Jan Szelc's Story

Jan Szelc was born in 1928 in Uwisła. He grew up in Kopyczyńce (Tarnopolskie Province) in a community of over 3,000 people, comprising Poles, Ukrainians and Jews. Following the USSR's attack on Poland in 17th September 1939, Jan's father (a pre-War policeman), his brother and uncle were arrested and were never seen again. In 1940, their families were deported to Siberia. Jan, his mother and his aunt managed to avoid being deported by hiding in the home of Ukrainian friends. Two of Jan grandparents also remained in the settlement of Emilówka, near Kopyczyńce -  Maria i Emil Dobrucki, his mother's parents, well-to-do farmers.

The Germans established the Kopyczyńce ghetto in the autumn of 1942. Home in the vicinity of the synagogue were deserted. In 1943, the majority of the Jews were sent to the death camp in Bełżec, others were simply shot. Countless others hid in the woods and in homes.

In 1942, a seven-member Jewish family (parents with their children) turned to the Szelc for help. They almost certainly came from central Poland. They had fled eastwards seeking shelter. Jan's mother and aunt arranged a hiding place for the family in a house deserted by Jews on ul. Kolejowa, nearby the synagogue. The hiding place, which was entered through the basement, was lined with boards and hay. The work of digging it was carried out secretly at night, even though almost no one lived in the surrounding neighbourhood. The excavated dirt was spread over gardens and then covered with leaves.

Jan's mother took charge of feeding the family. She would usually cook borscht, potatoes and buckwheat groats. His aunt, a midwife by profession, brought onions, garlic, honey, dripping and  moonshine which she had obtained, in part, in return for her services in the nearby villages. Jan helped by digging up potatoes and other vegetables. Whilst in hiding, the Jewish family in hiding grew and Jan's aunt helped look after the new-born.

The hardest time was in the winter of 1944, when Ukrainian terror increased. The streets filled with those fleeing from nearby villages plundered by units of the UPA. Leaving the town could result in death. Obtaining basic food products became a problem. However the Szelc family did not tell the Jews of the dangers and of the difficult situation. They did not wish to worsen their state of mind. At that time, Szelc also joined the Home Army as a courier, guide and supplier of food.

Szelc's grandparents also helped Jews - they provided food to Jewish friends who were hiding in the woods owned by Count Baurowski. These Jews had escaped execution at the edge of the forest, where the Germans were shooting dozens of people from the Kopyczyńce ghetto. Jan Szelc witnessed these crimes committed in May or June 1942.

While staying with his grandparents in Emilówka, Jan became involved in an aid operation - he took food to Jews which had been prepared by his grandmother - usually bread and milk. In winter, he took advantage of the falling snow to hide any tracks leading to the hiding place.

Despite all the secrecy, the Germans, searching for escaped Jews, found the hiding place in the woods and shot the whole Jewish family on the spot. Soon after, in fear of being attacked by Ukrainians, Szelc's grandparents left their farm and moved in with Jan, his mother and aunt, together with the Jews hiding there - in the home in Kopyczyńce, on ul. Kolejowa.

All survived to see the Soviet army enter on 28th March 1944. Fearing a sudden change in the location of the front in nearby Tarnopol, the Jews remained in hiding for a few days. They emerged from their hiding place extremely exhausted - leaning against the walls, they learned to walk again.

After the War, Jan was deported into the depths of the USSR from where, after a certain time, he escaped. He returned to his home town, but the Jews had already left. Their fate thereafter is unknown.

in the 1970's, at the bottom of a trunk belonging to his deceased grandmother, Jan Szelc found an icon of the Holy Mother of Częstochowa, dating back to 1935. On the reverse was a hidden large-format portrait. In all probability, it was the Jewish family whom the Szelc and Dobrucki families had helped during World War II. The portrait has been added to the POLIN Museum's collection.