Walentyna Zak (Ala Sztajnert)

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Story of Rescue - Walentyna Zak (Ala Sztajnert)

Walentyna Żak (later known as Ala Sztajnert) was born to a peasant family in 1915 in the village of Żabno in south-eastern Poland. At the age of sixteen, she left for Lwów.

At the beginning of 1941, she met Mieczysław Morgenstern (later known as Frank Morgens), a Jew from Łódź. She met him in the Lwów bakery where he worked. One day, Wala (as Walentyna was called) told him of the tribulations of her work. He fate moved him and he endeavoured to find her a job in the bakery.

From that moment, the paths Wala and Mieczysław became strongly intertwined. In June 1941, when Lwów found itself under German occupation, Mieczysław, because he was a Jew, was in great danger, Wala provided him with the necessary support, mainly by supplying him with food. In the autumn of 1941, when she found out that Mieczysław was being sought by the Gestapo, she asked her landlady to take him under her roof.

In December 1941, Wala bought Mieczysław a train ticket to Warsaw. He wanted to join his family who lived there in the ghetto – his wife Maria, their twin daughters and Maria’s mother. Thanks to documents found by chance, in the name of “Chomczyński”, he was able to travel across the country.

Joining his family in the ghetto, Mieczysław began working on a plan of escape. He wanted to rent a house in the country and live there under “Aryan papers”. The plan succeeded thanks to help from Wala. She rented them a house in Olsztyn, not far from Częstochowa and prepared it, stocking it with food. In April 1942, the Morgenstern family escaped from the ghetto and reached Olsztyn.

Wala waited for them in the house and then lived with them. She organised false papers for the family, taught them the Catechism, went with them to church, provided them with food and helped them to run the household. Mieczysław managed to bring his mother to Olsztyn, who also then came under Wala’s tutelage. Thanks to her help, the Morgenstern family, living under the name of “Chomczyński”, were a Polish Catholic family in the eyes of their neighbours. In autumn 1942, two family friends came to also live in the house - Sasza and Sioma. Because of their Semitic appearance, they had to remain hidden in the attic. Wala prepared beds and a makeshift toilet for them.

Wala was immensely devoted to the Morgenstern family. On 26th August 1943, a situation arose which demonstrated the extent of her devotion. That day, one of the neighbours ran to the Morgenstern house crying out that the Gestapo was coming for them and that they must run away immediately. Mieczysław remained calm stating that, with small children and older women, there was no chance for escape. He gave Wala a small bundle of valuables and told her to flee. He did not want her to perish along with them. But Wala refused, saying, “No, I won’t leave you all. We’re all one family”. However, it turned out that it was not the Gestapo who came to the village, but the Polish police who came there for a totally different reason.

The Morgenstern and Wala fortunately survived the War. Together, they all went to Łódź, where they were able to regain their former apartment. Not long after, Wala left for Vienna. She ended up in a camp for Jewish refugees. There, she met her future husband, a Jew named Zev Sztajnert. She converted to Judaism and, together with her husband, she left for Palestine. Over twenty years, she refused to accept the “Righteous Among the Nations” medal. Finally, in May 1985, she agreed. She was also granted honorary citizenship of Israel. 

The Morgenstern family left for the USA and changed their surname to Morgens. Mieczysław began calling himself Frank. He and his wife decided that, as soon as they “got on their feet”, they would find a way to repay Wala and other rescuers. In the late 1960’s, they established a private foundation which provided financial assistance to the Righteous. In 1986, together with seventeen others, they established the Żydowską Fundację dla Chrześcijan Ratujących Żydów (The Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers of Jews). Frank Morgens received the Rabbi Harold Schulweiss Award for this initiative. He wrote his memoirs which were published under the title "At Stake was Life. War Memories 1939-1945".

Bibliography

  • Morgens Frank, Lata na skraju przepaści, Warszawa 1994