The Zagórski Family

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"They didn't rely on providence, but freely chose to act in a manner which endangered themselves" - the Story of Jerzy and Maria Zagórski

"The Zagórski couple came on a short visit to Israel and, in the park in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, they planted a tree in their own names", according to "Nowiny Kurier” in autumn 1978. "It is hoped that it will grow like dozens of others already planted by other Righteous who have visited there.” In July 1977, Maria (Maryna) and Jerzy Zagórskicy were honoured with the title of "Righteouus Among the Nations", on the basis of testimonies provided by Survivors Lidia Kott (nee Steinhaus) and Jan Kott.


The Daughter of a Lwów Mathematician

Lidia came from Lwów. Her father, Hugon Steinhaus, a professor at Jan Kazimierz University, was one of the "brilliant” co-founders of the Lwów mathematics school.

"In February 1937, during a lecture by Steinhaus, a student, wearing a student club cap, entered and pointed to a group of Jewish students standing by the window. 'Those Jews are standing", he said, meaning that they were breaking the obligation they should be sitting on the 'ghetto benches' […]. Steinhaus told him to leave, but the student stated that he had no intention of doing so. A moment later, a group of youths burst into the hall, armed with sticks. They attacked the Jews, knocking one of them to the floor. Steinhaus managed to leave the hall, only after pushing his way through the door which was being blocked by student club members. […] In Lwów, there were frequent beatings and assaults. One student was even murdered.

To Paris in Fear of Violence

Meanwhile, Lidia Steinhaus was studying law. In fear of violence, she had left for Paris. There, she became engaged to philology student Jan Kott.

Hugon Steinhaus dreamt of being a mathematician's father-in-law. Of Jan, the future world-famous interpretor of the works of Shakespeare, he said that he'd "bought a cat [ed: kot=cat in English], in a sack”. The young caouple were married in Junne 1939 and spent the summer with Lidia's parents.

The Outbreak of War

When the War broke out, Jan was in Warsaw, with Lidia still being near Lwów. On 23rd November, she left with her parents. With her husband, she left for Warsaw, from where she sent money to her parents who were in hiding. The professor, as "Grzegorz Krochmalny", and his wife began their exile from Osiczyn, on the estate of Witold Ott, a staff member of the bursar's office. He only met his daughter again four years later in Stróże (near Nowy Sącz), where they had gone into hiding in 1942.

Jerzy and Maria Zagórski

Jerzy Zagórski, a poet, was born in Kiev. At the beginning of the 1930's, he was studying at the Stefan Batory University in Wilna where, together with others including Czesław Miłosz, he created the Żagary literary group. "[…] Progressive Catholics, liberals, Piłsudists and socialists would undergo an ideological revolution - some more so than others - to the left side of politics”, is the way the members of the group's ideological maturity is described by Andrzej Franaszek in his biolgraphy of Miłosz. The group published a magazine. Prevalent in their work was a sense of catastrophe, a feeling of crisis in that contemporary world and a criticism of it in a spirit of social justice.

Maria (nee Woycieszonek) Zagórska was also a student in Wilna. She came from St.Petersburg. In later years, she would utilise her knowledge of languages ​​to translate beautiful literature from Russian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Czech..

In 1937, the Zagórski couple moved to Warsaw. They lived in Żoliborz, at ulica Mickiewicza 18. During the occupation. they were active in the underground. Jerzy edited the underground's monthly "Kultura Jutra”.

They Always Did Everything to Save Human Life

"In the spring of 1943, I was detained in Warsaw and was later hunted by the Gestapo as a Jew in hiding", wrote Lidia Kott in a post-war account. The Zagórski family found out about her situation and offered her shelter. She appeared as a babysitter for their child. "I spent several months in their house until I obtained new documents and found a flat (also with their help)." Her hosts, despite their modest earnings, alsoo supported her financially.

"Maria and Jerzy Zagórski saved my wife during the harshest period of the occupation, when we had been betrayed and had no papers.”

- according to Jan Kott. "My wife lived with them for many months. I was often there and they often helped me to obtain faalse papers. There were many Jews and people with Jewish background who could always spend the night there or shelter, a meal or help. They always did everything to save human life - even strangers”.

Jan Kott was in hiding with Ryszard and Beata Matuszewski, also in the Warsaw suburb of Żoliborz.

The Wheel of History Turns, Crushing Everything - the Survivors After the War

After the War, Jan Kott became an important figure in the Polish Communist Party (PZPR), as well as within literary circles. For political reasons, Lidia separated from Jan for a year. In an essay about Jan Kott "Trickster", Grażyna Borkowska wrote:

"During the War, he had the opportunity to see history happening, crushing everything in its path. He aw two forces, one of which gave him the chancec to survive. There were only two, because he had no illusions about the Allies and their help to Poland. However, he believed in the military power of the Red Army. As he himself wrote,'Marxism taught me the laws of history and let me believe in them. When I joined the AL, I stopped being afraid'."

In 1957 he left the Communist Party (PZPR) and, in 1966, with his wife Lidia, he left for the United States. After the events of March 1968 and being deprived of his title of "Professor" by the authorities of the Polish People's Republic, he applied for asylum.

The Steinhaus couple settled in Wrocław. The professor accepted the position of Dean of the Mathematics and Natural Science Faculty of a university created from the amalgamation of a university and polytechnic.

The Zagórski Couple - Kraków, Paris, Warsaw

Jerzy pracował w Wydziale Kultury Urzędu Wojewódzkiego oraz pełnił funkcję kierownika literackiego w teatrach. Podobnie Maria, która związana był m.in. z teatrem w Częstochowie. Przez rok przebywali w Paryżu, gdzie Jerzy był attaché kulturalnym ambasady polskiej. W 1956 r. wrócili do Warszawy. On podjął pracę w charakterze redaktora dziennika „Kurier Polski”. W 1976 r. Maria podpisała list protestacyjny do Komisji Nadzwyczajnej Sejmu PRL przeciwko zmianom w Konstytucji a w późniejszych latach zaangażowała się w działalność Komitetu Obrony Robotników i Komitetu Samoobrony Społecznej „KOR”.  

From 1945, the Zagórski couple lived in Kraków. Jerzy worked in the Provincial Department of Culture and was the literary director in theaters. Similarly, Maria was associated with, among others, the theater in Częstochowa. They stayed in Paris for a year, where Jerzy was the Cultural Attaché of the Polish Embassy. In 1956, they returned to Warsaw. He started working as an editor of the Kurier Polski daily. In 1976, Maria signed a protest letter to the Special Committee of the Sejm of the People's Republic of Poland against changes in the Constitution and, in later years, became involved in the activities of the Workers' Defence Committee ("KOR") and its Social Self-Defense Committee.

They Did Not Invoke Providence

"The Zagórski family followed the order of the Mosaic Pentateuch - they do not passively look on at the shedding of the blood of an innocent neighbour [...] And because of the dilemma of providence and free choice, they did not refer to providence, but chose acts of their own will, which added the value of human dignity."

- the declaration at the ceremony held at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. 

Other Stories of Rescue in the Area

Bibliography

  • Franaszek Andrzej, Miłosz. Biografia, Kraków 2011
  • Archiwum Instytutu Yad Vashem w Jerozolimie, Dokumenty ws. uhonorowania Jerzego i Marii Zagórskich tytułem Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, M.31.1160
  • Mariusz Urbanek, Genialni. Lwowska szkoła matematyczna, Warszawa 2014
  • Zofia Sawicka, Jan Kott – droga do Szekspira, Portal Culture.pl