The Zak Family

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Story of Rescue - The Zak Family

The Righteous

The Żak family lived at 10 Belwederska Street in Warsaw. Adam Żak worked as an accountant in a tax office. His wife died a few years before World War Two. They had two children: Hanna and Marian.

Hanna does not have many pre-war recollections about Jews. She remembers a Jewish draper shop on Belwederska Street, and recollects a girl who worked there. She also remembers that her father used to buy shoes on Nalewki Street and that he often received discounts from the salesmen. She recalls that during Nazi occupation her father provided Jews with food – she remembers delivering butter herself: she hid it under her clothes and brought it to her father’s office. Later this butter went to those in need.

The Rescued

Before the outbreak of World War Two, Sabina Grossman lived in Kalisz, the city in the center of Poland. She was married and had a few-year-old daughter Róża. Her parents, aunts with families, grandparents, her brother, his wife and their child – they all lived in Kalisz. Hanna says that Sabina’s family owned a curtain factory.

The history of Jews living in Kalisz goes back to the 12th century. Their society evolved and passed through crises, just as the whole city did. At the beginning of the 20th century Jews made up about 36% of the whole population and they varied in quite many respects: religiosity, political beliefs, social status. Besides Orthodox Judaism believers, who constituted the majority of the Jews in the city, there were groups of assimilated or even polonized Jews, originating mainly from the intellectuals, wealthy merchants or industrialists. The Kalisz Jews became much involved in the social life of the city – during the interwar years they obtained 11 out of 34 seats in the city council. Apart from that, in Kalisz there were many active Jewish political formations, youth organizations, trade unions; Jews also had their own press.

World War II

Having seized the Western territories of Poland in September 1939, the Nazis decided to incorporate them into the Third Reich. In this way Kalisz became a German city, the capital of the area later called Warthegau [Germ. Reichsgau Wartheland – The Country of the Warta River]. The Nazi Germans then began to enforce the policy of intensive Germanization of this territory; they also planned to quickly remove the Jewish population of the city. Most of the Kalisz Jews were deported in as early as winter of 1939 to towns and villages of the General Government and to concentration camps. The rest of them were either deported or killed, among other places in Chełmno nad Nerem extermination camp, by July 1942.

Sabina with her four-year-old daughter and the rest of her family were deported to Rzeszów in the transport that left Kalisz on 14 December 1939.

In Rzeszów, located in the south-east of Poland, the Nazis had been gradually developing the city ghetto since the year 1940. It was closed in February 1942, while in the summer of the same year most of its Jewish inhabitants were deported to Bełżec extermination camp.

In her post-war report written down for Yad Vashem, Róża Gelbart recollects: “In 1939 our whole family was deported to Rzeszów. My grandparents from the family of my mother died before the ghetto in Rzeszów was closed. When the ghetto was shut down, my father and my mother’s brother began to work together in a co-op. From time to time the Nazis gathered groups of women and children in the main square, from where they were transported to Treblinka extermination camp. This is how my mother’s sisters and one of their children died, and also my uncle’s wife and her child met the same fate. But me and my mother, we avoided such death because she worked behind the walls of the ghetto. My mother knew a few Poles, and thanks to their help she found a temporary shelter for us. Her acquaintances referred her to Mr. Adam Żak.”

Thanks to this information we may assume that Sabina escaped from Rzeszów in the period between February and July 1942.

Warsaw

Adam decided to hide Sabina in his apartment, formally employing her as a cleaning lady. He openly informed his children, Hanka, who was a teenager at that time, and Marian, who was in his mid-twenties, that a new cleaning lady would be a Jewish woman. “Our father made no secret of who was that new person at our home, because in those times even we, the youth, had to be fully aware of the situation, had to be vigilant and know how to keep a secret” – recalls Hanna.

Sabina and her daughter made their way to Warsaw, to the Żak family. According to her kennkarte [the basic identification cardin use during the Third Reichera – translator’s note] obtained by Adam, Sabina’s name was now Ryszarda Żak. If such was a need, she could always pose as his wife. With so called good looks and an official status of a cleaning lady, Sabina could now go to the downtown and, together with Adam, trade in yeast without excise bands [i.e. manufactured illegally, without paying an excise duty – editorial note]to earn some extra money. Hanna worked too – in a shop located in the same tenement. Her job was to paste ration food cards [on the basis of these cards a shop owner could later report in the office how much food he sold – editorial note]. For her job she received soup and bread from the owners.

When his friends sometimes paid him a visit, Żak would inform them that Sabina is a daughter of a soldier fighting in England. But the presence of her daughter Róża was kept in secret – formally she did not exist, at least not according to any documents. During such visits she used to hide in an adjoining room together with Hanka, who kept her company: “And when the visitors came to see my father, I always stayed in that second room, pretending to be sick. In the wardrobe there was a cushion and a coverlet for Halinka – her name was then Halinka. (…) So when the guests wanted to see me in that room, she hid in that wardrobe.”

Róża-Halinka would never leave the apartment at that time. Only occasionally she would go to the balcony to take a fresh breath. In her free time Hanka often looked after Róża, treating her like a younger sister, so the little girl quickly became attached to her. “She would not do absolutely anything without me; she would not sleep, eat, if I was not at her side” – remembers Hanna.

Warka

As time passed by, it was more and more difficult and risky to hide Róża in Warsaw. Adam and Sabina decided that both girls should leave the city. Adam thought that it would be easier for them to survive this uneasy period of time in his hometown Warka, located halfway between Warsaw and Radom. Although his parents were already dead, he had friends there, whom he could trust.

In Róża’s post-war report we read: “Hanka agreed [to quit school] and so we went to the countryside. She told people that we were sisters, and that our father was fighting in England. Hanka cared for me like a sister. When we did not have anything to eat, she would ask farmers for any food they had, and she would share a single slice of bread with me. She was totally devoted to me. She left school, her own father and a prosperous life at his side only to rescue me, although she knew that she was risking her life, just like me.”

Hanka and Róża’s stay in Warka lasted only about three months before it almost ended in tragedy. One time they were taking a stroll when somebody recognized them and began to shout: “Two Jews! Two Jews!” “We started [to run] across the stubble-field (…) barefoot and we were bleeding from our legs – to get to any village. When we got there – I had a small bag with money – I called my father. »Papa« - I said. - »I am sick.« This was a special codeword for him. »Where are you?« »We are there and there«…” – recalls Hanna.

Ostrołęka

After this event the girls could not return to Warka. Their next destination was Ostrołęka. Hanna recounts:

“We stayed in a school building, at that time closed. Many other Polish homeless people were staying there. (…) The Nazis assigned me to work in a German military unit which was stationed nearby. I worked as a kitchen help. I stole as many remnants of food as I could and I brought them to that school, where Róża and I lived. Sometimes I could get something better and this was the way we lived.

Nevertheless, this situation could not last any longer. It was getting more and more dangerous, so I notified my father. He arrived together with Mrs. Sabina and the four of us (…) escaped to Radom.”

Radom

However, the new hiding place was not safe too. A local hairdresser’s son, who was regarded in the town as a German informer, quickly took an interest in the visitors. One day he visited the Żaks’ apartment together with a German officer, and Sabina, who knew the German language, concluded from their conversation that they became suspicious about the newcomers. Again, they had to run away.

Only Adam stayed at the place – the following day he tried to explain his “wife” and daughter’s absence. “He told the Germans that I went shopping for shoes, and that his wife (according to her kennkarte) [i.e. Sabina] left to look for me, because they were worried about my prolonged absence; they [the Germans] did not know anything about Róża, because formally she did not exist” – recalls Hanna.

Jedlińsk

The four survivors found their last and lucky shelter in the village of Jedlińsk near Radom. Adam, Sabina, Hanna and Róża had lived there for about half a year, i.e. until January 1945, when the Red Army marched in and seized this territory.

After WWII

When the Second World War came to an end, Sabina, Róża, Adam and Hanka returned to Kalisz. They lived together in the Grossmans’ pre-war apartment. Thanks to a friend neighbor who told her where to look for her furniture, Sabina was able to retrieve her piano and other items. In a cache in the attic they found various things lying hidden there, and – as Hanna recalls – even their gold.

Szymon Langer, Sabina’s brother, after his liberation from Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, also returned to Kalisz. Apart from him, Sabina could not find anyone else from her pre-war Jewish acquaintances and relatives.

Some time later both Sabina and Szymon left Poland, but Hanna stayed in Kalisz for many more years. In the end she got back to Warsaw.

Today, Róża lives in the United States: she married a man of Polish origin. Together they visited their hometowns and sites of massacre. She still keeps in close touch with her “sister” Hanna. It was Róża who put forward a proposal to award Hanna and Adam the honorary title of Righteous among the Nations.

In her relation for Yad Vashem, Hanna writes: “I am not going to describe the atmosphere of terror and the awareness of constant danger of death for all of us, because these things are well-known to anybody living in those times, especially to people who came out against Nazi decrees. We were really like one family, and we felt that way; one family sharing together joy and sorrow. It did not matter whether you were a Jew or a Pole, or held any other beliefs – we became very close to each other and no money or material benefits were ever taken into account.”

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Bibliography

  • Archiwum Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, 349, 1922
  • Mojkowski Karol, Interview with Hanna Jańczak, 1.06.2009
  • Gutman Israel red. nacz., Księga Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, Ratujący Żydów podczas Holocaustu, Kraków 2009