The Friendship between Helena and Toni

This story was sent to POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews by Agnieszka Samsonowicz. It is about the help her grandmother, Helena Samsonowicz, gave to her Jewish friend Toni Stransky, during the Holocaust, in Gorlice (Małopolskie Province). Toni's original letters have been added here. They were sent to Helena around 1942 and 1945.

Helena Samsonowicz (née Stabach) and Toni Stransky (we do not know her maiden name) met before the war during the name-day celebrations of a mutual friend. They both lived in Gorlice - Helena with her parents and siblings, Toni with her mother and two brothers. Their carefree, youthful years were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II – at the time, they were both seventeen-years-old.

Together with her mother and aunt, Toni ended up in the Gorlice ghetto [established in the middle of October 1941 – ed.]. Her brothers had managed to get to the USSR. Her father had emigrated to the United States long before the outbreak of war – the family had planned to eventually join him there. 

In those hard times, Helena Samsonowicz did not forget her best friend. Regardless of the potential danger, she provided Toni with the food, the medicines and the clothing that she needed. They also exchanged short letters.

When the ghetto was liquidated [in August 1942], Toni was sent to a labour camp which was located on the site of a sawmill [“Hobag”, on Korczaka Street]. Unfortunately, this worsened the possibility for Helena to maintain contact and to provide help. Fortunately, it turned out that one of the guards was a Pole whom they both knew and trusted. Through him, Toni received the items she needed. 

With the liquidation of the Gorlice ghetto [after 20th August 1942], Toni, her mother and her aunt, were transported to Muszyna and then to the camp in Auschwitz. Apart from her aunt, who died from typhus, both fortunately survived the war. 

After liberation, for some unknown reason, Toni returned to Gorlice alone. As it turned out, she met up with her mother later at the consulate in Munich. Her brothers also survived the war. In 1945, they all joined her father, emigrating to the United States. There, Toni married Otto Stransky, with whom she had two sons.

In later years, she came to Poland several times, together with her husband, to visit our family. Helena recalled their fist meeting after many years in this manner:

We were working in the garden, when a woman approached us. She was accompanied by a man. I asked if I could help her in some way. To that, the woman replied, “Heluś, if you recognise me, I'll give you a big hug!”. With that, I no longer had any doubt about who that woman was.

In one of her wartime letters, Toni had thanked her for “something” which had helped her to survive that hard time in the ghetto. From Helena's memoirs, we read:

Toni told me that, during a walk, she had found a crucifix lying nearby and took it home as a symbol of what she had received from me in the ghetto and thanks to which she had had the strength to struggle and to survive.

Unfortunately, we have been unable to confirm that the item mentioned in the letter was, in fact, a crucifix.

In later years, Helena and Toni exchanged letters over a long period. Unfortunately, contact was broken in 1994 when Helena suffered an accident – she suffered an injury which caused a significant deterioration in her state of health. Over the following years, she always fondly remembered Toni and the friendship they shared. 

Helena Samsonowicz died on 18th October 2016 at the age of ninety-four. 

In 2017,  journalists from “Gazeta Gorlicka” managed to find Toni Stransky's address. In reply to a letter we sent to her, in December, we received a short reply in which she described her life in recent years. At the end, she wrote, “I will never forget Helena”.

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In 2018, the Samsonowicz family donated memorabilia, relating to the story of Helena Samsonowicz and Toni Stransky, to the collection of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. They include Toni's original letter to Helena, dated around 1942, copies of wartime letters transcribed in 1976, plus an original postcard and letter from 1945. Below, we have published the contents of those three letters and the postcard. The layout and spelling have been updated, underlining has been left as in the originals and square brackets mark additions and illegible fragments. The handwritten materials are presented in the photo gallery above.

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My dearest Helenko!

You are the sweetest girl under the sun. I was so truly happy with “this” [probably a crucifix given to her by Helena], that I almost came close to kissing that man. It seems to me that I'm happier now by half. Maybe, my dear, it will bring me luck and protect me from death. Now we are a little happier – that we're closer to the end than to the beginning. But we're afraid of one thing – that at the end it also on't be our e... but I don't want to write about that anymore, because it will lead me into a deep depression.

Helenko, I would so much like to see you – but if [you] would like to see me, you can see me at the porter's office at 6:30 in the morning and 4:00 in the afternoon in the windows. Every day, before and after work, we have to assemble in rows and they call out our names to make sure no one has run off. You can see us from the walkway, as we are standing right near the gate. If you feel like it, please do it and you'll see how nice it looks – a horse would laugh at it. Would you like to know my daily schedule? Well, I must get up at 5:00 am because, at 6:30 am, I have to be ready for work.

Ah, you can't imagine [what] the work is like. It's simply the agonies of Tantalus – and my hands are no longer what they used to be. After the war, if God will help me survive, I'll be a timber expert. For lunch, at 12:00 noon, we have a break of half an hour, then work with no preak until 4:00 pm […] I don't have to write anymore for you. At 4:00 pm, we return home (to a dog kennel), I'm sorry, to the camp. We the whole camp cleans and washes because, unfortunately, there are no laundresses or maids. Later, we wash ourselves and go to sleep on our mattresses made from what I don't know out of what. Enough to say that I can't feel my bones after each night. And so, over and over again for 8 weeks.

Tell me, can [that] not drive a normal person into madness? It seems I'll soon go mad. And added to that, we have a boss, a sweet man and his dog tearing at all the Jews […]. Through the whole 8 weeks, we've had only 2 fatal accidents – M. Penczak [?] and another 1, whom we don't know. 

Ah, I'm certainly boring you with my scribbling, but I can't tell anyone else about this. I must speak with Mr Blech, who is our “lager fuhrer” [head of the prisoner section of the camp], for him to arrange it so that I can see you. Did you get the first letter from me via that lady on Saturday and yours on Sunday? Please write to me about everything in detail. Thank you so much for the apples. I kiss you and all my friends with all the strength that I have. Tonka.

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My dear Hela,

Thank you so much and I kiss your dear mother's hands for remembering me – I want to see you with all my heart. I still cherish are holy friendship. In my mind, I often return to our playful days, when we were carefree. Oh God, how my life has changed terribly. I'm simply an old woman, like someone condemned, awaiting sentence – surrounded by barbed wire like a leper. People are not allowed to come near us. All passers-by can only pity us.

Dear Helenko, only God knows how much I want to live. My longing for freedom is physically painful.

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Dear Helenko,

Your letter came as a farewell – in a few minutes, we leave for Muszyna. 

Heluś, you can't imagine the mood I am in. I simply don't want to live – goodbye, maybe, forever. That is now our life. Heluś, pray for us – maybe I'll be saved – I so want to live. I'll write.

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Dear Helenko!

It's not right to reproach me for not writing to you. After all, in response to your first card, I wrote you a comprehensive letter – about everything, just as you wanted. Unfortunately, I'm not having much fun… since you left, I've only been dancing once and we were with Fela in Kraków for a few days, so we had a little fun there. Your brother-in-law's brother passed on your regards to me. He wants to bring me to you. I'd like to take advantage of the opportunity, but in the second week, we return permanently to Gorlice. I'll let you know when I get there. Who knows whether we will get to my father, because there are possibilities. In any case, I will never forget you. I kiss you, Tonka.

[In the margin: “Regards from Felcia”]

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The remaining letters from Helena to Toni, written in 1941–1942, are in the collections of the Holocaust Museum in Washington and the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem.