Maurycy Herling-Grudziński: founder of the “Felicja” cell

At POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, we wish to remember those Jews who helped other Jews on the “Aryan side” in occupied Poland. The Yad Vashem Institute does not honour these people with the title of Righteous Among the Nations, as that title is only bestowed upon non-Jews. They, also, are Righteous, as understood in the broad and universal accepted sense of the word – they are people who opposed the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany. They also defended dignity and human rights. Read the story of Maurycy Herling-Grudziński from the Polish Righteous website section: Jews helping other Jews on the “Aryan side”.

During the German occupation of Poland, Maurycy Herling-Grudziński – lawyer and brother of Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, a writer who gained significant renown after the war – helped fugitives from the Warsaw Ghetto together with his wife Felicja. In the autumn of 1943, their private aid initiative was incorporated into the structures of the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews – a Polish-Jewish organisation operating at the Government Delegation for Poland. The Herling-Grudziński cell, operating under the code name “Felicja,” provided care to one-fifth of all Jews hiding in occupied Warsaw.

“From time to time, one of my friends […] would say: ‘I have some money for you, give me a receipt!’ I was a young girl, this help meant a lot to me, but I didn't even think for a moment about where it came from.” “We knew that the aid was organised by Herling-Grudziński. And from whose money? That was irrelevant. We were only interested in whether we would get it and how much, not from whom” – these were some post-war accounts of Jews who had survived of the Holocaust with the help of Maurycy Herling-Grudziński.

Jewish background. The Herling-Grudziński family

Maurycy Herling-Grudziński was born on 6th October 1903 in Kielce. His family was also connected with Skrzelczyce, where they owned a manor estate. In 1921, they sold the farm and bought a house with a mill in the nearby town of Suchedniów. Maurycy’s father, Jakub (Josek) vel Józef Herling-Grudziński, was Jewish; his mother, Dorota (Dobrusia) née Bryczkowska, was a Jewish woman from Kuźnica Grabowska in Wielkopolska Province. Maurycy’s younger brother, Gustaw, went on to become a renowned émigré writer after the war, best known for A World Apart (Polish: Inny Świat), a shocking account of the author’s experiences in a Soviet labour camp. Gustaw was reluctant to discuss the Jewish origin of his family and emphasised that they had been completely Polonised. However, his brother Maurycy, as well as sisters Eugenia and Łucja, continued to use their Jewish birth names in their private correspondence, even during the war.

Maurycy, called “Morek” at home, moved to Warsaw in the early 1920s. He graduated from the Faculty of Law and became a civil law specialist. In 1929, he opened a law office at 6 Senatorska Street. He ran it until the outbreak of the war and employed his younger sister, Łucja. 

A hideout in Boernerowo. Help of the Herling-Grudziński family to Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto

Since the capitulation of Warsaw in September 1939 until spring 1941, Maurycy Herling-Grudziński stayed in Suchedniów together with his wife Felicja, stepdaughter Irena, and sisters Eugenia and Łucja. Fearing for their safety, Maurycy’s sisters adopted a new surname – “Górzyńska.” Maurycy retained his original surname, believing that changing it would only raise suspicions among his Polish and German neighbours. Having returned to Warsaw, he worked as a bookkeeper in the tannery located at 61 Niska Street, within the perimeter of the ghetto. However, despite his Jewish background he was not a ghetto prisoner – he worked at the tannery as a Pole. He went into league with the owner of the shop, whom the Germans had employed as a storekeeper, and smuggled leather to the so-called “Aryan side” of the city. He also helped other Jews escape from the ghetto. Teresa Prekerowa, a researcher of the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews, wrote:

“After he collected his prolonged pass to the ghetto in March 1943, his friends pointed out to him that the German who issued it had underlined the first part of his name with a red pencil. Grudziński did not ignore the warning and did not return to the ghetto.”

In the autumn of 1942, Maurycy and Felicja moved to 53 Boernera Street (today’s Kunickiego Street) in the Boernerowo neighbourhood, a suburban housing estate for the employees of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs (today it forms part of the Warsaw district of Bemowo). Irena, Eugenia, and Łucja hid in Anin. The house in Boernerowo became a safe place for many people whom Maurycy had helped escape from the ghetto, for example by transporting them to the “Aryan side” under heaps of animal hides. Felicja officially acted as the owner of the house, Maurycy as her tenant.

“[…] the number of tenants of the ‘Jewish room’ (with a window to the garden facilitating potential escape) sometimes reached nine people at a time,” Prekerowa reported. Some stayed longer, others only for the time needed to find permanent accommodation. The Herling-Grudziński couple provided shelter to a total of ca. 40 people. 

Organised aid. The “Felicja” cell within the Council to Aid Jews

The private initiative of the Herling-Grudziński family eventually evolved into organised activity supervised by the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews. The code-named “Felicja” (after Maurycy's wife) first appeared in the Council’s documents in November 1943. At the time, Żegota received foreign funds and was able to increase its monthly budget, which enabled Herling-Grudziński to extend help to a larger number of people in need. “Felicja” became the largest of the cells run by independent activists within the structures of the Council. 

Jews were qualified to receive allowances based on interviews, depending on whether the potential recipients had their own resources, held a job, and on how they managed on the so-called “Aryan side.” The candidates were approved by the Council, which then set the amount of the allowance. Every month Herling-Grudziński would submit lists of candidates to Żegota along with reports. 

“[…] he felt overly constrained by these rules and tried to relax them: ‘I repeat what I included in the previous report,’ he wrote in February 1944. ‘There are many cases which require individual approach and it is therefore necessary to increase the average.’”

Above (⇧) anti-dated receipts of “Żegota” allowances signatured by hiding Jews, which have been preserved in the archives of the “Felicja” cell thanks to Maurycy Herling-Grudziński. Photo: POLIN Museum. Click to enlarge receipts and see details 🔎

Herling-Grudziński most likely only met with representatives of the Council to discuss difficult or contentious matters, such as the issue of the amount of the allowance.

“[…] the Council to Aid Jews maintained constant contact with ‘Felicja’ via ‘Ewa,’ that is Janina Raabe-Wąsowiczowa, a liaison and employee of the Council office. She passed on guidelines adopted by the Presidium, received written reports, and was also the person to whom Grudziński orally gave information which he did not want recorded in written communication, e.g. the names currently used by his wards, if absolutely necessary.” 

Allowances and their distribution. The system of the “Felicja” cell 

The allowances paid out to hiding Jews varied between 428 and 522 zloty per month: 

“[…] the highest rates are generally allotted to children as they require care and more frequent changes of clothes because they grow out of them […]. The bulk of the aid […] consists in allowances amounting to 500 zloty, although in the ‘lean’ period – in February, March and April 1944 – the average rate dropped to 400 zlotys. The full rate of 500 zloty was enough to cover modest sustenance for a month, provided that the ghetto fugitive did not live alone but formed a household together with other people or was supported by the family with whom he was staying.” 

The allowance of 500 zloty was not enough to buy clothes, shoes, etc., not to mention paying the rent. “Zofia Rudnicka and Janina Raabe-Wąsowiczowa usually hid it [the allowance money – ed.] in the double bottom of a special bag or basket, or in an ordinary bag under a layer of vegetables and fruit.”

For larger sums of money, a technique borrowed from smugglers was used – they draped packets of money around their waist and wrapped bandages around them: “A wide dress or coat concealed the deformities of the figure. The money and bandages constrained one’s movements, but it was possible to carry the money in a single run. People carrying larger sums were assisted by one or two co-workers.”

Guardians. Jews helping other Jews

As the number of Jews in need increased, so did the number of their so-called guardians. The core collaborators of the Council, taking permanent care of groups of various sizes, were Jerzy Finkielkraut, Adolf Helman, Irena Gorzowa, Marian Rzędowski, Roman Weinbaum, Adolf Bryczkowski, and Irena Sturm. Apart from them, there was a host of people providing aid on a casual basis. The guardians operated using false documents. They dealt with the same threats and risks as their charges and often also took care of their own families. 

To ensure the safety of both for the charges and the guardians and to protect the entire structure of Żegota, information about the source of funding was not disclosed. Many of the people receiving help from Żegota had no idea about the existence of the Council, and most of those aided by the “Felicja” cell did not know Herling-Grudziński’s name.

Teresa Prekerowa wrote: “[…] neither those who distributed the money were privy to the information on who was providing funding to ‘Felicja.’ Not even Maurycy Grudziński’s wife knew the source.”

Charges. Estimating the scale of help provided on the basis of receipts

Scraps of paper were used as receipts – the smaller, the safer. The guardians carried them in their powder boxes or under the strap of their watches. The charges signed them almost exclusively with their first name (children did not sign receipts); an initial or full surname was added only in exceptional cases.

They were dated a decade back and sums were divided by a hundred, for example:

“I received 4 zlotys for February – Fira – 28 February 1934”, “I received 35 zloty for May for Marysia, Alina, Irena, Józef, Jan, Wanda, and myself – Roman – 10 May 1934.”

The aid campaign lasted until June 1944. “[…] he managed to help 340 people, that is about 40 more than the Warsaw district of the People’s Party had under its care, even though the Party – being a member of the Council and having an organised network of field activists – was able to more easily overcome the difficulties in raising and distributing funds. Much greater still was the advantage of Grudziński’s list over the other ‘wild lists’ of the Council to Aid Jews.” It is estimated that “Felicja” took care of one-fifth of all Jews hiding in occupied Warsaw. 

Herling-Grudziński and the archive of the “Felicja” cell after the war

The Herling-Grudziński couple were separated during the Warsaw Uprising. Until September 1944, Felicja stayed in Boernerowo, which became a stationing post of the German forces, while Maurycy took part in fights in the Śródmieście district. He was wounded twice and deported to Rhineland after the fall of the uprising. “[…] he returned to the country as soon as it was possible and immediately became involved in the process of rebuilding the Polish judiciary.” He joined the Polish United Workers’ Party and became a judge of the Supreme Court of the People’s Republic of Poland. He took part in the works of the commission appointed to develop a uniform Polish Civil Code. He died on 21st December 1966.

“[…] as a lawyer, he valued authentic documents too much to destroy them. […] all the statements and receipts, hidden in a metal box and buried under the cellar of his villa, lay there quietly for the last six months of the war. Neither the Germans nor the looters who later plundered the deserted city managed to find them.” 

In 1976, the widow of Maurycy Herling-Grudziński handed over the “Felicja” archive to Władysław Bartoszewski. Years later, together with his entire legacy, it was placed in the collection of the Ossolineum in Wrocław.

The 187 pieces of paper – receipts for money received from Żegota – are a unique testimony to the clandestine operations of the Council to Aid Jews. Since 2017, selected receipts have been displayed at the permanent exhibition of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Karolina Dzięciołowska, ed. Mateusz Szczepaniak, March 2021

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