“My home is in Suchedniów”. The story of Jakub Berkman

“You might say: next year in Jerusalem, but my home is really in Suchedniów”. Jakub Berkman’s ancestors lived in the town since the second half of the 19th century. Read the story of rescue of Jakub and other members of his family by Leopold von Krauze, Witold Poziomski and the Pajek family.

According to the census from 1931, there were 1,280 Jews in Suchedniów – 10 percent of the population. Most of them lived at Handlowa Street (today’s Powstańców 1863 r. Street). They mainly ran shops – with faience and pots, haberdasheries, hardware stores, butcher’s shops. They also owned industrial and craft businesses.

Berkman and Warszawski family before the war

Mosze Berkman, Jakub’s father, originally came from Radom. He met Luba Warszawska when going to a sawmill, which his family bought in 1927 or 1928.

Mosze and Luba married on 1 January 1930. Their marriage was the first in the family not preceded by matchmaking. Jakub was born in December. In 1935, they moved from Radom to Kielce, where Celinka was born. After the birth of his sister, Jakub started to stay with his grandparents in Suchedniów more often. “I was a prince there”, he recalled in an interview for POLIN Museum. “Grandfather was tall, well-built. He didn’t say much, but when he did, he spoke wisdom. [...] He talked with me in Polish with a Jewish accent”.

Luba was the daughter of Zelik and Sura Warszawski, she had five siblings: Pola, Estera, Fajga, Herz, and Irka. Warszawski family rented part of a house at 10 Bodzentyńska Street from a Polish Pajek family. They were friends. Polish friends of the family also included a doctor – Witold Poziomski.

Dr. Poziomski was an activist for the local community. He treated patients regardless of their financial means, visited the nearby areas, saw patients at his home, organised a hospital, and a Sick Relief Committee.

Warszawski, similarly to Berkman family, owned a sawmill. The family was one of the wealthier in the area. Zelik’s father, Jakub Warszawski, bought the land and built the first steam mill in the region. “The land is roots, it ties men to the place where they live. Jews did not use to buy land. It was unheard of”, explained Jakub Berkman. In 1929, Warszawski family sold the sawmill to Josek Herling, the father of Gustaw Herling-Grudziński.

The history of my Kings. Jakub Berkman’s school years

In the 1930s, Jakub attended a Froebel’s kindergarten – a national Jewish school with Polish as the language of instruction. “In those years, I didn’t see the difference between Poles and Jews. Me and my friends knew that our religions are different, but it didn’t bother us”.

“In August 2939, we went to Szczawnica for three weeks. On the way back, dad took us to Krakow. I saw Wawel, the Dragon, paintings, which I remember to this day. I learned about the history of my kings. We came back to Suchedniów to pick up my little sister, and then the war broke out”.  

We must survive this. The beginning of the occupation in Suchedniów

Many Jews from Suchedniów tried to escape east. The Warszawski family was one of them.

By cart, in three-four nights, we reached Ostrowiec, where we learned that Russia took the other half of Poland. We go back to Suchedniów. The Germans stop the cart. The local people, farmers shout: Jews! The Germans start handing out our things. They take my ball, my bike. I look at my father. He put a hand over my lips – Kubek, we have no right to say a word. We must survive this. Two days later, we reached Pajek family’s house.

The town surrendered to the Germans on 7 September. In November, Judenrat was established, and Zelik Warszawski became its head. Since January 1940, the Jews were obligated to wear bands with the Star of David. A ghetto, which included three streets in the city centre, was created in June 1941. It was not fenced but only workers who were going to work could leave it. “There was a border no Jew could cross, but the Christians lived in the same houses. We lived with the Pajek family until September 1942”. Terror was rising. Warszawski and Berkman family were looking for a way to save themselves. The Pajek family and Dr. Poziomski joined in planning and arranging a refuge.

Seach for hideouts outside the Ghetto

Pajek siblings – Stefania and Wacław – joined in helping Pola Nusynowicz (née Warszawski) and her two daughters as well as Herszek Warszawski’s family (Pola and Herszek were the siblings of Luba Berkman – Jakub Berkman’s mother). Wacław transported Pola and the girls from Suchedniów to Stefania’s apartment at Hoża Street in Warsaw. Next, he escorted Herszek’s wife and their son to the city, acting as her husband. After some time, Stefania found a place for them in Zalesie Górne, at a former village head’s house. “[...] he had his own house, [...] so he agreed to rent a room to those people”, she wrote in her memoirs. Stefania delivered basic to goods Zalesie, and Wacław provided money from Dr. Poziomski, left with him by Zelik Warszawski.

Jakub Berkman and his sister Celinka were supposed to go to Warsaw at the end of July. “[...] we only knew Polish and we did not look Jewish. [...] Before our departure to Warsaw, I received documents in the name of Jan Bogacki”. Father obligated the twelve-year-old boy to take care of his six-year-old sister. Grandfather – Zelik – had a different request. "[...] promise me that you will do something that you won’t understand. [...] This night, you will come to say goodbye to me. I have a feeling this is the last time we are going to see each other. When you come, don’t say to me ’goodbye grandpa’, say ’goodbye son’. And so it happened.

The kids were taken to Warsaw by Ms Zielończyk, the wife of the forest district inspector from Suchedniów. At the station, the three were spotted by two railwaymen. “You came to hide the yids”. Ms Zielończyk showed them the documents, they laughed. “The document is in his pants”. However, she was able to buy their way out. They reached the apartment. After three days, its owner took the children to the Holy Cross Church (or the one at Trzech Krzyży Square). In the sacristy, they were met by Rev. Cybulski.

“I cannot save you as a Jew. If you agree to become a Catholic, I will be able to. You must swear on you honour that you are going to be a Catholic for the rest of your life’. I couldn’t say no. [...] I was surprised that a little water on you head and a sign were enough. Five minutes later it was over”.

Celinka was placed with a Polish family, and Jakub ended up in a monastery in Zielonka:

“There were a lot of boys. [...] I couldn’t wash with them. My origin was on my body. I washed at night, but this wasn’t good either. After two weeks, they sent me with the forest district inspector to Warsaw – to Ms Magdalena, a teacher”.

Dr. Poziomski found shelter for Jakub’s parents and grandparents – Berkman and Warszawski – with two Polish families, which agreed to take them for a fee – 20 dollars for a pair a month. “The parents were to hide with an engineer, Leopold von Krauze”.

Leopold von Krauze, the son of a German nobleman, officer of the Polish cavalry, took part in the Polish-Soviet War. He was a radio engineer. After the Germans entered Suchedniów in 1939, he registered as a Volksdeutsch, but since 1940, he cooperated with the Home Army. He served as
a messenger between the partisans and Warsaw. Dr. Poziomski knew about his involvement.

Grandparents Knowingly sacrificied themeselves. Liquidation of the Ghetto in Suchedniów

In the morning, on 22 September 1942, on the eve of Yom Kippur (Judgement Day, one of the most important Jewish holidays), the Germans and Polish guards surrounded the ghetto. There were around 4 thousand people at the time. “Grandma told my parents to go down to the basement. She convinced them that if they all went down, they were all going to die. And she – as a mother – had the right to save her children; the same way they took care of my and my sister’s fate. She spilled a sack of potatoes on the entrance to the basement. They knowingly sacrificed themselves”.

The Jews were gathered in the town square. That was where the selection took place. The ones who were able to work went to Skarżysko Kamienna. The rest, around 3 thousand people, were sent to Treblinka. Train dispatcher at the train station spoke about it years later:

[...] they were sitting there, those Jews, outside, for about two days. Day and night. And the Germans were walking in raincoats, while the rain was pouring on those Jews. They had nothing to cover themselves with. And they were not allowed to walk. Nor stand. Everybody had to sit.

After the cars arrived, the Jews were pushed inside.

[...] The Jews asked for water. They looked out of the trucks and asked people to give them some. There was no way to come closer because those men were walking around and chasing us away. Children were crying so much, grabbing those Germans with their hands, but the Germans caught them and if there was no more room in those cars, they threw them inside over the older people’s heads. [...] In the morning, a train came and took the cars. And so they departed for Skarżysko.

We are connected to each other. Von Krauze’s help

Von Krauze saw the older members of Warszawski family in the town square, he did not see the Berkman couple. He guessed that they managed to hide. He found them in the basement. “He took them to his place. That’s where they got to know each other. He said that he was doing it for the money, which he needed for conspiracy. ’When the war ends, go out at night, the same way you came at night, so that no one sees that I saved you’. He didn’t like Jews”, said Jakub Berkman.

Ms Magdalena was hiding Jakub until the end of November 1942. Then, Leopold von Krauze came to take the boy. Before the journey to Suchedniów, he instructed him how to act.

A person who is afraid looks at the ground, so the world doesn’t see him. [...] Put your cap’s peak up, look at him, and you’re not afraid’. At the station in Warsaw, he takes out a document, we go to a car reserved for German officers, he has a small briefcase, he takes out ham, sausage, divides it and they start to sing. The train stopped three times, they looked for Jews everywhere, but not in that car.

Von Krauze lived in a building that was divided into two apartments. “In the first weeks, we stayed in the attic at night, and before evening at their place. His wife, Ms Helena, gave us dictations. I played chess, we talked.

After the holidays, the Berkman family moved from the attic to a hut in the garden. The rescuers also placed two pigs and rabbits in the hut to have an excuse to carry in food. At night, they came to take out the faeces and brought water. In the summer, the temperature went up to 50 degrees. “Each day, I had to learn a text from a book. To keep the brain working. 3-4 hours of learning, and then I recited it. Pan Tadeusz. Słowacki. The Trilogy. I remember it to this day”.

On the day of his thirteenth birthday – the age when the Jews traditionally take over responsibility for their actions – his father gave him arsenic. “From now on, you will be guarding your poison. If there comes a day when we need to use it, mother should swallow it first – so that she doesn’t have to see her son die”.

A wood merchant lived next to us – he sent it by cars to Warsaw. Someone denounced him saying that he used the cars to smuggle weapons. SS arrived at 6 am. They searched the area and were coming our way. Ms Helena, the engineer’s wife, was waiting until the Germans came up 40-50 m to the place where we were hiding. She came in and killed one of the rabbits, took it by the paws and came out right to meet the Germans’ dogs. She dangled the rabbit in front of their noises. When the officer came up she said: “We’ve got rabbits and pigs here, there’s been an epidemic among the rabbits for a week, I don’t know what it is, it makes no sense for your dogs to die too. But do as you wish”. They got scared and went away, dragging the dogs away by force.

By the second half of 1944, the financial reserves were gone. “The engineer said that we could stay with him despite lack of money because we were connected to each other”.

After the war

After the liberation of Suchedniów by the Russians, Berkman family lived for a while in the sawmill which used to belong to Warszawski family. The surviving aunts and cousins left Poland. They settled in Israel, Canada, America.

Celinka did not survive the war. “[...] she was moved to Suchedniów, hidden in such conditions that she suffocated. We received her bones after the war”.

Doctor Witold Poziomski died aged 90, in May 1966. In the Museum of the Kielce Village, there is a reconstruction of the doctor’s office in one of the wooden houses. In Suchedniów itself, one of the streets was named in doctor’s honour.

Jakub Berkman visited Suchedniów for the first time in 1992. Together with Wacław Pajek, he visited the graves of Dr. Poziomski, Leopold and Helena von Krauze. During the visit in 2002, he did not find the tombstone of the engineer and his wife. Several years later, he founded a plaque, which was placed on the Pajek family’s grave – that is where the bones of von Krauze and his wife were laid. “This is my family. [...] I did not have the courage to write that they saved Jews on the plaque because I was afraid that it will destroyed”.

He says of himself that he is a proud Israeli. He has six grandchildren. “Everyone knows who I owe my life to. I have what I have thanks to them. And my greatest treasure are my great grandchildren”.

Say “Goodbye son”

He understood what the promise he gave to grandpa Zelik meant forty years later. During his grandson’s brit milah – a circumcision and naming ceremony – it struck him that he himself was named after his great grandfather. He realised that when he was saying goodbye to his grandfather Zelik, he was acting in place of his father.


J. Janicki, B. Wiernik, Reszta nie jest milczeniem, Warsaw 1960, pp. 47–48.
K. Jackl, Interview with Jakub Berkman, POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw 2017.
Correspondence and private documents from the family archive of Marek Pajek.