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.
Maria Rudnicka née Szukiewicz Mother
born 1887 – died 2 May 1980
born 1915 – died 1978
May 2012, Alicja Plachówna-Vasilevska / translation Andrew Rajcher
Konrad Rudnicki is a professor ofastronomy and theology, and a clergyman of the Old Catholic Mariavite Church (Kościoła Starokatolickiego Mariawitów). Since 1979, he has been a Minister-General of the Congregation of Mariavites (Zgromadzenia Mariawitów).
At the beginning of the 20th century, Konrad Rudnicki’s parents, Maria and Lucjan, participated in illegal anti-Tsarist and revolutionary activity conducted by the Polish Socialist Party (Polska Partia Socjalistyczna – PPS). His mother was a confederate of Józef Piłsudski. Her views later changed from socialist to communist.
Lucjan Rudnicki (born 02/01/1882 in Sulejów, died 08/06/1968 in Warsaw) was a man of letters. He was imprisoned for his political activity, and was sent to the Archengelsk Province (Archangielska Gubernia) for three years. He fled from there and took part in World War I against the Germans for which, during the years 1916-1918, he was interned in Szczypiorno, Hawelberg and Modlin.
The Rudnicki couple had three children. Their older son and their daughter died young. Their younger son, Konrad, lived to become an adult. In 1939, they lived in Sulejów, in the Łódż Province. Lucjan found himself on the Germans’ list of people condemned to be transported to a concentration camp. He found out about it from a Volksdeutsch acquaintance and managed to escape from Sulejów in time. He remained in hiding throughout the War and was rarely in contact with his family.
Sulejów Before the War
Prior to the outbreak of the War, Sulejów’s population was one-third Jewish. Of his home town, Konrad Rudnicki says, ”All the children played together. When I sometimes think about my schooldays, I remember my Jewish schoolmates, just as I remember the others”.
He adds that ”the Narodowa Demokracja (National Democrats – the ”Endecja”) operated in Sulejów and they were very organised. Among them were people who wouldn’t let their daughter or son marry a Jew. For such a person, that would have been scandalous.
I had an uncle who was probably an anti-Semite. He said that he understood everything except why Jesus and the Mother of God had to be Jews. Somehow, he didn’t like that. But, during the War, he helped Jews – but not to the point where he would expose himself to danger – that would’ve been too much. But when Jews were in extreme poverty, he helped them as much as he could because he considered that, as a Christian, it was the right thing to do to help a poor person”.
The Weintraub and Rozenthal Families
Maria and Konrad lived in the Sulejów district in which, in 1940, the Germans established an (open) ghetto. Their neighbours were the Jewish Weintraub family, with whom the Rudnicki family were friendly.
”There was a huge crowd in their home. People came there having escaped from Łódż and Warsaw. At first, it didn’t seen so ominous. But a crowd was a crowd and one of the Weintraubs’ female relatives spent the night with us. So that we were quite close friends with them. My first love was one of the Weintraub girls (Lusia) – she was a very importtant (person) in my life”.
In a deposition for the Jewish Historical Institute archive, Rudnicki writes about this period. ”We ran a post box for the Weintraub family and for their relatives, the Rozenthal faamily. We took delivery of letters for them under our name and address in order to circumvent the anti-Semitic pranks of the occupation authorities”.
At the beginning of the War, another form of help was to ”do things for the Jews which needed to be done outside the district (e.g. purchase goods from shops) which, from the point of view of freedom of movement, was for us quite straightfoward”.
When the first rumours of plans to ”resettle” Jews reached Sulejów, Maria Rudnicka handed over, to the Rozenthal and Weintraub families, copies of the birth certificates of her deceased children, Elżbieta and Kazimierz. Seven people benefitted from these documents – Elżbieta Taksin, Wiera Rozenthal, her son Jakub, Ignacy, Henryk (Hilel), Matylda Weintraub and Elżbieta Tulska.
These certificates enabled the obtaining of kennkarty (identity cards). According to her son, Maria Rudnicka endeavoured to obtain false papers from officials whom she knew.
”The date of deportation, 14th October 1942, caught us not completely prepared”, recalls Konrad. Mrs Rudnicka could not organise the documents. The Jewish families decided to flee Sulejów. ”They went at night, in small groups, in the direction of Końskie”. There, they hid in the home of Klementyna Margasińska and her daughter, Krystyna.
From the Rudnicki family, we also know that ”Elżbieta Tulska, believing that it was only a resettlement, went on the transport (straight to Piotrków Trybunalski, and from there by train) and perished, either on the way or in Treblinka to where the transport was headed”.
The Rozenthal family fled Sulejów on foot, a task which was beyond the strength of the oldest family member, Wiera.
Rudnicki describes the situation, ”Wiera was brought to us at night, a few hours before the deportation and, as our ‘sick aunt’, she was put to bed. After a certain time, she was registered by a friendly official (somehow he managed to arrange a formal document stating that her identity papers were stolen while she was travelling)”.
Maria Rudnicka decided to hide the elderly woman in her own home. Konrad recalls that ”Wiera Rozenthal’s personal things were brought over to our home in small batches (so as not to arouse any suspicion). From what I can remember, she was (with us) for around six weeks”.
The Rudnicki family lived in a sizeable house.
”There were four rooms, a kitchen and a kind of small maid’s room. Part of the house was affected as it was near a German school for German children. Sometimes, the army would walk around there and lately there were manouvres. So that we really only had the use of two rooms.
The ‘aunt’ was in one room and we took in guests in the other. It was well-known that we had a sick aunt and that she was bedridden. We generally didn’t change our lifestyle. Everything was normal”.
Through the winter and spring of 1943, the Rudnicki family sent, to Końskie, things which the Weintraub and Rozenthal families had left behind. In this, they were assisted by Krystyna Margasińska. ”She was the link between the Rozenthal family and us. They left certain things with us and they needed them later. I packed the various things and she took them. My mother, of course, organised all the logistics”.
In the Rudnicki home, ”all that remained were family memorabilia – documents and photographs collected, after the War by Lusia (Pesia) Weintraub, as well a a library which, after the War, in accordance with the wishes of survivors from both families, we accepted as a gift and added to our own library”, according to the deposition for the Jewish Historical Institute.
When asked how the Rozenthal family had repaid the help that they were given, Konrad replies that ”they gave me, for example, a beautiful magnifying glass which was useful to me as I was a philatelist”.
The Move to Końskie
Konrad Rudnicki says, ”that Wiera was staying in our home became known to a few people whose discretion was uncertain”. So the decision was reached that Mrs Rozenthal should travel to the Margasiński home in Końskie.
The whole enterprise was described in the deposition: ”On 22nd December, we made her (Wiera) up to look like an old small-town woman. My mother gave her a prayer booklet for her to read. A ticket was bought for her. She got onto to Sulejów train and sat there, praying the whole time, until she arrived in Piotrków. She changed trains there and reached Końskie where the rest of the Rozenthal family were”.
There is no further information on the fate of this family.
”With Lusia, it was (like this, that) her parents had perished and, alone, she had twice been close to death. Once, she was thrown out of a train. She was travelling to Oświęcim or to Treblinka, I’m not sure, and someone threw her through the window of the goods wagon. It was that simple and someone jumped out after her,” says Rudnicki.
And continuing the story that he had heard, he says, ”She had Aryan identity papers, but they were forged. It was easy to detect. And (once) a whole group of Jews was apprehended and confined somewhere or other. Because they felt that they had no hope, they began speaking Yiddish amongst themselves. Their behaviour filled her with indignation, as she felt that all was not yet lost. She was, generally speaking, a good actress and so, indignantly, she said to the German guarding them, ‘You have every right to arrest me, but not to hold me with Jews’. What was the German to do? There was only one cell. He was on guard alone. So he told her to scram. That’s how she escaped”.
After the War
”[Lusia] is probably still alive”, recalls Konrad Rudnicki to researchers from the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. ”She was in Poland. She chatted to me. But only on the condition that we wouldn’t talk about the War.That’s why I know very little about her – only the few things that she told me after the War. At that time, it was still possible to talk with her.”
The other person whom the Rudnicki family helped, and who survived the War, was Elżbieta Taksin. During the occupation, she was in Warsaw.
”She survived the Warsaw Uprising. After the War, she found herself back in the capital city. We re-established contact and saw each other often”, says Konrad.
”She asked if she could keep the surname of ‘Rudnicki’. My father said that he’d be very pleased if she did, that he now had a living daughter and we agreed to regard each other as brother and sister. So, I gained a sister and my mother gained a daughter.”
In 1968, she left Poland, ”during the second Gomułka period. There was such anti-Semitism then, that Jews were suddenly sacked from their jobs and they had to leave the country. Ela left also to Norway”.
Konrad and Elżbieta never met again, ”In 1978, a month after she died, I stood at her graveside. I had prepared to visit her – all I visited was a grave”.
Klementyna and Krystyna Margasiński
Konrad Rudnicki recalls the fate of Klementyna and Krystyna Margasiński. ”The mother, for helping Jews, perished in Oświęcim. Her daughter miraculously survived (Dachau). She died after the War”. On 9th April 2002, both women were posthumously awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
Others Who Were Helped
Rudnicki tells of others who were hidden. ”Over a few years, my cousin hid a Jewess in his own apartment, Soon after the War, he married her. Was it a matter of saving a Jew or saving a sweetheart? You can look at it either way. Also, my friend, Mrs Anna Erhard of Sulejów helped one of the Weintraubs the whole time and he survived the War. After the War, someone shot him. It’s not certain, but it was some sort of robbery. People talked about how she helped a Jew to which she replied that ‘after all, he was my fiancé’”.
Maria Rudnicka was posthumously awarded the Righteous Among the Nations medal.
”After the War, when my sister Ela Rudnicka, formerly Taksin, was still alive, we talked with my mother about it. She said ‘I didn’t help anyone in order to get some sort of honour or to profit by it’”, he son claryfies. ” And she forbade us to do anything about it. However after her death, when talk started about Poles persecuting Jews etc. etc., and that they contributed to their deaths, I thought that it would be good to add yet another name – that of my mother.”.
Rudnicki adds that ”we didn’t hide people because of the fact that they were Jews. They were simply individuals who were in danger. If it had been anyone else, it would have been the same. It wasn’t done especially because they were Jews”.
In 1943, Konrad Rudnicki joined the underground. On that subject, he says, ”Among the partisans, I was taken for a Jew, but I didn’t set them straight. I didn’t confirm or deny it. The one who accepted me knew who I was. I was in the Gwardia Ludowa (People’s Guard), and then later in the Armia Ludowa (People’s Army). My official pseudonim was Zemsta (Revenge), but I was a called Twardowski (The Tough One).