The Swierszczak family
Story of Rescue - The Swierszczak family
The Rosen Jewish family lived in Buczacz (now Ukraine), at 2 Podhajecka street. Following the death of her husband in 1935, Klara Rosen raised her three sons alone – Heniek, Milek and Jachiel. Milek, who years later would write about his family’s wartime experiences, was 14 years old when World War II broke out.
On 17th September 1939, Buczacz was occupied by the USSR and annexed to the Ukraine. As Milek recalls, the first Wehrmacht units entered Buczacz two weeks after the outbreak of the German-Soviet war – at noon on 5th July 1941. At that time, the Jewish community comprised around 60% of the town’s population and found itself in great danger. The Germans systematically conducted operations aimed at rounding up and murdering the Jews of Buczacz. The first operation took place on 7th October 1942, the last on 15th May 1943. On 24th June, the German authorities officially declared Buczacz a town free of Jews (judenfrei).
During the German occupation, Milek obtained a work permit and, together with other trademen, was taken to work on the railway tunnel in Buczacz–Nagórzance. During the first German operation in 1942, he fled and, together with his family, hid in the chapel attic of a Polish cemetery near Fedor Mountain. The whole family hid in there over the cause of the following four operations.
Milek had been friends with Mietek from before the War. He was the son of the local gravedigger, Mańko Świerszczak. The boys often helped him in his work at the cemetery. After Mietek died (he perished while handling ammunition during the German-Soviet war), his father, and his wife Maryna, decided to look after their son’s friend and his family. One time, he said to him, ”Listen Milo, I’ll save you and your family.” In his memoirs, Milek calls Mańko a ”human angel”.
Mańko found a hiding place for the Rosen family in the Polish cemetery, in an old, walled crypt containing only one coffin. Together, they camouflaged it well, covering the rectangular entrance with turf. Mańko lined the hiding place with straw and the Rosen family gathered up whatever food they could manage and stored it there – flour, sugar and other produce.
In May 1943, the Germans ordered the transportation of the Jews of Buczacz to Tłuszcz, Jagielnice and Kopyczyńce. As it turned out, it was a fiction. Along the way, all the Jews were murdered and buried in the nearby fields. Right after the operation, Milek, his mother and brothers, hid in the cemetery. Thanks to that hiding place, they managed to survive. Milek recalls that, from that moment, there was no return to freedom. His grandmother and aunt perished in that operation.
From the end of May 1943, the Rosen family hid in that crypt. They only emerged at night for air. As Milek recalls, ”Sitting in the dark, we knew nothing – neither what day it was, nor the date. I wanted to write a diary, but that was impossible – night was day for us, and vice versa. I knew that cemetery like my own home”.
At night, they lay on the grass and looked up at the stars. They tried washing themselves using the leaves which were covered with dew. During a storm, they lit a small hearth in the empty cemetery and cooked soup using corn flour. They also used a well, located close by in the garden on the Czyżewski property.
After exhausting their original supplies, Mańko obtained them more food for which they gave him money. When their financial resources ran out, the gravedigger supported them himself from his own modest funds. Sometimes Stasia, Świerszczak’s daughter brought food to the cemetery. She left a packet at a pre-arranged spot. She was, however, unaware of the Rosens’ presence there. She thought she was just bringing food for the father. The brothers made up for the lack of food by stealing from nearby orchards. As Milek recalls, they took ”everything that they could manage to carry”.
Mańko’s aid was an extraordinarily dangerous undertaking. Once, he was arrested by Ukrainian militia, accused of hiding Jews. Someone had denounced him, stating that he was buying a bit too much food. During the interrogation, he was severely beaten. However, he never betrayed Milek and his family.
When winter came, the crypt was in a dangerous situation – tracks in the snow would have betrayed the hiding place. Then Mańko and the Rosen brothers built a bunker beneath the floor of the crypt.
Fiszel Szwarz, a butcher and relative of the Rosens’, joined them that winter in the crypt. At that time, conditions there were markedly worse. All were facing death through starvation. Szwarz then wrote to a butcher friend, a Ukrainian named Piszczuk, asking him to send food. After a few days, he appeared at the cemetery with a sack full of bread, sausage and other foods, plus vodka. As Milek recalls, ”That night, we feasted on the contents of Piszczuk’s sack – we ate and drank until sated. That was probably in December or January, maybe Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve”.
In March 1944, the German army retreated. An anti-aircraft gun was placed next to the cemetery. One day, during a fierce storm, soldiers took shelter in the crypt. Under their weight, the floor collapsed, revealing the Rosens’ hiding place. Klara told her sons, ”Run away children. Maybe you’ll save yourselves”. When she emerged from the crypt to distract the Germans, she was shot.
The Rosen brothers managed to escape. At the beginning, they hid with Wiszniewski, a Ukrainian, who was Piszczuk the butcher’s brother-in-law. They hid in a small cell where, as it turned out, other Jews were hiding. A few days later, they were discovered by a German looking for chickens at the farm. Fortunately, the soldier left them alone. But, from that moment on, that hiding place was dangerous. The brothers had to find somewhere else to hide.
They remembered an acquaintance, Michał Dukiewicz, who lived in nearly Podlesie. They reached his farm. At the sight of the ragged boys, Dukiewicz burst out crying. Immediately, he fed them and hid them in his barn. After a few days, Dukiewicz brought them happy news. The German army was retreating. On 25th March 1944, the Rosen brothers left their hiding place. Milek recalls how they called Dukiewicz Michał the Angel.
In April, the Germans returned. The Rosens fled with the retreating Soviet army. In the USSR, the two eldest joined the newly formed First Polish Army. Later, Henryk took part in the liberation of Kraków, whereas Milek served in the army entering Warsaw in 1945. After the War, Henryk moved to Chicago, Jachiel settled in Eilat in Israel. Both have since passed away. Milek Rosen emigrated to Israel in 1946, where he lives to this day.
Milek recalls, ”Those two angels, the late Mańko Świerszczak and the late. Michał Dukiewicz, were honoured as Righteous Among the Nations. Their names are inscribed in Jerusalem on a heroes plaque and trees have been planted in their names. On All Souls Day, I pray for them and ask God for them to be admitted into the circle of our holiest. Amen!”.
- Kutrowski M., Historia Milka Rosena z Buczacza, "Wirtualny Sztetl".
- Rosen M., Niezapomniane cmentarne noce, s. 9-11
- Kaczorowski A.W., Gdy grób był domem, s. 62-68.
- Rosen M., Życie w grobowcu na polskim cmentarzu, s. 23-29