Toeplitz Eryka

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Story of Rescue - Toeplitz Eryka

During WWII, Eryka Toeplitz lived in Warsaw together with her husband and their two sons: Jerzy and Karol. Before they moved to Warsaw, they lived in Gdańsk. Eryka’s husband, Artur Toeplitz, had been a member of underground organisations active in the former Free City of Danzig and stayed in Warsaw under an assumed name as Kazimierz Gryczyński. Due to his association with freedom fighters, both he himself and his wife Eryka had been interrogated by the Gestapo many times. Eventually, Artur had to go into hiding. He could only meet his family from time to time and in a disguise, usually at a woodland nature reserve called Lasek Bielański. “I like going to that forest and just watching everything there, remembering my Sunday walks [with my father],” Jerzy Toeplitz recalled.

Eryka was left alone with her sons, her health failing due to the constant stress she had to endure. “Our situation being like that, my mother was asked by Jadwiga Bemowa, a neighbour of ours, to take in a young homeless person (who had, by September 1939, completed her junior year at the Faculty of Journalism) who could help her look after her children [Jerzy was then 10 and Karol was 4]. The neighbour did not try to conceal the fact that said person was Jewish,” Jerzy recounted after the war.

Eryka Toeplitz agreed to take the girl in, in spite of the risk associated with this. Krystyna Sternstreit (according to her “Aryan papers,” her name was Krystyna Rybińska) was registered at the apartment of the family and she helped Eryka look after her children and do housework. This took place close to the end of 1940, right after the time when the Germans decided to create a ghetto in Warsaw.

Shortly before the gates of the ghetto were closed, the Toeplitz family decided to also take in Krystyna’s mother - Halina Sternstreit. Krystyna asked Eryka to find a place for her mother as well because she feared she would starve in the ghetto. The Toeplitz family procured fake documents for Krystyna’s mother, issued for the name of Wacława Lipińska. Krystyna’s father decided against leaving the ghetto and did not survive the Great Liquidation Action in the summer of 1942. Several months earlier, on 15 February 1942, he sent a letter from the ghetto to his daughter on the occasion of her 21st birthday. “Today is the day when you attain the age of majority. To think that we cannot celebrate this joyful moment together! [...] But never you mind this for, with God’s help, we shall celebrate after the war. [...] My dear Krystyna, I can hardly believe that you, the little Krysia, the cute Krysiunia with two pigtails, have grown to become a completely independent person [...]. You are the apple of my eye and a feather in my cap. [...] Your father, forever cherishing you more than his own life.”

The conditions in which Krystyna and Halina (Wacława) lived were relatively comfortable. “They both occupied a separate room and Mrs Wacława was forbidden to leave the apartment or come near the window,” Jerzy recounted. Unfortunately, she ignored those rules and went for a short walk. She was recognised in the street, led to a police station, and sent back to the Warsaw ghetto. It was possible to get her out of there only after three days. The same thing happened again after several months - Halina left the apartment of the Toeplitz family on her own. This time, she was sent to a transit camp in Trawniki but managed to escape from it and return to Warsaw. “Some time afterwards, she left the apartment again - it seemed llike a prison cell to her for her not being allowed to take a walk - and was arrested once more. In spite of her imprisonment at the dreaded Pawiak prison, she boldly withstood interrogation and never revealed the place where she had been hiding. After some time, she was transported east to some camp,” Jerzy recollected. She managed to smuggle out a letter and send it to the Toeplitz family, asking them for assistance in escaping. Eryka hastened to help her out. She paid a truck driver to aid Halina (Wacława) in breaking free from the camp and returning to Warsaw.

Krystyna and Halina remained at the apartment of the Toeplitz family until the Warsaw Uprising broke out. After that, they were all evacuated and transferred to the Sadyba district. Artur Toeplitz was killed several weeks later. Krystyna and Halina were separated from Eryka and her children and ended up in a camp in the Pruszków district. They only met with the Toeplitz family again after the war, in Vienna.

After the occupation period ended, Krystyna and Halina Sternstreit emigrated to the USA. Halina changed her surname to Rybińska and her daughter married an Austrian man and changed her name to Christine Brunak. They sporadically communicated with members of the Teoplitz family.

Other Stories of Rescue in the Area

Bibliography

  • Gutman Israel red. nacz., Księga Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, Ratujący Żydów podczas Holocaustu, Kraków 2009
  • Toeplitz Teodor, Rodzina Toeplitzów, Warszawa 2004
  • Klara Jackl, Interview with Jerzy Toeplitz, 10.06.2015
  • Archiwum Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, Dział odznaczeń Yad Vashem. Dokumentacja sprawy Eryki i Jerzego Toeplitza, 349/24/1683