The Leszczynski Family

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When the Germans came in sleighs. The Story of the Leszczyński family

During the German occupation, the Leszczyński family of five people living in Bocianka helped 13 Jews – fugitives from the ghetto in nearby Siemiatycze (Podlaskie Province), which was liquidated by the Germans. From November 1942 to July 1944, Polish hosts provided them with shelter and shared food.


“I remember everything we experienced, and I will never forget [it – ed.]. These 24 months [are] always with me. There are not many people like the Leszczyński family. […] At our home over the bed there was a photo of your beloved mommy [Anna Leszczyńska] and every evening my father talked with that photo” – Estera Feldman, one of the persons who survived the Holocaust with the help of the Leszczyński family, wrote after the war.

Feldman, Fuchs and Grodzicki Families from Siemiatycze

Miller Benjamin Feldman was one of the best-known Jews in Siemiatycze before World War II. When on 2 November 1942, the Germans began liquidating the ghetto, he escaped from the town, along with his wife Liba and four children: Estera, Szoszana, Szlomo and Szachna. The escapees were joined by Beniamin’s brother-in-law – a shochet Beniamin Fuchs, carrying a daughter – Cypora – wrapped in a blanket. His wife Szyfra and daughter Bluma remained in the ghetto.

At that time, the tanner Szlomo Mordka Grodzicki chose a different way of rescue. Together with his wife Rojzka, daughter Rachel and children from the first marriage, Miriam and Mosze, decided to dig a hideout at the house. The Grodzicki family locked themselves in the shelter and at night they, one at a time, came out of hiding trying to get food. However, in early December, just after the Hanukkah festival, they decided to leave the hideout and split up. Miriam and Mosze intended to get to the partisans operating in the area, while Szlomo Mordka together with Rojzka and Rachel decided to seek shelter at their former Polish clients.

The Leszczyński Family from Bocianka

Bocianka is a hamlet with only a few houses, located east of Siemiatycze, next to a forest. During the German occupation, Bolesław Leszczyński, his wife Anna née Malinowski, and the children Franciszek, Józef and Stanisław lived there and ran a farm. Bolesław also worked as a veterinarian.

In November 1942, Feldman and Fuchs families and then Szlomo Mordka, Rojzka and Rachel Grodzicki reached Leszczyński family and asked for help. A few days later, by an unusual coincidence, Miriam and Moshe also knocked on the same door. The Polish family had known them before the war. In an interview given in 2010 to POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Stanisław Leszczyński recalled the Grodzicki family:

“They were very hardworking people and professional, and very good shoemakers. They visited houses. They came to a house to made shoes, sheepskin coats, leather [...] they did everything themselves. They walked around the villages. A sack on the back and off they go – there was all they had”. 

In Darkness and Constant Fear. Leszczyński’s Help for Jews

The Leszczyński family sheltered Jews at their farm. Although it was out of the way, it was necessary to keep strict secrecy. The Grodzicki family stayed in a mow upstairs, masked with hay. They communicated in whispers, they received provisions in a bucket pulled on a string. The Feldman and Fuch families were initially kept in a potato mound.

The hosts were aware that hiding Jews meant a death sentence. They kept the secret so much that they did not tell Grodzicki about Feldman. Only by accident did both families learn about each other.

The uncertainty of tomorrow, the awareness of the fact that Germans murdered Jewish relatives and neighbours, the news about ongoing captures and killing of Jews in the provinces, affected the state of mind of those in hiding. Shlomo Mordka tried to kill himself. His wife Rojza saved his life by cutting off the rope on which he was already hanging in the barn.

Two Dugouts in a Forest. Living Conditions in the Hideout

In the spring of 1943, when the hay supply ran out, another hideout had to be found. Two dugouts were dug in a small forest, a few hundred meters from Leszczyński’s farm. Stanisław Leszczyński recalled:

“A trench was dug, it was almost 1.5 meters deep and thick trees were laid on top, and then these trees were covered with straw and showered with sand. And then leaves and branches were laid on top of it. There was only one such entrance for them to get in”.

In comparison with the mow full of hay, living conditions deteriorated considerably, but the dugout gave a chance to survive. Miriam would write years later: “We lay like sardines.” The inhabitants of the dugouts suffered from cold, humidity, lack of water and light, and lack of movement. 

The food consisted of small portions of potatoes, potato soup and bread. Some of the food was passed by former partner of Benjamin Feldman. The dry palate was tried to “cheat” by sucking thin plaques. Head lice was the problem. As Cypora recalled: 

“We sat, held hands and prayed, thanking God for the miracle that although we were starving and sick, broken and afraid, we were still alive”. 

The Germans and Polish Neighbours. Moments of Danger

Jews in hiding were threatened with denunciation. Sometimes peasants walked through the woods. The mishap almost happened during a hunt organized by the Germans. Stanisław was an eyewitness to the event: 

“We started to cut the straw into the chaff, my father was loading the straw into the chopper, and I hurried the horse round the treadmill. At one point I look, and on the road that ran by our farm there are six sleighs with Germans. I heard screams and saw a German skiing down the hill and a dog running in front of him, heading for the dugout where the Feldman family was.

The entrance to the dugout was covered with branches as a disguise, and the dog ran around and sniffed the branches, stuck his head in them. At that moment I froze. I thought we would all die. At that time, the horse walked around and hit me under my knees with the drawbar. I fell. My fall caused a burst of laughter among the Germans. The dog also reacted to the laughter of his masters – it jumped away from the branches covering the entrance to the dugout and ran to the sleigh.”

On another day, two Poles attacked those in hiding. By beating and blackmailing, they tried to force the disclosure of the alleged storage place of valuables. However, Grodzicki and Feldman families had no money. The attackers murdered Benjamin Fuchs and left. The body of the dead was buried near the dugout (according to another version, Benjamin Fuchs died of starvation because he refused to eat non-kosher food).

Coming out of Hiding an Attempting to Restore Life after the Holocaust

On July 22, 1944, Siemiatycze was taken over by the Red Army. Jews could finally leave their hideouts. After months of living in extremely difficult conditions, everyone was emaciated. 

“Poor father, he couldn’t even stand. We all looked like skeletons, but Moshe found enough strength to carry father on his back. When we came to the Leszczyński’s home, they were glad that we managed to survive the war”, Miriam remembered.

The Grodzicki family returned to Siemiatycze, where they met only a few dozen Jews. However, they couldn’t find peace. In addition to being aware of life among the ashes, of being the last of the pre-war community of over 4,300 people, they experienced hostility and aggression. When the Grodzicki’s house was attacked in spring 1945, they left for Częstochowa, and after the Kielce pogrom moved to Łódź, where they ran a tanning workshop.

In gratitude for the help during the war, they taught Józef, the middle son of the Leszczyński family, their craft. In November 1946, after three months of learning, Józef went home, where he was arrested and accused of belonging to the Freedom and Independence organisation. A military court sentenced him to death, the sentence was carried out. The Grodzicki family came to Białystok to save Józef, however they were unable to help him.

Eventually, Szlomo Mordka and his wife Rojzka emigrated to Palestine, and their children settled in the United States. The Feldman family with Cypora also left Poland. After a stay in a refugee camp in Ostia, Italy, they arrived in Palestine. In 1955, Cypora moved to the United States. 

Post-War Contacts of the Holocaust Survivors with the Leszczyński Family

As the families of the surviving Jews gradually emigrated from Poland, contacts with the Leszczyński family loosened. In 1953, Stanisław Leszczyński asked Michał Grodzicki to interrupt correspondence – he was afraid that receiving letters from abroad could expose him to repression from the Department of Security.

The relationship was renewed in 1989, at the time when Stanisław Leszczyński was the last living member of the family. The help granted in the years of the Holocaust was not forgotten. In 1998, Estera wrote to Stanisław:

“I remember everything we’ve experienced and will never forget [it]. These 24 months [are] always with me. There are not many people like the Leszczyński family. I have no words to describe what kind of people Mr. and Mrs. Leszczyński were. They were in danger and they hid us. It is a pity that they are no longer with us. At our house over the bed there was a photo of your beloved mommy [Anna Leszczyńska] and every evening my father talked with that photo. Since the death of my parents, I have this photo in my bedroom and it reminds me of those times. For me, the Leszczyński family is my closest family”.

On 18 November 1997, the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem honoured Bolesław and Anna Leszczyński and their children: Franciszek, Józef and Stanisław, with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. In 2014, Stanisław Leszczyński was also made an honorary citizen of the State of Israel.

Bibliography

  • Archiwum Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego w Warszawie, Dział Dokumentacji Odznaczeń Yad Vashem; Dokumenty Bolesława i Anny Leszczyńskich, 349/2361
  • Archiwum Instytutu Yad Vashem w Jerozolimie, Relacja Ester Amir, O.3/7531
  • Strączek Ignacy, 15.02.2010
  • USC Shoah Foundation Institute, Relacja Cipory Katz, 01194
  • USC Shoah Foundation Institute, Relacja Miriam Kuperhand, 50632
  • USC Shoah Foundation Institute, Relacja Szoszany Sapirstein, 24839
  • Engelking Barbara, Grabowski Jan (oprac.), Dalej jest noc. Losy Żydów w wybranych powiatach okupowanej Polski, t. 1, Warszawa 2018
  • Kuperhand Miriam, Kuperhand Saul, Shadows of Treblinka, Urbana–Chicago 1998