The Strutynski Family

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Story of Rescue - The Strutynski Family

The Strutyński family lived in Drohobycz. During the inter-War period, it was the most prosperous inter-War city in Galicia, after Lwów and Kraków.  Drohobyczwas the administrative centre of the District. At the start of the 1930’s, it had over 30,000 inhabitants, comprised equally of Poles, Jews and Ukrainians.

The impulse for the development of the city was the discovery of oil, in the mid 19th century, in the region of nearby Borysław. The first exploration for oil was undertaken in 1810 by a Jew named Heckerand it was Jews who later were occupied in processing the oil. Before the outbreak of World War II, there were five refineries inDrohobycz. The region was nicknamed the “Galician Pennsylvania”.

“There where the land is most southern, it is flaxen from the sun, darkened and burnt from the summer weather, like a ripe pear – there she lies, like a cat in the sun – this chosen land, this curious province, this unique city in the world”, wrote one of the most well known residents of Drohobycz, Bruno Schulz.

“It was a pleasant city”, recalls Teresa Strutyńska-Christow , in an interview with the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. “We lived on the outskirts. There were no multi-occupancy buildings then. It was just a district of small, single-family homes. We were five kilometres from the city – a fair distance from the market square - at least three kilometres for sure. But I was young and the distance didn’t bother me”.

Klaudiusz Strutyński, Teresa’s father, was a mining engineer. Her mother, Maria Antonina Strutyńska, worked as a teacher of Polish and German. “Mum spoke excellent German and dad also spoke German. They spoke German to each other when they didn’t want us to understand that they were criticising someone. So, we were never prejudiced against anyone, because we had never heard anybody being criticised”, recalls Teresa with a smile.

The Strutyński couple raised four children. According to Teresas, “I had a sister Kazia and an older brother, Stanisław. There was also Leszek, two years older than me. I was the youngest”.

The family was Catholic. ”Dad and mum were very religious. We always went to church”.

Teresa had Jews amongst her schoolmates. “We were on very friendly terms. There was no, shall we say, anti-Semitism – all the more so when the disasters began happening (the persecution of Jews under German occupation). We tried to help those poor people. There was so much poverty, so much misery. Children begged in the streets. It was horrible. And we didn’t have that much either – it was a War and there was poverty”.

The Strutyński family knew those Jews who hid with them from before the War. “Dad (…), working in the mining office, conducted many inspections. He travelled to Borysław, where they were drilling for oil. There, he became friendly with Mr Henefeld. I don’t remember his first name.” When the Soviet authorities evicted the Henefeld family from their home, they rented a room in the Strutyński house.

Teresa’s father, Klaudiusz Strutyński, died at the beginning of 1941. The Germans entered Drohobycz on 3rd July of that same year and began repressing the Jews.

In 1942, Mrs Henefeld asked Maria Strutyńską for help. She was looking for a hiding place. She was accompanied by her daughter Lidia and a cousin, Szomek Kleberg. Her husband, Mr Henefeld, lost his life at the beginning of German occupation.

Maria Strutyńska shortly after also took in relatives of the Henefeld family – the Krepl couple and Mrs Henefeld’s sister, Sabina Zussman and two of her sons.

Others followed – the Herman family, together with Mrs Herman’s sister, Gustawą Lieberman.

Altogether, eleven people were in hiding with the Strutyński family.

The apartment was in a series of connecting rooms –an entrance hall, a kitchen, another entrance hall – later converted into three rooms – two larger and smaller rooms. In the smaller one was a hiding place. The Krepl’s and Zussman’s later widened it”, but Teresa does not remember the detail exactly. “A few people could hide there. But they couldn’t  stay in there for long – an hour at most, no longer, because there was no ventilation. If they were taken by surprise, they could hide there, but not for very long (…). Actually, no one ever hid under the floor. Everyone almost always stayed in the attic. Our attic was quite big. (…) In winter, it was fine. In summer, it was a little worse, because it was hard to withstand being under a tin roof. (...) And later, they went to the room to sleep. Everyone had their own place to sleep”.

Those in hiding were quite assimilated. “They were Jews who were not very religious Jews – cultured and educated, but not religious”.

Maria and Teresa looked after those in hiding at home. “Mum cooked for them. I helped as much as I could. We had to prepare food for thirteen people – but not always thirteen, because for a time, my brother Stasiek went to Lwów – so there were fewer of us. Kazia (Strutyńska, Teresa’s sister) was usually there, but she would often leave to get food”.

During the occupation, the entire household was supported through bartering. They received several days worth of food in exchange for a Singer sewing machine. “For a change”, Teresa and her older siblings would go out bartering.

“Mum didn’t have a job. During the War, there just wasn’t the possibility (…). We usually went out bartering. Those people (in hiding) always gave us something which they really didn’t need (...) dresses and, blouses to exchange for food. (...) We sold as much as we could. We had a few supplies, because when war broke out we needed to store something. We exchanged various things for food. (...) We sold the Singer machine for flour, meat and poultry. (...) At the time, we thought of nothing else except not to die of hunger. They were hard times. These are very, very painful memories.”

The family lived in constant fear. “In general, there were no good moments. (…) It was a life under constant stress. You were always terrified that someone would denounce us, that they would come and take Mum away or take us away too”.

However, the Strutyński family, especially Maria, never doubted that they had to provide help. “My mum didn’t even think about it. Someone came to mum and said, ‘Mrs Strutyńska, they could come and take you away at any moment. You should do something’. Mum said, ‘How can I? After all, these people trust me. I wouldn’t dare try to get rid of them’”.

She knew that she was in a difficult position, but she said no. “’Maybe God will ensure that everything will work out alright’. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out alright (…) She was, above all, a good person. (...) She was a decent person. She wanted to see for herself what was going on around. She thought that it would be okay. In was actually near the end of the War that they came and took her and those poor people away.”.

In June 1943, a unit of the Gestapo, with Ukrainian police, surrounded the property. One of the neighbours had denounced them. Teresa considers that “... it was a Ukrainian. They didn’t like the Poles very much. We couldn’t hide that the fact that there were so many people. So much milk was needed … The woman would bring cans of milk. And how much bread did we have to buy? All these things didn’t lend themselves to secrecy – and for a year and a half. Can you imagine, a year and a half …”.

Teresa’s oldest sibling was not at home. One of the Ukrainian police helped Teresa save herself. “When I saw that the Gestapo was coming and going into the small room and taking those people, I was so scared that my legs were completely shaking beneath me. (...) One of the Ukrainian policemen, who was a student of my mother’s, took me by the hand, led me into the entrance hall and indicated that I should escape through the window. I shook off the fear and ran to the neighbour’s house and slept there that night. I don’t remember at which neighbour. Thanks to them, I was saved. (...) Stasiek said that that man saved my life. There are all sorts of Ukrainians. I wasn’t very friendly with them. They did a lot that was bad, but there were also some who were decent people”.

Kazimiera, Teresa’s sister, returned home while the search was being carried out. “She saw that there was something going on at home, because the lights were on. She understood that something was wrong. She hid amongst the potatoes and lay there until the morning. In the morning, she went to my sister (half-sister) who was working in Borysław. She arranged things so that we could return home after four days. Our home had been completely ransacked”.

Mrs Strutyńska remained under arrest for a few months. The Germans carried out the death sentence in Lwów, to where she had been transported in September 1943. “At first, mum was held in the Drohobycz prison. Later, she was transferred to the Kazimierzowską in Lwów. My sister, Kazia, took food to her in Drohobycz and also to Lwów. She even managed to talk to mum while she was in prison, because the guards were Poles, they spoke Polish and allowed Kazia to talk to mum. Mum looked terrible. She was thin, not just because of the conditions within the prison, but also because she was scared, scared for us. She could have escaped when they came to arrest her. They let her. They looked the other way and even motioned to her for her to escape. But she didn’t want to because she felt that her children would be answerable for it”.

They found everyone except for Lidia Henefeld. She escaped before they entered the home. She did not survive the War. She perished in Auschwitz. But she managed to tell her aunt, Ida Rubinstein, the story of how she had been in hiding with the Strutyński family. After many years, Ida Rubinstein authenticated the story to the Yad Vashem Institute.

The endeavours to honour the Strutyński family were aided by the testimony of Harry Zeimer, a friend of Stanisław’s. Harry was the eldest of the siblings who were helped by the Strutyński family, during the War, to escape abroad. Maria gave Harry the baptismal certificate of her son who had died before the War. Using these papers, he got himself an identity card under the name of “Antoni Strutyński”. Thanks to this, he managed to get to Switzerland.

Harry Zeimer and Teresa Strutyńska-Christow met for the first time, in Israel in 1990, when she received the medal and title of “Righteous Among the Nations”. They remain friends to this day.

Teresa feels that her entire family deserves to be honoured. “My sister helped a lot to provide food. She went west to various villages and exchanged goods for food. (...) When I was honoured, she said to me with regret, ‘Why wasn’t I acknowledged?’  At that time (when the medal was awarded), she was in the Soviet Union – maybe it was for that reason. We did everything we could. Harry Zeimer wrote and Ida Rubinstein testified that my sister helped. But she was not recognised. And Stanisław too. He transported a Jewish family when, at that time, it was very dangerous”

Currently, Mrs Strutyńska-Christow lives in Wrocław. She has only been in Drohobycz once since the War – on a trip with the Drohobycz Association. “I don’t want to go there anymore. It’s very sad. My home was no longer there. They put up a brick house on that site. I can’t even remember how it looked exactly”. 

Bibliography

  • Gutman Israel red. nacz., Księga Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, Ratujący Żydów podczas Holocaustu, Kraków 2009
  • Kalinowska Magdalena, Interview with Teresa Strutyńska-Christow, 1.01.2008