“You would have done the same for me”

During World War II, Helena Kotula was a widowed owner of a small grocery store in Kolbuszowa (Podkarpackie Province). The only information known about her background comes from Norman Salsitz, a Holocaust survivor. His very traditional Jewish family had known her for years, and Kotula was a loyal and trusted customer of the Solsitz family’s business. It appears Salsitz didn’t even know Helena Kotula’s first name and referred to her only by the formal title “Pani Kotulowa” (Mrs. Kotula).

Prior to the War, Jews comprised half of Kolbuszowa’s population. The Poles and Jews lived quite separate lives but coexisted in relative peace. For centuries, Kolbuszowa’s town symbol has been two hands clasped in friendship with the Christian cross and Star of David demonstrating this unique relationship.

When the Germans occupied the town, the friendship between Helena Kotula and the Solsitz family was put to the test. Norman Salsitz, and his brother Lejbusz, ended up in the Kolbuszowa ghetto, which had been established in September 1941. The other members of their family found themselves in the ghetto in nearby Rzeszów, established a month later. When they were moved, they left their possessions with Polish friends, believing that, one day, they would return regain them.

In October of the following year, the Kolbuszowa ghetto was completely demolished using the labor of some of the Kolbuszowa Jews. The Salsitz brothers were  two of these workers in the ghetto and were scheduled for transfer to a concentration camp in Rzeszów. Earlier, Salsitz had heard of German extermination operations against the local Jews there. For that reason, they decided to escape and join those who were hiding in the nearby forests. It was then that the 22 year old Salsitz asked Kotula for help to escape:

“I now remembered Kotulowa, the Polish widow whom I had visited just before I left Kolbuszowa to be with my family in Rzeszow and with whom I had left some belongings and merchandise. Her house was right behind the fence that surrounded the ghetto. I resolved to see her at once. After nightfall, I left the camp without telling anyone, not even my brother. I climbed the fence and knocked on Kotulowa’s door”.

Norman needed false papers. Helena Kotula promised that she would talk to the local parish priest, Father Antoni Dunajecki (1882-1945).

“When I returned the next evening, Kotulowa handed me something more precious than gold – the birth certificate of Tadeusz Jadach, a Roman Catholic Pole. With that paper I might survive the war. I put my arms around the ample frame of my saving angel and hugged her until she protested she couldn’t breathe. ‘I will be indebted to you as long as I live’, I said. ‘You would have done the same for me’, she replied”.

The following day, Norman also received a birth certificate for his brother. They were documents which had belonged to Ludwik Kunefal (1904-1936):

The next day she mentioned that Father Dunajecki wanted to meet Lejbusz and me. A few days later we went to her house to meet the Monsignor. When we saw him, neither of us knew what to do or say. We had never in our lives spoken to a priest, and we were overwhelmed by the man’s appearance. He was tall and majestic-looking. “You know, Tadeusz”, he said, “I’ve been the parish priest in Kolbuszowa for nearly twenty years, and I have never gotten to know a single Jew. I have never met your rabbi. Now, in view of what’s happened to the Jews here, I deeply regret not having made the effort to know your people better”.

Norman, now as Tadeusz, began preparing to escape. He left a rucksack, with his most precious items, in the attic of Helena Kotula’s home. That was probably their last meeting.

After leaving Kolbuszowa, he joined the Home Army (AK). His so-called “good appearance” and his impeccable Polish enabled him to assume his new identity without arousing any suspicions. He worked for the underground while, at the same time, helping Jewish families to hide. He survived to see the end of the War in 1945. Salsitz emigrated to the United States, where he wrote about his wartime experiences. He was the only member of the Salsitz family to survive. His brother was shot by the Germans, while the rest of his family perished in extermination camps. He died in 2006.

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I deeply hope that the telling of this story will lead to finding someone who still remembers Helena Kotula or Father Antoni Dunajecki.