Memories about Maria Proner (1897–2009)

Maria Proner née Asterblum was the Holocaust survivor, co-worker of Irena Sendler during the war, mother of Janina Goldhar. She lived 111 years, 8 months and 16 days, being one of the oldest people in the world. Read her story in Jadwiga Rytlowa's memories.

Maria Proner née Asterblum was born on 30 October 1897 in Warsaw to an affluent assimilated family of Jewish intelligentsia. On the sumptuous celebration of her 100th anniversary she received congratulations from major celebrities of this world – the presidents of Israel and Poland, and also from Irena Sendlerowa, her long-term friend for several dozen years and collaborator for a few years.

She was a grandma to everybody – not only to her offspring of four generations, but also to their friends, who quickly became her own friends. She lost all of her peer companions: they passed away a long time ago. She was on first-name terms with “the youth” surrounding her: not only with the teenagers of the same age as her great-grandchildren, but also with octogenarians – her daughter’s peers.

She had a marvelous memory: she remembered the whole lot of the 20th century and almost all of the first decade of the 21st century. Always unruffled and witty, she read newspapers and knew what happened in the world even a few months before her death. She had a great ability to adapt herself to the new conditions, and she was always looking on the bright side in every situation. Probably these two abilities contributed mainly to her long, but not always favourable, life.

Her childhood and early youthfulness were carefree and affluent. In spring 1915 she passed her secondary-school examination in the Werecka gymnasium for girls in Warsaw. In autumn of the same year she enrolled at the newly opened University of Warsaw. She graduated in 1942 – she was the first person in the history of the Faculty of Physics, who received the doctor’s degree.

In 1927 Maria married Mieczysław Proner, doctor of chemistry and pharmacy. They both worked at the University. Maria held the position of a senior assistant of the famous professor Pieńkowski, later the vice-chancellor of the University. In 1929 the Proner family welcomed a daughter Jasia. In school, the girl befriended Małgosia Palester. Their parents also made friends: later this new acquaintance was to influence profoundly the fates of Maria and Jasia.

The fate of Maria Proner and her daughter Janina

In September 1939 Mieczysław Proner, who was a reserve officer, was called up. He was taken prisoner and was put in the Soviet prison camp in Starobielsk. Still, his wife was glad that it was not German captivity he was held in.

In 1940 the Germans set up a ghetto in Warsaw. Mrs Proner wanted to take Jasia, her parents and the family of her husband with her and settle there, but the Palesters advised her against it. They offered to take Jasia with them. As a result, Maria decided to stay with Jasia outside the ghetto walls. Mrs Palestrowa helped her to obtain documents on the false name of Pogonowska. She was the same Maria Palestrowa who later, as a member of “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews, took part in rescuing Irena Sendler from the Gestapo’s hands. It was her daughter Małgosia that carried in her knapsack a large sum of money as a bribe for a Gestapo officer.

Maria Proner, together with her daughter Jasia, had been hiding in Warsaw under the name of Pogonowska till the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising. Devoid of any means of support and in spite of her Semitic appearance, Mrs Proner wandered around the city trading in eggs in powder and cigarettes. She was very brave and always took firm steps. It was her only, but successful, defence.

During the Warsaw Uprising Maria and her daughter were taken to the concentration camp in Bunzlau, now Bolesławiec, of course still holding their false documents. Nobody even thought about looking for Jews in this camp. Maria Proner, with her perfect command of the German language, was very helpful in contacting the Germans. Besides German, she also knew French and Russian, and was quite fluent in English.

After the camp liberation, both Proners came back to Warsaw. They found Maria Palestrowa, who had started working for the incipient Institution for Children and the Chronically Sick Persons in Okęcie. Maria Proner-Pogonowska also took up the job in this institution: she did not want to return to her position at the university after a few years’ break. She was of the opinion that she could only regain her mental balance by sticking to the same survivors as her.

Read the story of Maria Palester »

For a long time she believed in her husband’s happy return. She could not find his name on the Katyń lists publicized by Germans. She received the official confirmation of her husband’s death in as late as 1990. Her parents, after their escape from the ghetto, were killed in Warsaw. Her elder sister Stefania left the ghetto too, but after the fall of the Warsaw Uprising she was transported to Germany to work as a forced labourer thanks to her Aryan papers. She died there in the American bombardment.

Until her retirement, Mrs Proner worked in the Orphanage, which was moved from Okęcie to Koło, to a new building raised thanks to both Maria’s efforts. This house still serves its function.

Jasia finished her medical studies and took the position of a senior lecturer at the Medical University. The whole family was now larger thanks to son-in-law Jurek and two granddaughters, Hania and Ewa. In 1968 the girls faced distress and unpleasantness at school, while her parents – at work. The youth decided to emigrate to Israel. Maria, with a heavy heart, determined to go with them – in this way she lost her circle of friends and her independence along with pension and a self-contained apartment.

When they reached Israel, Maria was already 70. Because of her advanced age, she could not take up any job, so she decided to stay with her daughter and her family. And so a long “grand-parenting” over her grandchildren and great-grandchildren started. She learnt Hebrew, but she was not able to raise her great-great-grandchildren – she was already over 111 years old at that time.

She passed away in Israel on 15 July 2009.

She left her daughter Jasia, professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University; granddaughter Hania, an expert in computer programming; granddaughter Ewa, a general practitioner and university lecturer; five great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandsons. And also four sons-in-law: two in the generation of grandchildren and another two among great-grandchildren.

Rescuers of the Proner family

See below list of people who gave help for Maria Proner and her daughter Janina:

and people who have not been honored:

  • Kazimierz Barański
  • Maria Barańska
  • Stefania Chyczewska
  • prof. Stanisław Krauze
  • Helena Lewicka
  • Małgorzata Palester
  • prof. Stefan Pieńkowski
  • Tadeusz Zamłyński
  • Zofia Zamłyńska
  • Janina Ścisłowska