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“We all cried terribly”. The Story of Eugeniusz Szyfner

During World War II, Józef Szyfner and his wife Katarzyna (née Migut) lived in Chorzelów (Podkarpackie Province) where, from 1939, their eldest son Eugeniusz (1922-2017) worked as a groom and then as the caretaker of the estate of Karol Stanisław Tarnowski. The property included a distillery and a brewery, with an airfield and an army barracks nearby.

As Eugeniusz Szyfner recalls: “There were many Germans roaming around our house. They would often come to us for coffee. At that time, sugar was in short supply everywhere. But my mother would make a sweet syrup from beet sugar. They really liked our coffee. I counted on the fact that the Germans wouldn't think that anyone would have the courage to hide Jews under their noses”.

In 1942, when the Germans began liquidating the ghetto in nerearby Mielec, Katarzyna Szyfner gave shelter to Maksymilian Gross, the five-member Heller family and to Dawid and Matylda Zuckerbrodt. She did so without the knowledge of her husband who, fearing for his family's safety, was against taking such actions. When, one day, he discovered the presence of those hidden in their home, he pretended that he had seen nothing.

Their son Eugeniusz was also involved. He prepared a hiding-place in the hen-house and then in the attic of the family home. Years later, he recalled: “Why did I take such a risk? On 13th September 1939, when I was seventeen-years-old, someone told me that the Germans had burned Jews inside the Mielec synagogue. I didn't believe it. How can people be burned alive? I walked the seven kilometres and came to that place. Horrified, I could say that it was true. I decided, then, that I had to save everyone who knocked at my door”.

With difficulty, the Szyfner family fed those in hiding: “I obtained vegetables from nearby plantations. When I was working in the granary, I'd often hide wheat in my pants to make flour. My mother would make bread from it for those in hiding. Sometimes, I would give them my own food. I carried it in a special bucket with a double bottom. I put peelings on the top to look as though I was taking food for the pigs”.

Years later, Maksymilian Gross wrote: “In those difficult times for me, sought after by the Gestapo and gendarmerie, Eugeniusz Szyfner and his family extended their selfless help to me, caring for me and feeding me, at the risk of the death penalty. I note that, previously, I knew neither Eugeniusz Szyfner nor his family, that the help for which I owe my life was extended to me for purely humanitarian reasons, with the desire to save the life of someone persecuted by German tormentors”.

Dawid and Matylda Zuckerbrodt hid their daughter elsewhere, Eugeniusz Szyfner reports: “I promised that I would find her. For half a year, I looked for her. In the end, with the help of money and several gifts, I reached a man who had allegedly killed her. 'Allegedly', because he would not confess to it. I told him, 'I'll give you a lot of money if you'll only tell me where you buried her'. (…) He showed me the place. I dug up her remains, paid him and took the box to Kraków. The Zuckerbrodt couple were no longer hiding with us. It was the end of the War. The first Russian patrols had appeared. We all cried terribly”.

Those in hiding in the Szyfner home survived to see the end of the War, but Jankiel Heller was murdered in August 1945 when he returned to Mielec. After the War, Maksymilian Gross settled in Warsaw, while Dawid and Matylda Zuckerbrodt emigrated to Great Britain. Over several years, they remained in contact with the Szyfner family.

On 6th November 1996, Eugeniusz Szyfner and his mother, Katarzyna, were honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. On 17th March 2016, in Łańcut Castle, Eugeniusz was awarded the Commander's Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta by the Polish President.

Eugeniusz Szyfner said: “If I had to risk my life again, I'd do it without hesitation, because what I was taught at home and what I have taught my three daughters is to respect life and others”.

Thank you to Paweł Wal, a teacher at the Technical School in Mielec for sharing material about the Szyfner family, upon which this story is based.

Bibliography

  • Gutman Israel red. nacz., Księga Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, Ratujący Żydów podczas Holocaustu, Kraków 2009
  • Wal Paweł, Eugeniusz Szyfner – mielecki „Sprawiedliwy Wśród Narodów Świata”, „Nawisłocze” 2016, nr 47-48
  • Szyfner Eugeniusz, Wspomnienia, [maszynopis], Mielec 2016