The Wyrzykowski Family
They Helped Jews Who Survived Pogroms in Jedwabne and Szczuczyn - the Story of the Karwowski and Wyrzykowski Families
From the autumn of 1942, for twenty-eight months, in the village of Janczewko (Łomża District), the Karwowski and Wyrzykowski families extended help to eight Jews, among them being Szmul Wasersztejn, who had survived the Jedwabne pogrom (10th July 1941). After the War, the Wyrzykowski family was stigmatised, experiencing dislike and hostility from those around them.
“They helped us a great deal during the Nazi occupation. If not for them, we would not have survived the War. [...] Following liberation, other Poles found out about it [...] and were angry with them. The Wyrzykowski family had to leave their farm and look for another place”, wrote a Jewish Holocaust survivor in a report to the Yad Vashem Institute in 1964.
The Karwowski and Wyrzykowski Families From Janczewko
Janczewko is a village four kilometres from Jedwabne. It was there that Aleksander and Antonina Wyrzykowski had their farm. Living with them were their children, Antoni and Helena, and Antonina's parents, Franciszek and Józefa Karwowski.
In the summer of 1941, following the invasion of the USSR by the Third Reich, Janczewko and the surrounding area found itself under German occupation. Soviet repressions were then followed by mass German crimes, with ghettos and forced labour camps for Jews being established. The Łomża and neighbouring Białystok regions fell victim to pogroms carried out with the participation of the local populace. These took place on 27th-28th June in Szczuczyn, on 5th July in Wąsosz, on 7th July in Radziłów and on 10th July in Jedwabne.
“After the burning of Jews in a barn, my husband saw Szmulek sitting on the steps of his house. He asked him if he would like to come to work with us because, at that time, you could hire Jews and pay the Germans for them. Straight away, Szmul jumped onto the wagon”, recalled Antonina Wyrzykowska, years later, in an interview with reporter and writer, Anna Bikont.
Szmul Wasersztejn moved into the Wyrzykowski home. He helped them working in the fields and brokered trading with, among others, those locked up inside the Łomża ghetto.
At the beginning of November 1942, the Germans began the extermination of the Jews of Łomża and the surrounding towns. Fugitives from the Łomża ghetto appeared at the Wyrzykowski family home – Berek and Mosze Olszewicz. They had also survived the Jedwabne murders in 1941.
Hiding Places Under the Cowshed and Henhouse – Jews Hiding on the Wyrzykowski Farm
On the Wyrzykowski property, the Olszewicz brothers built two hiding places – one under the cowshed and the other under the henhouse. Both were camouflaged so well that, initially, even the Wyrzykowski family could not find them. Szmul Wasersztejn also lived the hideout. Later, other ghetto fugitives began arriving – from Szczuczyna, Moszek's fiancée Elka Sosnowska, Izrael Grądowski, Jankiel Kubrzański with Lea whom he married in 1942, Izrael Grądowski who was over fifty-years-old and fourteen-year-old Berek. The others, who were hiding, were in their twenties.
For some time, Grądowski's cousin (whose name is today unknown) also hid with them. He was exhausted and sick after being in a forced labour camp. After a few days there, he died. (According to another account, it was after half a year.) At night, Aleksander Wyrzykowski buried him in a field near the village of Kownaty.
Living conditions in the hideouts were tragic. Those in hiding had to remain lying down all the time. They lacked space, light, fresh air and water. They were affected by vermin, dripping slurry and manure gasses. The problem was dealing with their psychological needs and maintaining hygiene.
“We entered through an opening. We were then locked up. A trough was set up, with straw and manure scattered about so that nothing could be seen. Above us was pig trough. [...] At night, we pushed up the covering and dug away the manure. Then we went out for a while to toilet and to get some fresh air. Later, we returned and our tracks were covered over”, recalled Szmul Wasersztejn.
One of the women in hiding, under the pig trough, became pregnant. Under these conditions, it would have been impossible to raise a child. In addition, the child's crying would expose everyone to denunciation. Immediately after the child was born, the father suffocated it. For the seond time, Aleksander had to bury a body.
The Wyrzykowski family had to support Antonina's parents and their own two children. From 1942, they also had to feed the Jews in hiding. Despite the rationing of food, the obligation to provide Germany with ‘quotas’, for two years, they shared their food with their seven ‘tenants’, who were deprived of all money. The baking of larger quantities of bread and greater portions of cooking aroused dangerous interest from neighbours. Antonina delivered food to those in hiding under the guise of feeding the animals.
Threats While Helping the Jews From the German Invader and the Polish Neighbours
The Jews in hiding, together with their hosts, were not just exposed to repressions from the Germans. Janczewko was located in an area which, during the inter-War period, was under the strong influence of the Endecja [National Deomcratic Party] – a political movement which promoted nationalist, xenophobic and antisemitic slogans. So that, in the summer of 1941, some of the local population took an active part in the pogroms against their Jewish neighbours. The threat was increased when German military gendarmes were billetted on the Wyrzykowski farm. For the Jews, this meant an even greater limitation on their already limited exits from their hiding places.
One day, as the result of denunciation, four gendarmes came to the Wyrzykowski family. They accused the farmers of hiding Jews.
“They stood me up against a wall. One aimed a rifle at me and ordered me to hand over the Jews. [...] They said, if I handed them over, I would be unharmed and that they would only shoot the Jews”, Aleksander Wyrzykowski wrote in 1962.
The Wyrzykowski family did not admit to hiding the ghetto fugitives. The gendarmes conducted a search and found no one.
In 1944, when the front reached Janczewko, shelters were set up in the field due to the risk of buildings being burned. The Jews lived there for six months, until 23rd January 1945, when the village was occupied by the Red Army. Shortly after, they left Janczewko. Only Szmul Wasersztejn remained with the Wyrzykowski family.
“Tell me where you have a Jew!” – the Wyrzykowski Home is Robbed
On the night of 13th March 1945, several armed men entered the Wyrzykowski home. According to a Security Office [UB] report, they were members of the Civic Home Army [Armia Krajowa Obywatelska] – a local formation of the Polish anti-communist underground which operated, after the War, in places such as the Białystok Province. Szmul Wasersztejn hid. Aleksander Wyrzykowski fled in the hope that the attackers would spare his wife. However, they began beating her, demanding that she giveup Wasersztejn.
“They beat her so badly that there was no part of her body that wasn't bruised. ‘You Jewish henchmen hid Jews and they were who crucified Jesus!’”, Antonina Wyrzykowska later recounted.
After the attack, Szmul Wasersztejn and the Wyrzykowski family had to flee from their home village. First, they were sheltered by Olszewicz and Kubrzański, who were in Łomża at that time. Then the Wyrzykowski family reached Białystok. Antonina, together with the previously-hidden Jews, left for Austria. However, she decided to return to her husband and children whom she had left behind in Poland. They settled in Bielsk Podlaski, on a farm purchased for them with money donated by Szmul Wasersztejn's brother, who had emigrated to Cuba before the War.
Argentina, the United States, Costa Rica – the Emigration of Jewish Holocaust Survivors
After the front passed, Izrael Grądowski moved back into his family home in Jedwabne. He changed his name to Józef, was baptised and married a Polish woman. He ran a funeral home. In the trials regarding the pogrom in Jedwabne, he once testified in defence of its participants and, at other times, he incriminated them. He died in 1972 and was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery in Jedwabne.
The others in hiding did not see their future in Poland. Following their stay in Białystok, they left for Austria and Italy, where they stayed in refugee camps.
Eventually, Berek, Mosze and Elka settled in Argentina, while Jankiel and Lea settled in the United States. (After emigration, they changed their surname to Kubran and Jankiel became Jack).
Szmul Wasersztejn settled in Cuba and, after the revolution of the 1950s, he moved to Costa Rica. His testimony, given in April 1945 to the Jewish Historical Commission in Białystok, became one of the key pieces of evidence into the Jedwabne pogrom. Wasersztejn's memoirs are contained in the book La Denuncia. 10 de Julio 1941.
Social Stigmatisation of Poles Who Saved Jews – the Post-War Fate of the Karwowski and Wyrzykowski Families
After the War, the lives of the Wyrzykowski family did not go well. According to some accounts, also in Bielsk Podlaski, they encountered social stigma for hiding Jews during the Holocaust. This was the result of antisemitism in their surrounding area.
“What Wyrzykowski family is now suffering is only because they hid us. We help them as much as we can and provide them with what they ask of us. Buit it is not in our power to reward them for what the did for us for no money”, wrote Jack and Lea Kubran to Yad Vashem in 1964.
Józefa Karwowska died in 1946 and her husband, Franciszek, died twelve years later. In the 1960s, the Wyrzykowski family moved to Milanówek, near Warsaw. Both worked as school caretakers. Aleksander died in 1972. Following his death, with the help of Jack and Lea Kubran, Antonina left for the United States.
Across the ocean, Antonina married twice, but both relationships ended in divorced. She maintained contact with the surviving Jews. She was with Szmul Wasersztejn at the time of his death in 2000. Towards the end of her life, she returned to Poland, but she was afraid to talk about the help she had provided to Jews – too often, she was met with antisemitic comments. She died in Milanówek in 2011.
“I believe that, today, there is some Mrs Wyrzykowska saving people in Usnarz Górny” – the Memory of the Righteous Among the Nations from Janczewko
In the 1960s, the Holocaust Survivors applied to Yad Vashem for the Wyrzykowski family to be honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
“All the time, the Wyrzykowski family [...], for no financial reward, hid us, because we had escaped from the Łomża ghetto with no money and no clothes and they would give us their last piece of bread”, from the letter sent by the Olszewicz brothers to Yad Vashem.
On 19th January 1976, the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem honoured Aleksander and Antonina Wyrzykowski with the title of Righteous Among the Nations while, on 21st November 1993, that same honour was bestowed posthumously upon Franciszek and Józefa Karwowski.
In 2001, the Mayor of Jedwabne, Krzysztof Godlewski, proposed naming the local school in honour of Antonina Wyrzykowska. However, that proposaal was rejected by the City Councillors. In 2007, Antonina Wyrzykowska was honoured by the Polish President, Lech Kaczyński, with the Commander's Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta. Her character and her story are described in detail by Anna Bikont in the book My z Jedwabnego [We, From Jedwabne].
In September 2021, in the Warsaw Garden of the Righteous, a memorial stone was unveiled honouring Antonina Wyrzykowska. During the ceremony, Konstanty Gebert recalled her biography, relating it to the humanitarian crisis on the Poland-Belarus border, happening at the time:
“I believe that, today, in Usnarz Górny, there is some Mrs Wyrzykowska, about whom we will never know, saving people. She is saving them, despite what the authorities say, contrary to what those in uniform are doing, contrary to what her neighbours think – who mostly agree with the authorities that ‘we do not need strangers here.’ I am deeply convinced that, somewhere, there is a Mrs Wyrzykowska who, in secret, keeps them under a pigsty, in a barn and who takes them along side roads to some place where they will be allowed to live.”
- Archiwum Instytutu Yad Vashem w Jerozolimie, Departament Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, Akta Franciszka i Józefy Karwowskich, M.31.2/5756
- Archiwum Instytutu Yad Vashem w Jerozolimie, Departament Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, Akta Aleksandra i Antoniny Wyrzykowskich, M.31.2/1011
- Archiwum Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego w Warszawie, Zbiór relacji Żydów ocalałych z Zagłady, Relacje Aleksandra Wyrzykowskiego, Józefa Grądowskiego i in., sygn. 301/5825
- Archiwum Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego w Warszawie, Zbiór relacji Żydów ocalałych z Zagłady, Relacja Aleksandra Wyrzykowskiego, sygn. 301/6064
- Bikont Anna, My z Jedwabnego, Warszawa 2004
- Sąsiedzi, Agnieszka Arnold, Telewizja Polska - Agencja Filmowa (dla Programu 2), 2001, Poland, Documentary film, 117 min
This film tells the story of the Jedwabne pogrom. It also tells the story of Antonina Wyrzykowska, Righteous Among the Nations, who hid seven Jews. Sadly, after the War, Wyrzykowska had to move home due to being repeatedly persecuted for providing that help. The film also tells of other rescuers, including Leon Dziedzic and Stanisław Ramotowski.
- Waserstein Kahn Samuel, Monestel Arce Yehudi, La Denuncia: 10 de julio de 1941, San José 2001
- Machcewicz Paweł, Persak Krzysztof (red.), Wokół Jedwabnego, t.1 (Studia), t.2 (Dokumenty), Warszawa 2002