”The most beautiful human acts do not always require publicity” – a story by Felicja Raszkin-Nowak
Felicja Raszkin was born on 23th December 1924 in Warsaw. She lived there with her parents up to the outbreak of World War II. Felicja’s father came from Białystok, where he was ordered by his commander to report in September 1939. Felicja and her mother remained in Warsaw. In November 1939, they managed to get to Białystok via illegal border crossing to join Felicja’s father and his large family. They all lived in Maria Raszkin’s house at 33 Lipowa Street. Maria was Felicja’s grandmother. Felicja knew Białystok quite well. She had many friends there since she used to spend all summer vacations at her grandmother’s. After some time, the entire family was resettled by the Soviet Army from the flat on Lipowa Street to Nowy Świat.
On 22 June 1941, Białystok was invaded by Germans. In August, they established a ghetto which encompassed also Nowy Świat Street. Felicja’s father was among five thousand men detained by Germans on 12th June 1941 as “hostages”. After the war, it was revealed that they were all shot in the Pietrasze District. Felicja and her mother had stayed in the ghetto for two years.
On 16 August 1943, the action of liquidating the ghetto began. Germans spared only a handful of craftsmen they needed for work. Felicja and her mother succeeded in avoiding deportation since they claimed to be a family of a master craftsman from a tailor’s workshop in which they were both employed. “We were returning to the ghetto with our lives prolonged” – wrote Felicja many years later. They knew, however, that ,sooner or later, they would also be deported. Felicja, persuaded by her mother, decided to escape from the ghetto. As a worker of tailor’s enterprise, she went outside the walls with a load of uniforms for Germans which were delivered to the railways station. “Three times I went outside the ghetto on a platform, and three times I returned to the ghetto unable to part with my mother” – she recalls. One day, climbing onto the last platform with uniforms, she noticed that she was being escorted by a young German she knew. He was in a cheerful mood and even attempted to joke. Felicja decided to make an attempt at escape. “Suddenly, I decided to make a desperate move. I told the soldier to stop joking and help me. He did not understand. I confessed that I wanted to escape. He burst into laughing. He asked where I would like to go. He asked me to give him an address. I panicked, fearing a deceit and a betrayal. I answered I did not know any particular destination but I would go just towards any village that would be ahead of me.” He cast me a careful glimpse. “I feel sorry for you. I will turn away, I will not be looking and you will do what you want,” he said. Felicja jumped off the platform and hid in the bushes. She was now alone outside the ghetto. She was eighteen at that time.
The first person to help her was a man who happened to be nearby, Stanisław. He took her to the caretaker of the building in which her father’s family lived before the war. Felicja could not stay there, however. There was no place for her to stay in homes of other people she knew. When she came to the conclusion that she would have to return to the ghetto, Stanisław came with news that he found a hiding place for her at his friend’s. He also managed to get in touch with friends of the Raszkin family, living in the countryside. A few days later, he brought from the ghetto a letter to Felicja from her mother. He demanded remuneration. “It is not a matter of money,” -he panted out and hid the letter. “He embraced me, held me strongly and tried to kiss me. I started to tear away from him but he was holding me in an iron grip. I smelled his bad breath. I turned my head away, struggling. I was choking with tears but I could not cry for help. Nobody could know that I was there, that I was alive.” “I will not betray you but I have never had a girl like you before and I will not let the occasion pass,” he was laughing. […] “I paid a high price for that letter.”
Before the war, the Raszkin family knew Mr Piotr. He lived in a village near Białystok. After her escape from the ghetto, Felicja decided to seek for his help. She could not leave the city alone, however. A few days later, on Tuesday, 31th August 1943, Piotr, informed by Stanisław, came to Bialystok and took Felicja with him. He hid the girl in a shed where haulm was kept. In the night, Piotr’s wife, Stanisława, invited Felicja to the house for supper. The girl gave her guardians a sack with jewellery which a few days later Piotr gave back to Felicja advising her to keep the valuables for the future in case she would be forced to escape somewhere else. Next day, her hosts arranged a hiding place for Felicja in a stable. “In the spot where the roof was declining, an artificial wall was erected. Three boards connected with a crosspiece were removed from it. I saw a small cubbyhole a size of a mattress lying on the floor and filled with straw. To enter the cubbyhole, one had to bend and remain in that position. […] On the other end of the floor, at the end of the mattress, a bigger hole was made which would serve me for hygienic purposes.” Felicja was provided a blanket, a pillow and a lantern, which she was to use only when absolutely necessary. It was dark in her hiding place and at night darkness was only slightly dispelled by a small reflection of a moonlight coming through the slits in the walls. During the day, it was lighted by meagre sunrays.
Only her hosts, their two elder daughters, Danusia and Krysia, and their son, Bartek, were aware of Felicja’s presence in the barn. Piotr’s parents and his three-years-old daughter, Basia, had no idea she was around. The food was provided to the attic by Stanisława or one of her daughters, most often Danusia. She was also providing Felicja with books and material for needlework. It was very hot in her hiding place, so Felicja had at once sewn a light linen gown for herself. She was also writing a diary. Four weeks later, she learnt that the so-called small ghetto in Białystok ceased to exist. She did not know the fate of her mother. After the war, she learnt that her mother died either in Majdanek or Treblinka.
With a passing of time, Felicja was becoming a member – although invisible – of the family. Piotr’s family was running a well-organised and neat farm. They were all religious. Felicja wanted to learn the principles of Catholicism, so Stanisława gave her her a prayer book. One day, Danusia brought her to read The Lives of the Saints saying: “This will occupy you for a long time.” The books Danusia brought her were mostly written in German. Thus, Felicja was also learning that language. She could leave the attic only occasionally to stretch her legs in the barn. During these “walks” she performed basic exercises to remain physically fit and to preserve her strength. She perfectly knew that sickness would mean an enormous danger for her. In the situation she was in, there was no possibility to call the doctor and coughing would certainly betray her presence in the attic.
When winter came, along with severe frost, Felicja was also invited to the hut for the night. Her hosts gave her also a sheepskin and woollen socks for winter. Danusia brought her bottles with hot water so that she could warm herself up. Felicja spent the Christmas Eve of 1943 in the house of her carers. In villages, there was no habit to pay visits on that day, so the risk of Felicja being exposed was relatively scarce. In case of a visit of an unexpected guest, the girl was to be presented as a friend of Wanda, Piotr’s eldest daughter, who came home from Białystok for Christmas.
For a few days, a boy from the underground movement was also staying in the attic. He was not aware of Felicja’s presence, so she had to be particularly cautious in her hiding place.
One day, Germans came to the farm. They thoroughly searched the whole village. They were looking for a teacher engaged in clandestine education. Felicja’s carers, having been informed earlier by their neighbours, hid the girl in haulm, covered the hiding place with straw, and burnt diaries she had been writing in recent months, so they would not be incidentally discovered by Germans. Once the soldiers had left, Stanisława dug out the numb Felicja from under the haulm.
Felicja had stayed with Piotr’s family up to summer 1944. On 25th July, the farmers hid the girl in the field of rye. The Germans leaving the area were plundering villages they marched through. Piotr and Stanisława were afraid of their farm buildings being set on fire. They did not want anything bad happen to Felicja on the last days of her enslavement. Once a day, Danusia came to the field and brought food to the girl. Felicja had spent eleven months on Piotr and Stanisława’s farm. After four days spent in the field, she suddenly heard the approaching Soviet soldiers.
Germans left Białystok on 27th July 1944. Felicja said goodbye to her guardians on Tuesday, 1st August 1944. She went to Białystok to look for her relatives. After the arrival in the city, she learnt that not a single member of her Białystok family survived. People were leaving their hiding places. It turned out that out of forty thousand Białystok Jews only forty people remained alive. Due to a fortunate coincidence, Felicja met her father’s brother, Samuel Raszkin, who was a soldier in the Soviet Army. He took his niece to Moscow. Felicja met Janek there, an officer of the Polish Army. They married in May 1946 and returned to Poland. After March 1968, they left the country, joining in 1971 their children living in Denmark. They maintained contacts with Piotr until his death.
After 1945, the people who took care of Felicja were subjected to the NKVD surveillance. Piotr and his son, Bartek, were arrested for alleged cooperation with the Home Army. After half a year of imprisonment they were released.
Felicja Raszkin-Nowak wrote many years later:
“The most beautiful human acts do not always require publicity or a particular celebration. Rather modesty and silence becomes them more.
The man who saved my life in the gloomy times of German occupation, exposing his own and his family’s lives to danger, protested when I wanted to reveal his name. He would say that he did not do it for fame. I respected that impulse of great heart; however, I could not be silent since not everybody thought it was disinterested. […]
Apart from happiness of being saved, I also felt pride that I had a chance to encounter people so warm-hearted and so indomitable.
Not long before his death, the Man I owe my life to, told me that he was not afraid of appearing before the Creator because he knew that by saving me he had erased his sins.”
The text edited on the basis of the book: F. Raszkin-Nowak, Moja Gwiazda (My Star), TransHumana, Białystok 2008.