Palester Maria

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The story of Maria Palester

Maria Palester née Szulisławska lived during World War II in Warsaw. She worked in the Department of Health and Social Care of the Warsaw City Council, where she cooperated with Irena Sendler. In 1943, she was the organizer of rescuing Sendler from the hands of the Gestapo. In her apartment, she hid Maria Proner and her daughter Janina, who used the occupation name of “Pogonowski” at this time.

The fate of the Palester family before the war

Maria Palester née Szulisławska was born in Lwów into a family of traditional landowners. Adam Szulisławski, her father, was a doctor and a well-known professor of ophthamology. In 1915, Maria graduated from the high school run the the Sisters of the Order of the Holy Family of Nazareth. She was intelligent, perceptive and rebellious. She left the school with a deep dislike for the clergy, hypocracy and for religious bigotry. At the Lwów University, where she studied Romance literature, she came into contact with progressive young people. It was there that her liberal, left-wing views were consolidated.

During her studies, in 1918, she enlisted in the Orlęta Lwowskie (young Polish defence volunteers) and, as a medical orderly, participated in the war against the Bolsheviks. In the Orlęta, she met Henryk Palester, an epidemiologist. He was 28 years older than her, a widower with a teenage son, Roman, who later became a world-famous composer. Dr. Palester had converted to Judaism in his youth. In 1923, Maria discontinued her studies and married Henryk. For her parents, devout Catholics, her marriage to a Jew, and to such a much older man, came as a huge shock. 

The Palester couple moved to Warsaw, where Henryk began work in the Ministry of Health. Prior to the outbreak of war, he was head of the Epidemic Prevention Department. Maria did not work. In 1923, she gave birth to a son, Krzysztof, and, in 1929, to a daughter, Małgorzata. They lived in Mokotów district, on 53 Łowicka Street apt. 12, in a co-operative building which was occupied by a quite affluent intelligentsia. Maria was known to her friends and neighbours for her brave appearances against anti-Semitism and all discrimination.

Help for Jews

When the Germans entered Warsaw, Dr. Palester, due to his background, was forced to discontinue his work. In order to support her family, Maria gained a job in the city of Warsaw’s Department of Health and Social Welfare. Right up until the Warsaw Uprising, Henryk remained in their apartment under his own name.

Despite the direct threat to themselves, the Palester couple constantly hid, at least, two Jewish people in their home – some temporarily, others longer. Their home became something of an emergency shelter for both friends and strangers who had left the ghetto and for strangers who had come from Lwów. Maria Palester managed to dissuade her neighbour, Maria Proner and her daughter Janina, from moving into the ghetto:

“Nobody comes back alive from there”, she said about the ghetto.

She arranged so-called “Aryan papers” for them and helped them to find an apartment. They were in contact throughout the entire occupation. The Palesters repeatedly helped the Proners escape trouble. They also hid at the Palesters’ home, as did the Proners’ parents and sister following their escape from the ghetto.

In 1943, the building’s occupants survived an “invasion” of szmalcownicy (blackmailers). Denunciation was a threat not only to Stanisław and Maria (the couple who were hiding there), but to Henryk also. They bought their way out however, following that incident, Stanisław and Maria reported to the “Hotel Polski”. That was the last trace of them.

Maria met Irena Sendler at the Department of Health and Social Welfare and, as well as independently helping friends and acquaintances, she began to work with Irena. The underground organisation “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews, which operated within the Department, helped to extract children and adults from the ghetto and manufactured false papers for them. Maria searched for apartments and helped to distribute food, medicine and money to Jews in hiding all over Warsaw. She participated in the sending of milk for children in the ghetto.

Irena Sendler was apprehended by the Gestapo and was sentenced to death. Maria Palester helped organise the collection of money to ransom her and to bribe a gestapo officer. She carried packets of money, collected by “Żegota”, in her 14 year old daughter’s rucksack, hidden within barley and pasta. Irena Sendler never managed to find out how much money was involved in obtaining her freedom.

During the Warsaw Uprising, when the Germans ordered that all homes in Łowicka Street be evacuated, together with a group of neighbours, the Palesters hid in a neighbouring, unfinished building. Henryk, together with a neighbour, Dr. Maria Rudolf, organised a first-aid station, Maria Palester organised a bunker for those injured, among whom were also a few Jews. Among them was “Stefan Zgrzembski”, his real name was Adam Celnikier, Irena Sendler’s future husband, as well as Pesia (Jadzia) Rozenholc, both of whom were in hiding with the Palesters before the Uprising. Irena Sendler, at the time seriously ill, also hid there.

During the Uprising, the entire a first-aid station was uncovered and all those under its care were driven in the direction of the Warsaw West railway station. Bribed guards directed the injured towards Okęcie instead of to the camp in Pruszków. They occupied the old barracks where the Germans had earlier held Jews and then Soviet prisoners-of-war. They all awaited liberation there with the exception of Dr. Palester who, in December 1944, died in an accident when run over by a German lorry. The Palesters’ 21 year old son, Krzysztof, a “Parasol” soldier, also died in battle during the Uprising.

The Palester and Proner families after the war

After liberation, Dr. Rudolf moved the hospital to another building in Okęcie and organised the “Unit for Children and the Chronically Ill” which, in time, became an institution ran by the City of Warsaw authorities.

Dr. Rudolf’s deputy was Maria Palester who, after Dr. Rudolf left, took over the running of the institution. With time, the unit changed its name and character and became the “Warsaw Children’s Home”.

In March 1945, Maria Palester was located by Maria Proner (she had kept her occupation-time surname of “Pogonowska”) who, with her daughter Janina, had returned from a camp in Germany. Tohgether, both Maria’s ran the Children’s Home. The building which accepted the children, was not all that well suited for the purpose. In addition, the Okęcie Council was trying to rid itself of the institution. Marie made efforts to construct a new building. She obtained a site in Wola, on Dalibora Street. She guided the entire project, from its planning through to the installation of equipment. They moved in with the children in 1957. Maria Palester ran the Home until she retired in 1963. It exists to this day.

Małgorzata Palester, Maria’s daughter, graduated in medicine and specialised in haematology. She worked at the Academy of Medicine in Warsaw and retired with the title of “Professor”.

In 1980 Maria Palester was honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations on the application of Maria Proner who, after March '68, left for Israel. The Proner family planted a tree in her name at Yad vashem. The Medal was awarded in Warsaw a few years later.

In the application for the award, which was supported by evidence from Pesa Rozenholc, Maria Proner listed a dozen or so people (among them members of her own family) who, for longer or shorter periods of time, found refuge in the Palesters’ home.

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