During the Nazi occupation of Poland my grandparents Slawa and Izydor hid thirty-nine Jewish Poles in a basement beneath the house where they lived. During those dangerous years, my mother Ania was born literally above the secret hiding place. At that time, hiding a single Jew was punishable by immediate execution. I grew up with this amazing story and it shaped my life. Years later, Slawa was often asked, “Why did you save Jews?” She always answered: “Me? I did not save Jews, I saved people, friends and acquaintances.” “But you were 24 years old then, were you not afraid you’d be caught and executed?” Her reply: “What are you scared of? You can’t kill a person 39 times, only once.” The choices that this young girl made with her future husband set the tracks of our lives. Slawa’s example deprived us of fear of the unknown and planted the seed of courage that shaped us, leading to the establishment of this foundation. This is her story.
Dying almost on our hands in December 2006, she told me and my husband, Piotr, that she is not afraid of anything and that we must not cancel the wedding and reception planned for January, because she wants it so, period. She wanted to save people – she saved, she wanted to die because she lost her sight and she died.
At just eight years old, she came to her dad and said she would not go to religion classes because she did not like the priest and … she did not go.
My grandmother was born in Borysław on February 9, 1919, the second child of Ewa and Jaroslaw Skolski. When asked about her name (Slawa derives from Jaroslaw, a common male name in Poland), she always answered: “Who the hell names a girl after her father! Some nightmare.” From early childhood, Slawa had a huge visual impairment and was called Blind Tiutia or Kubuś. As a child with a disability, she did not have many friends; instead, she befriended stray cats and dogs. But she was strong-willed: at just eight years old, she told her father that she would not go to religion classes because she did not like the priest – and she didn’t go! In 1939 when the war broke out, Slawa was 20 years old.
The War in Slawa’s words
Transcribed from an interview – parts in brackets added for clarification.
Slawa: “I was born in Boryslaw, but I went to school in Drohobych [a city in the south-eastern corner of Poland, today part of Ukraine]. In 1937, I passed my high school exam and was living with my parents in Drohobych. My younger sister was in north Poland when the war began. My older brother Zbyszek went to war, he was in German captivity and afterwards he never returned to Poland. Literally on the last day of August 1939 [a day before Germany invaded Poland] I was returning home. [In September 1939 Soviet Russia occupied eastern Poland following a secret pact between Hitler and Stalin. Later, Germany occupied all of Poland]. We survived the Soviet occupation in a terrible way. We could not get used to the Russians; you could not even go out on the streets. Then in 1941 the German-Russian war broke out. I was then in Lviv, I had gone to a friend’s wedding by train but when I arrived the wedding was over. Lviv was bombed, we saw a bombed tram, it was scary. The Russians, as they retreated, had murdered everyone.
[When the Germans took over] I saw the humiliation of the Jews who had to carry these corpses, beaten with rifle stocks, jerked, kicked and executed in the streets if they didn’t follow the Germans’ orders.
“I wanted to return home as soon as possible, but the horrors of this war were impossible to escape. One of the first moments that left a terrible impression on me happened on the street where I lived with my parents. I was coming back from my friend when I saw a German tossing a tiny child onto the back of a truck and a mother tries to climb onto the back of the truck with another child at her breast. When I came back home I cried terribly and I couldn’t calm down.
“The next day I went with my sister to the city and saw a girl who said to her reflection in the glass: ‘you did not want to eat bread with butter before and now you eat the skins and you enjoy it’. Returning home, we saw a gathering of people in front of a house, it turned out that a whole family had swallowed poison instead of turning themselves in to the Germans, because they were to take Jews from our street.
“At that time I met my future husband Izzy at a friend’s house. Izydor was eleven years older than me and he introduced me to his Jewish friends. They were gathering on Szaszkiewicz Street with his two friends, the Zajferts. There I met most of the people whom we later saved in the basement. Among other things, there was a two or three-year-old girl, Ania Lindt. Her parents, when they could hide somewhere, asked me to take this little one to myself, she talked about herself: ‘red as a tomato, red like a carrot’. In fact, two Germans walked down our street searching for Jews. I asked my mother and sister to leave the house and put Ania in the window, thinking that the Germans would not suspect that a Jewish child would be exhibited in a window! I was also a little red-headed then, and she could pass for my child. And so she saved herself. We saved Ania a few more times, she was the youngest child in our basement hiding-place. At that time, in 1942, the [Drohobych] ghetto was established. Unfortunately, I did not manage to save any of my schoolmates.”
In fact, one of Slawa’s schoolmates did survive, but not through Sława’s actions. Her other friends were killed.
In 1942 when the Nazis began systematically hunting Jews in Drohobych, Slawa and Izydor Wolosianski began saving Jews: “Whenever there was an aktion [a round-up of Jews to transport to death camps], Izydor hid his friends in a basement of the workshop where he worked, bringing them food for two, sometimes three days. While he took food down to the basement, I waited in the yard to make sure they were not seen. Jews who were not willing to move into the ghetto, or feared they would be killed immediately – children and elderly people – had to find places to hide outside the ghetto.” There were two Jewish families whom Izydor already knew — the Seiferts and the Stocks. In a basement of a house owned by Mr. Seifert at 9, Szaszkiewicza Streetto, Izydor prepared a hiding place for the two families. Wolf Stock, who was a skilled parquet worker and a carpenter, and his wife Genya hid their daughters Stella and Shulamit, together with their Jewish nanny Sala; the Seifert children were there too. The older Mr. Zajfert went to the ghetto and died there.
Others joined the Stock and Zajfert children in the hiding place. “The older Mr. Seifert died in the ghetto. His sister and her daughter and husband Mr. Hendel (who did not speak Polish at all) were in the basement. Also Mrs. Rosenberg, who refused to go to the ghetto and her daughter Hela, who witnessed how the Germans shot her father. We were supposed to look after them, bringing food. We lived above the basement in three rooms, and in addition there was an office with two more rooms on the ground floor. On the upper floor lived Herzer, a German treuhander (trustee), with his housekeeper. For us it was a favorable circumstance, because maybe they would not search a house where Germans lived, maybe they thought he had oversight over us.
“Mrs. Hendel was supposed to go to the ghetto every day but she did not do it, and she slept in our apartment. She used the bathroom and had her own place with us and above all she could be in touch with her husband and daughter hiding in the basement. The descent to the basement was through the corridor between the office and the kitchen of our apartment. However, it was very dangerous, I ordered to nail it shut and make an entrance in the kitchen floor. Mr. Stock did it. He and his wife still worked outside, they only came from time to time. They brought something to eat if they managed to get it, but mainly I and my husband were bringing food.”
“At the time one German wanted to move into this apartment. It wasn’t good for Herzer because he drank and the housekeeper was his lover — he didn’t want his wife in Vienna to know about his excesses and how he lives in Drohobych. He offered my husband to bring his father Mikolai and his daughter Stefa instead, however they could not be brought back. So then we decided to get married [so that we could stay in the apartment]. In the meantime two or three people joined, this bunch was getting bigger. When we got married there were already fourteen people hiding there. It was winter of 1943, we got married on January 6th.
Meanwhile, Wolf and Genia Stock had joined their daughters in the basement. “Fourteen people are an army of people, I bought food in a different shop every day, no-one knew me, my mother ran a farm before, so no one knew how many people I had to feed. Even if someone recognized me, I said that I was shopping for my parents or for my friend [Stasia Langer] (who, on a side note, hid eighteen Jews, not in her own home but in her work place). My husband traveled to the train station and bought from the traders, kasha, flour if he managed to buy it. He rode and returned by horse-drawn carriages if they were available. Everyone was stocking up, it was no surprise to anyone that someone was stocking up. I did my best so that no one would see my supplies that disappeared in the basement the same day.
“In the basement they had gas, light. They could cook there, but large cooking took place in our kitchen, for example, porridge was made at night. They slept during the day. At night, they started to live, wash, eat because nobody could hear them at the office, nobody was there at the time. We were not afraid of the German [Herzer], I was in good relations with him, he spoke great Polish. He only told me that his lover was afraid, because the partisans were near Drohobych. He did not harass me and my husband, but when the [Jewish] janitor opened the gate too late he kicked him all over and the janitor died. He also turned in the [Jewish] man who took care of his horse. [Herzer] rode a horse on a daily basis, and he took this man to the place of execution, Dachowczarnia camp.
“Nobody knew that there were people in the basement with us. If anyone knew, we would not be here anymore. My parents did not know, my sister Danusia did not know, only my school friend who had the same ordeal on her shoulders as we did. Sometimes we helped each other. If she had spare food and could not deliver it to her people, she brought it to us. I used her sometimes as a cover. For example, when a lady came with milk, I said that I was taking it for her too, and there were five of them at home. In general, it was hard to get food during the occupation. We survived, no one died of hunger.”
Thirty-nine people lived in that basement and all of them survived the war, thanks to Slawa and Izydor. When the Red Army entered Drohobych in September 1944, the survivors emerged from underground. Most of them had lost all their families, their loved ones, their world was gone. As the war ended and the Soviet occupation began, they set fled westward and eventually rebuilt their lives outside of Poland. In December 2006, my grandmother was 87 years old and already blind. I came to see her with my future husband, Piotr. Dying almost in our hands, she told us that she is not afraid of anything and that we must not cancel the wedding planned for January, because she wants it so, period. Slawa was always a determined woman: when she wanted to save people – she saved, and when she wanted to die because she had lost her sight – she died. She is my role model and the reason I do what I do today.