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"They Came to Us at Night, to Our Barn" - the Story of the Dębski Family

The Dębski family helped the Jewish Poziomek family to survive the Holocaust in Liwa,  near Węgrów. After the War, the survivors left for Uruguay. It was only years later that the families re-established contact. In 2018, they travelled together to Liwa to see the Poziomeks' former home and the school in which they were hidden. 


Poles and Jews in Liwa Before World War II

Małgorzata and Ignacy Dębski, together with their children, lived in Liwa near Węgrów (Mazowieckie Province). Before the War, a few Jewish families lived there. One of them was the Poziomek family - Mojżesz (Moszek) and his wife Estera (nee Goldstein) and their children Izrael (Srul), Samuel (Szmul), Jenta and Eta (Etka). They were a traditionally religious family. Jews in Liwa were mainly involved in trade and craft. The Poziomek family processed and sold dairy products. They would buy butter from the peasants in Liwa, process it into set weight portions and then pack and sell them in Warsaw.

The Dębski and Poziomek families had been friendly for years. Their children attended school together and spent time together. During difficult periods, the adults helped each other. Over time, using profits from their trade, the Poziomek family bought a plot of land in Liwa, where a tavern had once stood. They built a home there. At the end of the 1920's, Małgorzata and Ignacy did not have their own home and lived with the Poziomek family..

The Poziomek Family in the Węgrów Ghetto

Following the outbreak of World War II, the Poziomek family, like other Jews, fell victim to consecutive German regulations which hampered their lives. With the help of friendly people, they were still able to earn a living. They also continued to maintain friendly relations with the Dębski family.

In 1941, the Germans established the Węgrów ghetto. All Jewish families from Liwa were forced to move there.  Around 6,000-8,000 people, from Węgrów and the surrounding area, were locked into the small area between ul. Żeromskiego and ul. Joselewicza. Sanitary conditions were poor and food was scarce. Diseases spread. Mojżesz and Eta Poziomek died of typhus in the ghetto.

"They Came to Us at Night" - the Poziomek Faily's Escape From the Ghetto

In September 1942, the Germans began to liquidate the ghetto and its inhabitants were transported to the Treblinka extermination camp On the first day of that operation, Estera, Izrael, Samuel and Jenta hid themselves in a basement. When night fell, they managed to escape from the ghetto and reach the Dębski family in Liwa. They hid in the barn, a small distance away from the house and, there, they waited until morning. Franciszek recalled,

They came to us at night, to our barn. They knew the barn because that was where they had a flour storehouse. My father comes. The barn is closed and they were asleep there in the hay.

Ignacy and Małgorzata gave the Poziomek family refuge for several days, so that the fugitives could recover from the dramatic events which they had witnessed.

The Poziomek Family Leave Their Hiding-Place

Due to the inquisitive nature of the Dębskis' neighbours, the Poziomek family did not go into the farmyard. So as not to expose the Dębski, they decided that they would spend the following weeks in the surrounding forest. There, they built a hiding-place and moved there. It was there that the Dębski family brought then food and clothing.

In November 1942, the Germans announced the establilshment of a "small ghetto" for Jews working in Węgrów. Winter wasa coming, Despite the Dębskis' warnings and promises of help, the Poziomek family decided to move there. They surmised that the caretion of this ghetto was just another trick by the Germans. In April, the invaders began to liquidate the ghetto and to murder its resident.

The Poziomek family had prepared, in advance, a a shelter for themselves. That foresight saved their lives.

A Hiding-Place in the School Building - the Dębski Family Bring Them Food

Following that liquidation operation, the Poziomek family returned to Liwa, to the Dębski family. They also found a new hiding-place - in the attic of the unifinished school building.

In the summer, they remained in the fields and forests surrounding the village. In autumn and winter, they returned to the hiding-place in the attic. The Dębski family organised food for them. Małgorzata cooked soup for them, which Szmul came to collect once each week. She did this, even though they lived near the church in a rather busy area. Szmul Poziomek would come at a pre-arranged time, usually late at night.

Franciszek recalled,

We were mostly afraid that the Germans would arrive when he came to us for the food. They would have killed him and us. That's what we were afriad of and that's why we were careful.

The Dębski family also maintained part of the Poziomek property.

During summer, the Poziomek family also took steps to gather supplies so that, in autumn and winter, they would not have to leave their hiding-place. They also received support from the baker Łosiewicz from whom Srul would obtain bread.

The Dębski Family's Fear of Neighbour Denunciation

The Dębski family were afraid that their neighbours would discover the help that they were providing and would report it. All household members maintained the secret, knowing the danger that threatened their family and those in hiding - the death penalty. That danger was even greater as, in the village, there were three szmalcowniks (blackmailers) who were working with the Germans. After the War, they stood trial for persecuting Jews during the occupation. According to one of the Liwa villagers, Władysław Wójcik (honoured after the War with the title of Righteous Among the Nations), Jews in hiding in the village in 1942 were murdered. Three families were brutally killed using pitchforks and axes.

The Dębski family suspected that their neighbours had guessed what they were doing. However, according to Franciszek Dębski, the high status of his mother, Małgorzata (as a midwife, she was respected in the local community), protected them against being denounced. Franciszek also recalls that his mother was a deeply religious person. Every day, she prayed for the survival of the Poziomek family and for their own safety.

The End of the War and the Departure for Uruguay

Soldiers of the Red Army entered Liwa in August 1944. Following the end of German occupation, the Poziomek family left their hiding-place in the school and returned home. Displaced people from Poznań had been living there since 1941. In November 1944, Estera and her children moved to Węgrów and, at their request, the Dębski family occupied part of the Poziomek home. They also maintained what property they still had left. In 1945, the  Poziomek family moved to Warsaw. Ignacy Dębski helped them to transport their possessions. In the autumn of that year, they left for Łódż and ran a small restaurant. They soon decided to leave Poland. They sold their home in Liwa to Małgorzata and Ignacy Dębski. In 1946, via Germany, Estera and her children left to her brother in Uruguay.

Meeting Years Later

Contact between the families remained broken for a long period. After many years, descendants of the families re-established it. In 2018, Samuel Poziomek's daughter, Rosy, and Franciszek Dębski met. Together, they travelled to Liwa to see the Poziomeks' former home and also the school where they were in hiding.

Bibliography

  • Bielawski Szraga Fajwel, Ostatni Żyd z Węgrowa, Warszawa 2015
  • Engelking Barbara, Grabowski Jan (oprac.), Dalej jest noc. Losy Żydów w wybranych powiatach okupowanej Polski, t. 1, Warszawa 2018
  • Klara Jackl, Interview with Franciszek Dębski, Warszawa 20.03.2018