The Wnuk family
“They established a branch of ‘Żegota’ in Lwów”. The Story of Marian and Józefa Wnuk
Marian Wnuk was born in 1906 in Przedbórz. He was one of six children of carpenter Jan Wnuk and his wife Leokadia (née Mączyńska). His talent as a sculptor was already revealed in elementary school and this determined his future artistic development. In 1921, thanks to the efforts of his teacher Eugenia Sobkiewicz and the school director Jan Kucharski, he was accepted into the State Timber Industry School (Państwowa Szkoła Przemysłu Drzewnego) in Zakopane. There, he studied under tthe School's director Karol Stryjeński, a well-known architect and sculptor.
After finishing school, in the years 1927–1934, he studied sculpture in the Warsaw School of Fine Arts (from 1932, the Academy) in the studio of Professor Tadeusz Breyer. In 1933, he settled in Lwów where, over the next decade, he worked at the Institute of Fine Arts. At that time, he prepared several designs for competitions for monuments, among them being of Józef Piłsudski in Lwów (1936) and in Warsaw (1937, 1939), which won him numerous awards. However, none of these designs were ever implemented.
Following the German occupation of Lwów in 1941, together with his wife Józefa née Lasota (pseudonym “Magda”, “Malarka”, 1911–2001), he became involved in helping Jews from the artistic milieu – mainly friends who were painters and sculptors who remained locked inside the ghetto in December of that year. In 1943, the Wnuk couple became active in the Lwów branch of “Żegota”. The branch's chairperson Władysława Laryssa Chomsowa (1885–1966) recalled their involvement in her testimony for the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem. Władysław Bartoszewski used this in his famour publication Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej… (This is my Homeland...):
A little later than in Kraków, but also in the spring of 1943, a branch of the Council to Aid Jews was established in Lwów. […] Chairperson of the Council was Władysława Larys[s]a Chomsowa (“Dionizy”) from the SD [Stronnictwo Demokratyczne – ed.], the Secretary was Justyna Wolfowa (“Justyna”) from the PPS-WRN [Polska Partia Socjalistyczna – Wolność, Równość, Niepodległość – ed.]. They worked closely with Artur Kopacz of the SD, Marian and Adam Pokryszko and Marian Wnuk. A group of Lwów democratic intellectuals focused around the Council. Working conditions in this area were particularly difficult due, not only to the threat from the Germans, but also from the Ukrainian nationalists.
We present the stories of Council members, its structure, its activity methods, memorials in Poland and Israel, as well as memorabilia from POLIN Museum collection.
According to Council liaison officer Janina Raabe-Wąsowiczow (pseudonym “Ewa”, 1905–1966), whose husband was also a painter, the Wnuk couple were helping Jews even before the establishment of the Lwów branch of “Żegota”: “I arrived at the Wnuks' in Lwów [in Movember 1942 – ed.]. It turned out that they were also caring for people. I recruited them for social rescue work, thus laying the foundations for the Council in Lwów”. In 1996, Józefa Wnuk wrote about the beginnings of that institutional activity:
The favourable conditions of our premises, with an entry point through the attic to the roof, allowed us to set up a contact point for “Żegota” […]. Marek Arczyński, Ewa Wąsowicz and Przemysław Ogrodziński came to us from the Warsaw headquarters. They brought various documents sent from London and, with us, established the Lwów branch of “Żegota”.
Recalling her and her husband's helping activities, she wrote:
Each of us had a role. Mine was to create papers, first for Jewish friends who, at any time, could be subjected to a round-up or a personal search. And so, Nacht became “Samborski”, Streng became “Włodarski”, Herman became “Czermak”. Many others searched for real records in various parishes and prepared biographies. […] Marian [Wnuk – ed.] looked for suitable housing around Lwów and also scouted the area. Together with Staszek Teissey, he established contact with various parishes where, before the War, Staszek had painted the churches. This was done in order to find families who would agree to take in children. The Council set aside money for this purpose. Ogrodziński, who was the Treasurer, brought it and hid it in a chest in our attic. Marian and Staszek also entered the ghetto to visit families whom they knew from before the war.
Thanks to the Wnuk couple and their Lwów “Żegota” co-workers Janusz and Jadwiga Strzałecki and Maria Jarochowska, those whom they extracted from the ghetto included painters Jonasz Stern (1904–1988) and Artur Nacht (1898–1974). The first was sent to Romania in the guise of a Hutsul peasant. Over the following years, the other hid in the vicinity of Warsaw as “Stefan Samborski” and, in 1956, he officially changed his name to “Stefan Artur Nacht-Samborski”.
Józefa recalled that he was their friend from before the German occupation of Lwów, when he had to carry out work for the West Ukrainian Union of Fine Artists – mainly gigantic portraits of Soviet leaders. As she recalled, while he was painting one of them, “he put his eyes [those of Andriej Żdanow] at totally different levels”. He also painted in the ghetto and one of several paintings created at that time, entitled “Still Life With Kettle and Picture” (1942), is on display in the Core Exhibition of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Other members of his family were also extracted from the Lwów ghetto.
Read the story of Wanda Kwiatkowska-Biernacka who, with Józefa Wnuk's help, led Artur Nacht's father, Juliusz (Joel), out of the Lwów ghetto and took him to Warsaw.
After a year of underground activity, the Wnuk couple were betrayed and, faced with the threat of the Gestapo, they moved to Warsaw:
Our downfall came in May 1944. We received an order from Ogrodziński to leave the apartment immediately and to hide because that address had been revealed. Marian immediately left for Warsaw, to friends [among them being painter Jan Cybis – ed.] and, for another week, I stayed in the Teissey home.
Then, in June, in Warsaw:
I rented a small room in Mariensztat [the district of Warsaw – ed.]. I registered with the Twardo family (ex-wojewoda of Warsaw) that I am in Warsaw [Stanisław and Wanda Twardo lived at 69 Filtrowa 69, Apt.8. This was one of the main contact points for Warsaw “Żegota” – ed.]. By telephone, I arranged to meet Marian in the city and we were so happy that neither of us had been arrested. But Marian thought that, for safety reasons, we should not live together. However, he would come to me for dinners and even brought a board on which he produced carvings – small, but very beautiful.
The importance of the permeating contacts amongst Council to Aid Jews activists is attested to by other fragments of Janina Raabe-Wąsowiczowa's memoirs. These indicate that, at that time, Marian Wnuk also contributed to the establishment of the “Żegota” printing-house in Warsaw:
Our printing-house, which later played an important role in the activities of the Council to Aid Jews and the Jewish National Committee, was located in a building at 41 Nowy Świat Street. It was in quite an unlikely spot – in amongst the cookware of Marian Gołajewski (“Marian”), who […] was hiding Jews in his home and who, for this reason, had serious problems. We met through painter Marian Wnuk. I put “Marian” in contact with Marek Arczyński (“Marek”). “Marek” looked at the property […] and decided that, in such a favourable spot, a printing-house could be established.
Read the story of Andrzej Klimowicz who, at 41 Nowy Świat Street, ran a vulcanisation plant – a meeting place for the Council to Aid Jews “Żegota” .
In August 1944, Józefa Wnuk took part in the Warsaw Uprising as a messanger and canal guide. After the fall of the Uprising, Marian was deported to Germany for work. Józefa wrote, “It was only in June 1945 […] that he returned from the depths of Germany, where he had worked in Bavaria and had been liberated by the Americans”.
After the War, the Wnuk couple settled at Polish seaside where, together with Strzałecki and Nacht-Samborski, they established the State Higher School of Fine Arts in Sopot (now the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk). Józefa ran the Fabric Workshop of the Department of Painting. She worked on the reconstruction of the Old Town and Town Hall of Gdańsk. Marian was a professor and Rector of the university from 1947 to 1949. He then moved to Warsaw where he took the Chair of Sculpture at the Academy of Graphic Arts (from 1957, again Fine Arts). In 1950, he was elected as Dean of the factulty and in 1951–1954 and 1959–1967, he served as Rector. His creations included the “Gratitude to the Soviet Army” monument in Gdynia (1953), Władysław Broniewski's bas-relief monument in the Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw (1962) and the Father Józef Poniatowski monument in Leipzig (1963). The places where his work has been exhibited include Belgrade, Bratislava, Budapest, Bucharest, Moscow, Paris and Sofia.
In 1996, in a posthumous exhibition of a cross-section of his works, Professor Adam Myjak wrote:
Today, to us, Marian Wnuk is a legend. Despite the passage of time, we refer more and more to our memories of him. He was a charismatic personality, who had a huge impact on the contemporary atmosphere of the artistic environment. […] Many great artists have gathered at the Academy. He developed several generations of students who, today, have become outstanding artists.
Other Stories of Rescue in the Area
- Kreisberg Maria
- Kuron Henryk
- The Kurek family
- Czuruk Boleslaw
- The Witz family
- Weigl Rudolf Stefan
- Dąbrowski Władysław
- Rozycki Wladyslaw
- Czerniecki Stanislaw
- The Szeptycki Family
- The Brzozowicz Family
- Rotter Helena
- Wieth Irmgard
- The Jurek Family
- The Ojak Family
- The Ojak Family
- The Debski Family
- The Dymek and Kolano Family
- Klymko Jan
- The Czolowski Family
- Siwek Antonina
- Sobol Jozefa
- The Roziewicz Family
- The Kuras Family
- The Szczygiel Family
- Choms Wladyslawa
- Socha Leopold
- Prusakowa-Patkowska Aniela
- Kuryluk Karol
- Wegrzynowicz Remigiusz
- The Jakubowski Family
- The Bieliński Family
- Huszcz Maria