A Race for Life – Rescued: Ben Zion Sela (Solarz)

Ben Zion Sela tells the story of his family based on the recollections of his mother, Miriam Solarz (Miedziński). Below is an abridged version of Sela’s book published in 2013, including, above all, the fate of his family during the War.

 

Family

I come from a Jewish family. My maternal grandfather, Mosze Miedziński, was born in 1871 in the Mazowiecki village of Miedzna. In 1899, he married Doba Sorokowska, born in 1881in a neighbouring village. One of my grandfather’s three sisters, Haja Fejga (martried surname Solarz), was my paternal grandmother – my parents were cousins.

My grandparents settled in Czekanów, near Sokołowa Podlasie, where they opened a grocery store. After a couple of years, the moved to the neighbouring village of Łuzki. There they also opened a store. They were the only Jewish family in the region, as well as being very religious. Despite the occurence of anti-Semitic excesses (including even threats to set fire to their store), their store prospered. My grandfather earned the sympathies of his neighbours which had great significance later during the time of World War II. In the 1930’s, my grandfather bought a house in Sokołowa Podlaskie. Shortly before the outbreak of war, he rented premises in Warsaw where he opened a line press.

My mother, Miriam (Matla) Miedzińska, was born in 1918. She had two older brothers - Szmuel (Szmilke) and Herszl, two younger brothers and a sister Rywka (born in 1927). At the initiative of grandmother Doba, my mother completed Polish comprehensive school Czekanów. She learned to read and write in Yiddish and learned tailoring. She married Mosze Solarz (born in 1910 in the village of Mokobody), who was also a tailor. The couple lived in Warsaw and ran my grandfather’s linen press and worked as tailors. I was born in July 1939.

 

The War

Two weeks after my birth, my mother acknowledged that we would feel better in the country and took me to the family in Łuzki. When, after a few weeks, she decided to return to Warsaw, she discovered that war had broken out. We remained in the village. Soon after, my father joined us.

For the first two years, we lived in Łuzki. Life rolled on peacefully. The family shop was shut and we supported ourselves through tailoring. We had a cow and a small farm.

Every so often, news would reach us about the situation in bigger towns. We know that Jews had begun to be resettled into ghettoes and that a ghetto had been established in Sokołowa. Anticipating our fate, my parents began to prepare to relocate. We left part of our belongings with neighbours – one of two sewing machines was stored with a neighbour, Staszek Zawadzki.

On the day of the relocation, (it was in the spring of 1942), two German wagons stopped in front of our home. A soldier ordered us to be ready to leave in fifteen minutes. Our cow was taken away.

My uncles loaded the wagons with sacks of food. My mother managed to collect a few extra belongings – bedding, dishes, clothes and a large sauce full of kasha. Neighbours gathered around our home watching what was happening. According to my mother, some watched sympathising with us, others watched with contentment. However, no one came too close because a sign had been hung on our house stating “Typhus!”. (At the time, Szmilke was in hospital with typhus in Zambrowa. He soon joined us.)

We arrived in the ghetto in Sterdyń, about 20 kms from Łuzki (about 30 kms from Treblinka). It was an open ghetto. It was run by the President of the Judenrat who had ten Jewish policemen at his disposal. The arriving Jews were gathered in the synagogue.

Thanks to the family’s resourcefulness, somehow they managed to organise themselves within the ghetto. For half a year, we had a roof over our heads. From home, we managed to bring a sewing machine, so my father and Herszel could earn a little. My uncles, every now and then, got themselves away to our village and brought back a little food (flour, potatoes) – they obtained household supplies or drew upon those which had been left with neighbours. My mother, with Rywka and my youngest brother, sneaked into the nearby forest and gathered brush for a fire. At times, the vollage children would throw stones at them. On one of those expeditions, my brother was injured.

Soon after, my mother’s three brothers were sent away to a labour camp in Lanka. Szmilke was the first to work at building the camp in Treblinka. After a month, he returned as “a shadow of a man”. Dawid and Herszl were also sent there, but Herszl managed to run away. He got himself to our old home and hid in the attic. The Jewish police began a search. Our grandfather was arrested as a hostage and was also sent to the camp at Lanka.

Just before the Jewish holydays (New Year and Yon Kippur) news reached us of the liquidation of the Siedlce ghetto and the transportation of the Jews to extermination camps (we now know that it was 22nd August 1942). My family decided to look for somewhere to hide.

My mother rented a cart and took me with her to Łuzek. We asked a friend for help. However, in fear of her own life, she refused. We returned to the ghetto, to the rest of the family.

Dreading a liquidation operation, we hid ourselves in a potato field. After eight days, we returned to the apartment in the ghetto and constructed a hiding-place. On Yom Kippur, the Germans surrounded the ghettoes of Węgrów and Sokołów Podlaskie. It was clear that next in line would be Sterdyń.

We manager to get two certificates confirming employment at a nearby farm – a certain acquaintance of my father’s agreed to provide them in return for payment. My mother, Cyrla, Rywka and I set off for the village. My mother did not have the strength to constantly carry me, so she asked a passing cart-driver for a lift. He said to her, “Lady, why are you bothering? Sooner or later the Germans will kill you and the child. Go back to the ghetto”. My mother and I returned, while Rywka and Cyrla went on.

Then Herszel, who from the time of his escape had been hiding in the attic, returned and took the initiative. On three bicycles, we rode to Jabłonna. Herszel went off looking for somewhere to hide, while we hid ourselves in the bushes. Fortunately, we met an acquaintance from Łuzek who brought us a little food. Rywka and Cyrla joined us.

Thanks to a peasant whom we had come across, we reached a farm, where a group of people worked in a dairy. My mother went to work with my sitting on a pile of straw. On that day, news reached us of the liquidation of the Sterdyń ghetto.

On the following day, Herszel took us to the property of an acquaintance, Adam Tyborowski in Łuzk, where he had managed to find us work. A Volksdeutscher managed the property, but the owner convinced him of the need for more people. We were put into the workers’ quarters. The following day, my father and Szmilke joined us. They had escaped from Sterdyń. They were also given work.

There were other Jewish families on the property – altogether, twenty people were employed.  We all lived in very difficult circumstances.

One day, a worker in the kitchen told my mother that Alfreda Pietraszek, an heiress from Czekanów, asked her in church about the fate of our family. My mother, disguised as a peasant woman, then went to Pietraszek. She counted on her support as before the War, our families knew each other well. Seeing my mother, Pietraszek herself proposed that she would hide us in her home. After about seven weeks, we moved there when we heard that Jews who were working in Łuzk were to be moved into the ghetto in Sokołów Podlaskie.

By night, we moved our food supplies to her property. My mother, Rywka and I were put up in one room, while my father, Szmilke, Herszel and my youngest brother brother were hidden in the attic of the barn in a pre-arranged hiding-place. Soon after, we were joined by my grandfather and Dawid, who had managed to escape from the camp in Lanka. We don’t know how news got to them that we were hiding with the Pietraszek family. Everyone hid together in the attic. So as not to betray our presence, Pietraszek herself came to our hiding-place to remove the waste bucket.

Other Jews were also hiding with the Pietraszek family, among them the Kopyto family from Sokołów Podlaskie - Perla and Josef with their 3 year old son Szaul and an infant. A couple of days after our arrival, Pietraszek brought another two girls and asked my mother to take care of them. The girls’ mother, Chawa Lander, and her sister Gienia Przepiórkowa, were hiding with the heiress in Łuzek, but she had not agreed to take the children. After a certain time, Pietraszek agreed to take in both women.

One day, after about three weeks, a patrol drove up – Germans and Polish police. One of the policemen found me, my mother and the Kopyto family. We bribed him so that he wouldn’t tell the Germans. My mother supposed that he did not want to expose Pietraszek. 

It was clear that, after that incident, my mother and I had to leave the estate. Mrs Pietraszek assured us, however, that after sometime, we would be able to return. When night came, we went to the home of a friend in Czekanów, who had agreed to help earlier. She was very afraid. We had no other choice except than to return to the Pietraszek family. We joined the others in the hiding-place.

Only the heiress and a few estate workers knew about our presence, among them being a runaway Russian soldier and a Olesia, the housekeeper, who did much to help us. Friendly neighbours, Boleslaw, Janek and Milcia Miszczurk, also helped us. Before being displaced, we had left some provisions with them. They repeatedly brought us sacks of bread. At night, mu father and uncles would sneak out in order to get more food.

We also had to be extremely careful. Repeated searches were taking place both by the Germans and the Poles. During one such search, when were all sat in silence in the barn attic, the Kopyto’s baby started to cry. The mother had to silence it. She covered the child with a pillow – unfortunately, firmly enough that the baby suffocated.

Partisan units in the surrounding area also posed a danger for us. We had heard that some partisans murdered any Jews they came across.

We hid in this way for almost two years – eight metres up in the barn attic or in the attic of the pigsty. 

In total, the heroism of the Pietraszek family saved seventeen people: Mrs Landro and her sister Mrs Przepiórk and her children, the Kopyto couple and their small son, our Miedzińskich family – grandfather Mosze and his five children (Herszel, Szmilke, Dawid, the youngest brother and Rywka), as well as the five of us (my parents, Mosze and Miriam Solarz and me).

After the War, it turned out that another six people had been saved in Czekanów – the Rafałowicz couple and the four-member Grynberg family. They were hidden by the director of the school, Józef Fink, and his wife Lucyna (honoured by Yad Vashem on the basis of a report by Sary Gliksman (Grynberg)).

After the War, my mother found out that the Pietraszków family were members of the Home Army (AK). When the War was over and we had left our hiding-place, someone threw a granade into the Pietraszek home. It is possible that this was in retribution for hiding Jews. Mr Pietraszek was injured but, thankfully, only slightly.

 

After the War

The eastern front passed through at the end of July 1944. We were able to leave our hiding-place. At the request of the Pietraszek family, my uncles remained on the estate to help work in the fields. My parents and I returned to Łuzek. However, we could not return to our house. A neighbour, Janek Zawadzki, took us in. Later, we found a place in the Kolonia settlement in Łuzkie. Fortunately, without any problem, my father retrieved his sewing machine which had been left with a neighbour and so he could start working.

We lived in Łuzkie for half a year. One day, a group of partisans surrounded our home. We were in mortal danger. The Miszczurek Militia saved us, begging the bandits to leave us in peace.

We moved to Sokołów Podlaskie. Members of the family tried various means to earn a living, but it was hard, as well as dangerous. We moved to Węgrowa, but it was dangerous for us there too –   In the meantime, in Mokobodice, my father’s family village had its own tragic events. Bandits murdered who the eight Jews who had survived the War, among them my father’s cousin. We moved to Łódż, where many Jewish survivors had gathered. My uncles and grandfather joined us there.

Rywka got married. Herszel got married. He started going to a Hebrew language kindergarten.

At the end of 1945, representatives of Joint began organising illegal emigration to Palestine. My parents decided to leave. Herszel and his wife, Rywka and her husband and their youngest brother came with us. In all, there were eight in our group. Via Szczecin, we reached East Berlin where the Russians held us up for a month. Later, for three years, we ended up in Bamberg in a camp for eastern European Jewish refugees. In 1946, my sister was born there and I went to Hebrew school there. We waited for the chance to travel to Palestine. Our dream came true in 1949 – we arrived in Israel via Marseille. All the members of our family who had been saved by the Pietraszek family had reached Israel, started families and we waiting for grandchildren.

During my military service, I changed my surname from Solarz to Sela. I graduated in oriental studies from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. For 42 years, I taught Arabic at a junion high school in Kiriat Ata. I retired in 1997. I live with my wife, Miriam, in Nahariyah. I have two children and four grandchildren.

                                                       ***

My family’s story attests to the fact that we were very lucky, as well as attesting to the extraordinary resourcefulness and entrepreneurship of our family members. I wish to stress the significant role played by my mother who died in October 2013 at the age of ninety four. Our clan of nine members of our family members now numbers 150 people.

Alfreda and Bolesław Pietraszek who, for a year and a half, hid us on their estate deserve the highest recognition. They managed to save seventeen people. I don’t know the fate of all those who were saved. I know that Szaul Kopyto is a professor and lives in the USA.

My family did not apply for the Pietraszek family to be honoured as Righteous Among the Nations, as the Pietraszke family did not wish us to do so, most probably out of fear at the reaction of their neighbours. In my estimation, their anxiety was justified. In the immediate post-War years, there were twenty six attempts to break into their house. The Pietraszek family believed that the thieves were certain that the couple was “sitting on gold” earned from Jews. They died childless in 1965.

In the 1990’s, I made efforts to have the Pietraszek couple honoured as Righteous. In 2007, their medals and certificates were accepted by their nieces Jolanta Okolusz-Kozaryn and Zofia Panfil. In 2008, at the initiative of Father Henryk Strączek, who had an interest in the history of Czekanów, a monument was erected there honouring the memory of Alfred and Bolesława Pietraszek.

 

 

The inscription on the monument reads:

A quote from Haim Hefer:

“If I was in their place, could I have done what they did?”

Alfreda and Boleslaw Pietraszek,

honoured with the medal of the

“Righteous Among the Nations of the World”

on 27th September 2007

for saving 17 Jews during the years

of Nazi occupation

We honour them.

The citizens of Czekanów.

 

 

Translated into English: Andrew Rajcher