Two friends. Sima and Pola

Sima Gleichgevicht-Wasser and Apolonia Gorzkowska-Nikodemska knew each other even before the war. Sima lived in Henryków, and Pola in the nearby Dąbrówka. Sima's uncle Simcha Inwentarz, owner of a hardware shop, was friends with Pola's uncle. Sima grew up in a traditional Jewish family. Her father Joshua Gleichgevicht was a manager in an insulation factory. The family also owned an electric mangle. They were not rich, but led a comfortable life.

The family was displaced to the Legionowo ghetto after it was created on 15 November 1940. Before leaving their home, they were forced to hand in all their valuables, which were subsequently stored by the Nazi Germans in a local synagogue. They could only take as much as they could carry.

Forced labour was an obligation of everyone who lived in the ghetto. Sima's father was one of the workers. He soon got ill and was displaced to another ghetto. His family never saw him again.

Although the ghetto area was not fenced, leaving it was punishable by death. However, Sima managed to sneak out to smuggle food to the Warsaw ghetto where her grandparents, uncles and aunts stayed. They lived in an overcrowded house and were starving. Sima would surreptitiously slip away from the ghetto, get to Warsaw, jump into a running tramway that crossed the local ghetto, and on the way back jump out at the "Aryan Side" at Krasiński Square. Wearing a special vest with large pockets sawn by her mother, she bought meat, flour and potatoes, all she could carry. She was a slender teenager, but carried heavy sacks full of food on her back. The Nazis would catch her many times to confiscate the food. Once, a gendarme stopped her and forced her to confess she was Jewish. He started to beat her, tore her clothes off and set a dog against her. The animal bit off pieces of her flesh. Sima tried to defend herself, shouting "Kill me, but I'm not Jewish!". Another officer took pity on her and set her free.

The liquidation of the ghetto started in the early morning of 4 October 1942, on the Simchat Tora day. Sima was smuggling on that day. When she found out what was going on, she understood she would never see her loved ones again. There was, however, no time for tears, as she had to fight for survival outside the ghetto.

Sima was starving and suffered from scabies. Initially, she found shelter at the homes of a few families, either known to her or strangers. She also slept in haystacks. She sometimes visited Pola's parents, Stanisław and Maria Gorzkowski in Dąbrówka. This was a relatively safe shelter as their house was covered with an orchard. Years later, she said: "There were very few people like Pola's family. Generous people. They risked their lives and put their family in a vulnerable position. We must not forget they had children."

Sima had a "proper look" and could pass for a Pole. The was blonde, with a light complexion. Pola helped her get a birth certificate. She was involved in the underground movement and provided Jews with Catholic birth certificates. Sima got one for the name of Krystyna Budna. Pola's friend Michał Stonkiewicz helped her get a Kennkarte.

This is how Pola described her underground activity: "I was delivering those packages but didn't know what was inside. As soon as I got one, I would quickly get on a tramway. The driver, who collaborated with us, slowed down noticeably at a certain moment. I knew that was when I had to jump out. Then someone took the package from me, only to disappear without a trace in no time at all. Even if they had beaten me up I wouldn't have been able to recognise their face, it all happened so fast." When explaining her motivations, she said: "There are different people in every nation, some are criminals while others are good. In my nature or that of my family, there was no place for racial or any other hatred towards other human beings. Helping those in need was the most natural thing on earth. This is what our religion commands: "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself".

With her new documents, Sima moved in with Pola's uncle and aunt, Jan and Franciszka Wójcicki, who also lived in Dąbrówka. Jan was a wealthy farmer who owned much land and employed farm workers. Sima worked there as a housekeeper. She cooked, cleaned and milked cows. She remembers the warm and friendly atmosphere at their home.

Pola lived close by and often visited her uncle and aunt. The two girls became close friends during the occupation. They had no secrets from each other. They talked openly and sincerely about their lives, dreams and plans.

After a while, someone denounced to the Germans that a Jewish woman was employed by the Wójcickis. Pola recalls: "My uncle saw through the window that the Germans were coming. He yelled: "Run away, Kryśka!", but it was too late. Sima took a hoe or a mattock and bent down pretending to go out to dig potatoes in the field. She was incredibly composed. If it wasn't for her quick reflexes, had her face turned red, her eyes wide... Sima relates: "They did not recognise me. They asked me if I knew anything about the Jew hiding there. They also wanted to know my name. "Krystyna Budna," I replied. They asked me if it was my real name. I answered: "Why should it be false?" Wójcicki invited the Germans and the Blue Police officers to the dining room. He said he was a wealthy man who knew what it meant to keep a Jew, and that he had no intention to risk his own life."

When the Germans left, Sima broke down. She started shaking violently as if she had the chills. She could not contain her stress although she managed to stay calm in front of the Germans. Everyone realised she had to leave the house.

Pola helped her find a new job with Jadzia Rogozińska, her former classmate. She introduced Sima as a distant relative. Jadzia lived with her husband, their little son, sister and brother near Szembek Square where they ran a shop. Sima worker for them as a housekeeper. She cooked, cleaned, did the washing and minded the baby boy. On her days off, Pola and her husband-to-be, Paweł, often visited her and spent time together. They substituted for her family.

Pola married Paweł in April 1944. "I got married in Warsaw, in the Old Town cathedral. To my greatest surprise, Sima came to my wedding! I looked around, and she stood there among the guests waiting to offer their congratulations, wearing a hat with a veil covering her face. This was risky as some of the guests knew her. I was jubilant, but also fearful, wishing she could come home safely, that nothing goes wrong," Pola recalls.

Living on the "Aryan side" turned out to be extremely hard for Sima. "Every single day was a struggle. When I walked down the street and someone looked at me, my heart sank. When a German looked at me, I always thought he knew I was Jewish. It is difficult to explain how hard it was. It was terrible. I did not know any other Jews who lived outside the ghetto."

When the Rogozińskis temporarily left Warsaw, Sima moved to the Godlewskis. She was their housekeeper. Her employers did not know, however, that Sima was Jewish. Sima once used her mother's recipe when cooking noodles for a wedding party, and someone remarked: "This is how the Jews cut noodles." Sima replied, keeping perfect composure: "I worked for Jews all my life".

Sima lived and worked for the Godlewskis until the Warsaw Uprising, which she survived and was sent to a temporary camp in Pruszków together with other Warsaw citizens. As she suffered from dysentery, she was not sent to forced labour in Germany. She found the parents of Mr Godlewski in Grudzkowola. They received her warmly.

Shortly before Christmas 1944, Sima accidentally stepped on a nail and got a bloodstream infection. She was taken to hospital in Grójec in a serious condition. "There were nuns who called a priest perform the last rites and confession with me. I have no idea how I confessed with the fever I had. The crisis came at night. I got better. I received communion on the next day. I felt guilty because I did not tell the priest I was Jewish. I did not trust anybody. I only asked God for forgiveness." Sima stayed in the Grójec hospital until the Soviet army came on 15 January 1945.

She found Pola two years after the war. She looked for her to let her know how grateful she was. She soon left Poland, first for Israel, then the U.S. In the 1950s, she sent Pola oranges, a rare delicacy in Poland at that time. In 1987, Sima invited Pola to her family home in Queens, New York. She wanted her children and grandchildren to meet the woman who saved her life. In 1988, Apolonia Gorzkowska-Nikodemska was named Righteous Among the Nations at Sima's request.