zlotys of poorer value.Andrzej Sitkowski recalls: “For a long time, my mother tried to make a living by selling various things. Later she tried to rent the rooms, but finally she gave it up.”

To survive, the Sitkowskis had to take different jobs.Teenage Andrzej (with his grandfather) started to purchase vinegar in the factory in Warsaw’s Old Town to resell it to shops in Bielany.Sometimes he also traded in cigarettes.After the grandparents’ death, the family began to rent the rooms.Andrzej adds: “For almost two years various people passed through our house.I was responsible for lighting the stoves – we had tile stoves fueled with coal, so each morning I had to visit each of the rooms and light the fire in each of the stoves.”

During the war, Andrzej took underground courses and attended the so called obligatory vocational school in Bielany.“It was a school run by Marian Fathers – it was renamed so, and I learnt there how to be a paver and bricklayer. On the other hand, on the underground courses I learnt everything else, including the German language, which – fancy that! – was forbidden to be taught in vocational schools during the Nazi occupation of Poland" ­– remembers Andrzej Sitkowski.

Before World War II, the Sitkowski family had no close acquaintances among Jews, but Andrzej remembers some Jewish neighbors in Warsaw:“I came from the Polish-Jewish borderland, because I was born and lived in the house (…) of my parents.It was a police apartment near the police headquarters on Cieplna Street. (…)On the other side of the street there was the Jewish world.(...) There were houses and shops owned by Jews, and the whole district was Jewish.My parents hired a maid, who probably went there to do shopping, but it was the only contact our family had with Jews.”

MR. MARSZAŁEK, MRS. BRONIA, WISIA AND MARYSIA

Helena Sitkowska was asked by her close friend and neighbor, blind masseur – Mr. Marszałek – who specialized at massaging pianists’ hands, to hide Wisia.“He had been in turn asked for help by aunt Cecylia, and had been recommended by Mrs. Kopecka, the aunt’s piano teacher” – adds Sitkowski.Having discussed the matter with her son, Helena Sitkowska decided to accept the 6-year-old girl, who stayed in an unoccupied room (at that time there were no additional tenants).Andrzej Sitkowski continues:“When Wisia came to us, I instantly grew fond of her.We all accepted her into our family.She was such a pretty, shy and frightened child. We did not expect any other behavior, but I think that after some time she began to feel at home there."At Bronisława’s request, Andrzej began to teach Wisia reading and writing.

Soon it turned out that also 10-year-old Marysia was no longer safe.The Pujkiewiczs warned Bronisława about the impending Uprising. As a result, she sent Cecylia to the convent to bring the girl back, so that both sisters could be together when the fighting began.Mr. Marszałek once again asked Helena Sitkowska for help.“We agreed – after all, we had accepted one girl, so there would be no difference whether we hid one Jew or five of them – the punishment remains the same" – smiles Andrzej Sitkowski.

Initially, Marysia missed the convent so much that she decided to run away and return to the nuns.Fortunately, she made her way to Mr. Marszałek, who then brought her back to the Sitkowskis.

Just before the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising, Bronisława joined her children.“The mistress who was a dentist told the aunt that there was some denunciator hanging about in the vicinity, and that it was too dangerous for Bronisława to further stay with the Pujkiewiczs. (...) And again the same good spirit – Mr. Marszałek – helped her. She first came to him, and then moved to us”– recalls Andrzej.Before that happened, the Sitkowskis decided that if anyone should be curious about the new tenants, they would say that the girls’ room had been rented by their mother, who was then sent to a forced labor camp in the Reich and who might pay them a visit later.“»– Girls, where is your mother?– Deported to Germany – we would say. – Maybe she would return later.«And then she really came back.Our story was authenticated.”

The Sitkowskis hid Wisia for about half a year. Marysia and the girls' mother stayed with the family a bit shorter.At present, it is hard to establish that period precisely.Andrzej Sitkowski believes that “Wisia came to us around the end of 1943 or at the beginning of 1944, while Marysia – 2 or 3 months prior to the Uprising.She claimed on the other hand that it was 2 or 3 weeks before the Uprising, but now there is no one who could determine it precisely.”Marion (Marysia) is convinced that she came to the Sitkowskis’ house in the middle of the summer, in July.

THE WARSAW UPRISING AND THE GERMAN OFFICER

In the context of dramatic war experiences shared by both Jews and Poles one could say that the family living in the house on Babicka Street led a relatively normal and peaceful life.In their account for the Jewish Historical Institute, Marysia and Wisia write that “in spite of meager food supplies, the atmosphere in the house was comfortable as though in the pre-war times.”Bronia and the girls did not live in a hiding place, but stayed in a separate room and lived just like the rest of the household members.The main difference was that nobody visited them.The girls did not go to school or even outside, but they were allowed to play in the garden near the house. This was the place where some German officer first noticed them just after the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising.One day he paid an unannounced visit to the house. The frightened women had no other choice but to ask him to come in.But the German behaved properly.He complained about the war and talked about his own family.He later visited them several times.Andrzej’s mother and Mrs. Bronia remembered the guest as a German, but Wisia thought that he was an Ukrainian officer.

 Since 1943, Andrzej was a member of the Grey Ranks and participated in the Uprising.He fought in Żoliborz (Warsaw’s district).His mother had sent her daughter Magda to the relations living in the countryside in Pilzno in the south of Poland even before the Uprising started.During the Uprising, only Helena and Bronisława with the girls stayed at home.Bielany was a relatively safe district.The place was constantly under German control.However, in the middle of September, that same German officer that had been visiting the family warned Sitkowska that the house and the whole of Bielany were going to be burnt down.Only a few houses would be saved, including the house belonging to their neighbors – the Dzierżyński family.Andrzej tells about his mother’s recollections:“Indeed, one day there came a group of soldiers at the time when those women were still living there, and they began to burn everything.The house was made of brick and was a solid building, so to make the task easier the soldiers threw all the books from my father’s bookcase on the floor, poured some liquid fuel upon them and lit the stack – they were burning all right.Then, the women wanted to go to the Dzierżyński family, but they were ordered to stay on the street and observe the fire.”Marysia remembers that they were forced to watch the fire by the group of strange, repulsive and dwarf ruffians (probably they were Kalmyk people from the Vlasov’s army fighting on the German side).

For a week or two, Helena Sitkowska and Bronisława Kozak with her daughters lived together with their neighbors, who accepted them gladly as they were themselves displaced people from the Poznańskie Land.But again, the familiar German soldier showed up to warn them that this time all inhabitants were going to be deported and transferred elsewhere.He told them that there was nothing to be done about it.Andrzej recounts:“And indeed – one day the soldiers came and all the inhabitants that were still living in the area were driven into the streets and escorted away from there.You were not allowed to take anything with you, just a small bundle of indispensable things. They were led out at night somewhere, nobody informed them where.They were led through the woods. The journey did not look very promising. The women then decided to bribe one of the sentries, a military policeman, with what jewelry they had, and he allowed them to escape into the forest.”The dispossessed people were probably led to the transfer camp in Pruszków.

Andrzej continues:“They wandered aimlessly in that forest, then they met some peasants...One of them drove them away, but the other accepted them under his roof. In the end, just before the very liberation of the area, the women parted company. My mother left for Radomsko, while the rest of them found shelter elsewhere.”

In their account for the Jewish Historical Institute, Marysia and Wisia write that after their escape from the convoy they spent the night in a barn and the next day they boarded the train to Kielce.In Kielce, Sitkowska stayed with her relatives and helped them to find shelter in the city.Thanks to the help of other people, she provided them with clothes and money.They all lived in that city to see the liberation in January 1945.

After the fall of the Uprising, Andrzej was taken captive.Together with the rest of Żoliborz defenders, he was sent to Germany.Initially, he found himself in a camp for Soviet prisoners of war. Next, he and other insurgents were transferred to the camp for Allied prisoners of war called Stalag XIA Altengrabow.He remembers:“There were two camps in that town.There was a camp for Allies, comprised of quite decent buildings that used to be German military barracks.(...) For prisoners of war the conditions were, you could say, quite tolerable. (...) Near that camp there was a large field that was fenced off with barbed wire and guarded by watchtowers.This was the camp in the open air dedicated to Soviet POWs. (...) There was no equipment, nothing.In the daytime we slept on the bare ground, because it was October. The nights were then very cold, so at nighttime we walked around the camp instead so as not to freeze.In that camp, there only awaited us, just like Soviets, death by starvation.”To this day Andrzej has no idea who from German authorities decided to put them in that Soviet camp, nor does he know who plucked them out of it.

The insurgents were soon transferred from the stalag for work in German companies.Andrzej was sent to a sugar-refinery in Gatersleben (Saxony-Anhalt) to Arbeitskommando 274/1. He was accommodated in a former prison, where working conditions as well as food were appalling.He was lucky, however, because one of the sentries was quite favorably disposed towards him.Another kind worker, a foreman in the refinery named Friedrich Wagner, helped him when he was sick and enabled him to contact his family in Łódź.Andrzej recollects:“I persuaded him to bring me an envelope, a sheet of paper and pencil. (...)  Thanks to the foreman’s consent, my uncle could answer my letter by sending the response at the foreman's address – it was our closely guarded secret. (...) Had somebody discovered that the German had entered into such collusions with one of the prisoners, the foreman would have been sent to prison or even to a worse place.”Eventually, Andrzej fell ill and was sent back to Altengrabow, but this time to a hospital.After the camp was liberated by American forces, the majority of the prisoners departed for the West.Only few of them, among them Andrzej, returned home.He returned to his uncle living in Łódź.There he met his mother and sister, who had come back from Radomsko.He was really surprised and moved when his mother gave him a present: his stamp album saved from the fire and kept during the escape. It was Wisia who had reminded his mother and insisted that she should keep the album for Andrzej.

AFTER THE WAR

Not much was left from their house in Warsaw.The Sitkowskis had no money to rebuild the house, so they had to renounce ownership of that property.Instead, they stayed with their relatives in Łódź.

Shortly after the war, Helena Sitkowska and Bronisława Kozak managed to find each other.Both families met in Częstochowa in the house of Bronia’s relatives, where she lived with her daughters.Together with their close and distant relatives from the Kozak and Landau families, and with some Jewish friends, they were planning to emigrate to Israel.Marysia, who has assumed the name of Marion, left Poland together with the transport of children in May 1947.She settled in London in the family of German Jews who before the war had been supplying her father with steel. Wisia (Hadassa) and her mother departed for Israel between 1950 and 1951. Marion completed historical studies in Great Britain, while Hadassa - military service in Israel. After that, she settled permanently in the USA.Later, Bronisława followed her children – she left Israel and joined her daughter in London.The whereabouts of their uncle, Cecylia, remain unknown.She was probably killed during the Warsaw Uprising.

Before their departure, Bronisława and the girls had met with the Sitkowskis several times. One of the meetings took place in Łódź, where the girls’ cousin, Luba Judkiewicz, lived. She later became a close friend of the Sitkowski family.Perhaps it was she who first began to strive for awarding the Sitkowski family the honorary title of Righteous Among the Nations, which they eventually received in Yad Vashem in 1995.The awards were bestowed on Helena Sitkowska and her son Andrzej.Magda did not receive the medal due to the fact that at the time of rescuing the Jews she had been only 10 years old. 

Andrzej finished economic studies.He studied in the Warsaw School of Economics, Division of Łódź.He defended his M.Sc. thesis at the University of Łódź.In 1950 he moved to Warsaw.In the 1980s he left the country, but his mother and sister Magda lived in Łódź until their very deaths.

Andrzej Sitkowski remembers that for some time after the war he had no regular contacts with Mrs. Bronia, Marion and Hadassa:“At that time it was not very clever to maintain contacts with people from the West. (...) It was mainly my mother who corresponded with Mrs. Bronia. (...) They used to exchange a lot of letters.After my mother’s death, I discovered a great deal of letters sent to her from Israel, specifically from Mrs. Bronia.”

The first time he visited Marion Kozak was in 1963.In the 1980s Andrzej lost contact with her, but around 1989 they once again began to correspond with each other.Andrzej recounts:“We should be glad that after so much of ordeal and such a long time we still keep in close and friendly contact with one another.We are always happy whenever we can see each other.I hope this will continue.”2 years ago Andrzej visited London.At the beginning of this century, he and Marion set out to follow the steps of the hiding girls.Andrzej Sitkowski recalls:“Marion wished to somehow reconstruct their adventures before they had come to us, mainly their stay in the convent.I do not know, maybe in this way she wanted to thank those nuns?Such was her need.But we could not find any traces.In addition, there was her son Edward. He, on the other hand, wanted to find the grave on the Jewish cemetery where the relatives from the Miliband family had been buried. (...) We went there, I accompanied them to this cemetery, but we could not find those graves, too.”Later it turned out that there were 16 tombstones with the family name of Miliband inscribed on them.The parents of Marion’s husband, Ralph Miliband, came from Warsaw, but Ralph himself was born in Belgium, where his parents had emigrated before World War II broke out. Just before the German invasion, Ralph’s father and his son escaped from Belgium to England, but his mother and sister stayed in the country and survived the occupation.When the war ended, the family united in England.

During their stay in Poland, the Sitkowskis and the Kozaks visited the building that during the war had served as their common home, but which later was rebuilt and renovated in an awful manner.Andrzej Sitkowski adds:“We came by car, got out and watched the building across the fence.There was nobody there, but in a while a man drove up to us. It turned out that he was the owner.He saw us looking at the building...As befitted such a situation, we had to start a conversation. I said:»You know, we are looking at this building because we lived here before the war.«And he started to inquire us: who, what etc.He said:»That is good, it is good to learn, ‘cause some strange rumors are spreading around.A man can never know.I was afraid that the house belonged to Jews – that they would return and take it away from me.«Then I calmed him down:»Don’t you be afraid, the house is not post-Jewish.«”

At present, Hadassa works as a historian in New York.Marioncompleted her history studies in London School of Economics, where her future husband, Ralph Miliband, now dead, were giving lectures.Later, Ralph became a political science professor at the University of Leeds.He also gave lectures in the USA.Their sons, David and Edward, are prominent political figures in Great Britain.

Andrzej Sitkowski became a widower in 1982 and remarried in 1994. Currently, he spends part of his time in Germany, where he has settled permanently with his wife Uschi, and in Greece.His daughter Joanna, granddaughter Emilie and his son-in-law all live in Paris.His daughter publishes writings on contemporary art and cinema, also in Poland.Sitkowski is the author of the literary work entitled “UN Peacekeeping, Myth and Reality”, published in the USA in 2006.In the acknowledgments in his book he mentions Marion Miliband and Hadassa Kozak.Presently, he is working on his next book.

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Bibliography

  • Stec Monika, Interview with Andrzej Sitkowski, 6.07.2010