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.
May 2012, Natalia Aleksiun PhD. / translation Andrew Rajcher
Jan Szwed and his wife, Katarzyna (nee Ptaszyńska) lived on the outskirts of the village of Świrz, in the Przemyślany District, near Lwów. They ran a small farm together with their three children, Hanna (a teenager), Antoni and Maria Janina (the youngest). The neighbouring villages around Świrz were predominantly populated by Ukrainians, whereas the small nearby towns of Bóbrka and Przemyślany had Jewish communities numbering many thousands. After the outbreak of war, Świrz found itself, first, under Soviet occupation and then, from the summer of 1941, under German occupation. The Szweds’ older daughter, Hanna, was sent to Germany as a forced labourer. After that, no trace of her was ever found.
In the autumn of 1942, the Szwed family took under their roof a typhus-infected Jewish boy who had escaped from the ghetto in nearby Bóbrka – nine year old Emanuel (Maniek) Krauthamer. His parents, Josef (Joszi) and Sara (nee Binder) were murdered in August 1942 in the Bełżec death camp, together with their two children – eleven year old Klara (Chaja Gitel) and four year old Icchak (Ajzyk). Emanuel had been looked after by his uncle, Abraham (Bunio) Krauthamer.
The Szwed family lived in constant fear as their home had often been visted by Germans stationed in Świrz. During a German akcja in the ghetto, Emanuel had been saved by a German soldier from Górny Śląsk (Upper Silesia) who first hid the child and then let the him go, instructing him to run away. The boy had wandered around the nearby forests until he reached the Szwed home. Years laters, Maria Szwed recalls that ”he arrived at our door and was crying terribly”.
The following day, her mother told her husband to dig a hole into which Emanuel could crawl during times of danger. Emanuel returned to the ghetto in Bóbrka just before the final liquidation in April 1943, when more than three thousand Jews were shot in a mass grave near the village of Wołow. Only a few Jews managed to escape.
The Szwed family also supported Jewish partisans who were hiding in the nearby forest. Amongst them were Julia and Izrael (Srulek) Karten. Partisans would come to their home at night to sleep, rest, warm themselves and to dry their saturated clothes. Katarzyna Szwed would also feed them, sharing with them what the family had, even in times of greatest privation.
When a woman in hiding was about to give birth, she found her way to the Szwed home. Jan Szwed and the child’s father carried her in a basket to Bóbrka, giving her to a Polish family who then cared for her. After the War, the child was returned to her biological parents.
Emanuel remained with the Szwed family until the end of the War. In 1945, he went with them to the Western Territories, to Gierałtowiec. After a month, he farewelled the family in order to emigrate to Israel, where he changed his name to Kruvi.
Over the following years, he corresponded with Maria. With the help of a neighbour, he was able to write in Polish. After his neighbour’s death, he was unable to maintain contact. In his final letter to Maria Kotwica, he apologised for that and thanked her for all the help.
Following the War, Maria had no contact with the partisans. It was only at the end of the 1970’s that Julia Karten found her in Nowogrodziec. Maria Kotwica went with her to New York where she worked for one year.