When my parents died, they left behind many puzzles. One of the most profound is of the woman who hid them for a year and a half in the cellar of her villa in Grochów, Warsaw.
That’s where I hide – in the Dagnan mill,
joining other whispers in the mourners’ kaddish…
In the Dagnan mill my sons
set off on a bedbug hunt…
The Tarnów – Piwniczna – Slovakia Courier Route
In January 1995, three high-class cars pulled up by the municipal cemetery in Piwniczna. It was the peak of winter and visitors to the cemetery were few and far between. Three elderly men, dressed in black, got out of the cars and, without looking around, walked in between the tombs. They met by one of the graves and began talking. After exchanging a few polite phrases, they pushed their hats down and began chanting a sorrowful song in Hebrew, and afterwards drove together to the Dagnan family house.
The Piwniczna Dagnans come, in a straight line, from Stanisław Dagnan, a mill owner in Tarnów. His son Bolesław moved to Piwniczna after World War I and opened his own mill, sawmill, and several other undertakings, while Bolesław’s uncle Jan was the provost of the Piwniczna parish. Bolesław was a very energetic man, and it took him little time to convert Piwniczna into a fairly industrial town, employing in his factories a great number of the residents of the mountain resort.
Józef K., Anzelm L., and Mojżesz W. came to Piwniczna to pay their respects at the grave of the man who saved their lives several decades ago. That man was none other than Bolesław Dagnan himself. They previously participated in an anniversary reunion in the former Auschwitz – Birkenau camp, where they had lost their parents and siblings. History ran full circle and these men returned to Piwniczna, where, many years earlier, hidden in the mill, they looked forward to an uncertain future. Gathered from various regions of the country, they waited for their guides at Stanisław Dagnan’s in Tarnów, and subsequently made their way safely to Slovakia and Hungary.
The Tarnów – Piwniczna – Slovakia courier route was established in the late 1939. Initially, the guides were transporting Polish military officers west, usually to France, but several months later, at the initiative of the “Żegota” organization and the Home Army (the AK), fugitives were also included in the operation. The mills in Tarnów and Piwniczna were perfect hiding places for people waiting for their transports. The scale of this risky operation is best described in the account of Michał Łomnicki, one of the better known guides. In his memoirs, Łomnicki writes about the two hundred Jews and several hundred Poles he led out of the country.
One of the first Jews, if not the very first, to be hidden by the Dagnan family in Tarnów and to make his way to Piwniczna and subsequently to Hungary, was Anastazy Dagnan’s brother-in-law, whom the guides remembered as Fredek. After paying 200 dollars he was picked up from the mill in Piwniczna by the Reichert brothers, who transported him to Slovakia. Later on, all the way to Budapest, Fredek was under the care of Jan Podstawski, one of the most reliable Piwniczna couriers.
Adam Bartosz, the director of the Tarnów Museum, in his article Mystery of The Mill writes about a hideout in the garret of the mill, discovered during the demolition of the building. The concealed space had nine square meters; a Jewish family from Tarnów had supposedly been hiding there. Was this hideout used by the fugitives awaiting safe transportation to Piwniczna or was there another hiding place? This remains unknown; what is certain, however, is that the Dagnan mill in Tarnów was a waypoint on the route to Hungary. This is corroborated by the accounts of the rescued Jews who continue to visit Piwniczna, as well as by the tales of the former couriers and guides. Jan Podstawski, already mentioned in this article, tells the story of his mother Katarzyna Podstawska, who used to go to Tarnów to retrieve the Jews hiding in the Dagnan mill.
One day Mrs. Podstawska came from Tarnów with a scared young woman and her three-year-old daughter. The woman was the wife of a German official. The couple married four years before the war broke out, but after the Nazi forces occupied the town they were forced to divorce and cease all contacts. In order to help his family, the husband arranged for them to be transported to Hungary and to that end managed to get in touch with the couriers, through his acquaintance Stanisław Dagnan. After arriving in Piwniczna, the woman and the child stayed in Bolesław’s mill, waiting to be taken acros the border. Hunger, separation, and constant fear drove her to madness. One night she escaped the hideout with her daughter and boarded a train to Tarnów. Perhaps she wanted to see her husband one more time, or maybe she was simply no longer aware of the danger. In Bobowa the train was boarded by the SS, who went on to check the passengers’ papers. When they approached the woman, she took out a cyanide capsule from her pocket and poisoned her daughter and herself. Informed of the tragedy, her ex-husband shot himself in his Tarnów apartment.
With the great number of courier routes, it was inevitable that not all were used by honest people. Some were plain bandits, blackmailers, and traitors. This perhaps was a reason behind the fact that the other couriers did not seek to divulge their stories after the war; this humility meant they were often forgotten and deprived of praise. Jan Podstawski, sworn in along with Stanisław Marusarz in Budapest by an officer in the Polish Army, colonel Jasiewicz, served with the AK under the codename “Rąbalski.” He operated under Paweł Liber, codename “Sprytny,” the organizer of the first transit network from Piwniczna. After the liberation Podstawski led a very humble life, never seeking any recognition for his honorable past. The youngest of the guides, Michał Łomnicki, was arrested in 1942 and despite the cruel tortures he did not give away any names. Bought out from the Gestapo, he continued to take people across the border until the very end of the war. He wrote down his memories, and in 1993 was awarded the Righteous Among the Nations title in recognition of his efforts to rescue members of the Jewish population, and in particular for the help given to Henryk Zvi Zimmermann, an operative of the Jewish underground.
The fates of the three mysterious men were about as disparate as can be for people anathematized by the authors of the war. Józef K., captured by the Budapest Gestapo during a prayer in a synagogue, was taken to Auschwitz. He survived the torment of the camp and settled in Argentina after the liberation. Due to various circumstances, Anzelm L. wound up in Yugoslavia and fought along with the local partisans, leaving for Australia after the war. Mojżesz W., hidden away by Hungarian farmers, moved to Israel.
In 1995 the men made their last visit to the past, to Piwniczna and the life they were granted through the efforts of the Dagnan family.
For 45 years after the war the history of Polish Jews and the extent of their suffering were eagerly suppressed by the authorities. Many facts, unknown to us, are gone along with the witnesses of these events, just as many have evaporated from memory, and the oral history is becoming more distorted with each generation. Still, the story of the Dagnan family leaves us with a lasting faith in the magnanimity of simple people and the greatness of small towns.
/after the Piwniczna Museum, Towarzystwo Miłośników Piwnicznej (Friends of Piwniczna Society), Piwniczańscy Żydzi na tle dziejów miasta (Piwniczna Jews in The History of The Town), by W. Wdowiak, A. Talar / The article was originally published in Gazeta Krakowska/Tygodnik Tarnowski on July 31st, 2009; reprinted with the author’s consent.