Preserved hideouts of Jews in Poland

During the German occupation, Jews looking for shelter on the so-called Aryan side used various types of hideouts to save their lives. These were, among others, residential houses and outhouses, dugouts, chapels and burial crypts, specially constructed hideouts, such as bricked spaces in double walls and cellars, and even empty tree trunks. Nowadays, most of these places no longer exist. In this study, we describe several hideouts of Jews from the times of the Holocaust in Poland that have been preserved and we present the stories of the people who used them.

“The attic was 1.4 m [high]. When I first came there, I was able to stand, but later it was not possible. My parents could never stand up. We were there for two years. In the winter and in the summer. In the winter you can warm yourself up, cover yourself with down or something else, but in the summer, there is no escape from the heat. When it was 30 degrees outside, the temperature under the thatched roof reached 50 degrees. It was hell. The same hell every day. Everyone would sit by some crack and gasp for air. They only brought us water at night. Every day I had to learn a text from a book. I needed to stimulate my brain. Three or four hours of studying, and then I would recite Pan Tadeusz, Słowacki, Trilogy in a whisper. I still remember those passages today,” recalled Jakub Berkman.

Attic in Suchedniów – the hideout of Mosze, Luba, and Jakub Berkman

During the German occupation, Mosze and Luba Berkman with their son Jakub hid on the property of Leopold von Krauze in Suchedniów. At the turn of 1942 and 1943, they found shelter in the attic above the outbuilding. In order to supply the Berkman family with food without arousing suspicion, Leopold von Krauze decided to keep pigs and rabbits in the building. After removing one of the boards in the ceiling, food was pulled up, and a bucket with faeces was lowered down.

The Berkman family survived the war and emigrated to Israel. Leopold von Krauze and his wife Helena have not yet been honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. In 1992, Jakub Berkman came to Poland for the first time since his emigration. After a dozen or so years, he founded a commemorative plaque on the grave of Leopold von Krauze and his wife.  

In August 2019, Jakub Berkman visited his hiding place for the first time since the war. He showed it to employees of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The building has survived, and the purpose of the attic has not changed – it is still filled with hay.

Little chapel in Trzęsiny – the hideout of Tema Rotmann (Wajnsztok)

There is a wooden chapel in the forest behind the cemetery in Trzęsiny (Lubelskie Province). It was where Tema Rotmann, born in Frampol in 1923, went into hiding.  

The chapel was probably built at the end of the 19th century on the site of a former Uniate church which had existed until 1875. It is made of wood and has a square floor plan with dimensions of 270 × 270 cm. It is a log building covered with a gable rafter roof. Beams from the former Uniate church were probably used in the construction of the chapel. Carved in them are the dates 1803, 1864 and 1884. Near the chapel, there is a water spring, which, according to the local lore, sprang thanks to St. Anthony of Padua.

During the German occupation, Tema Rotmann, hiding on the "Aryan side," changed her location many times. She stayed at various farms, secretly sneaking into the barns. She often met with hostility and aggression on the part of the local population. When the Germans began to displace Poles from the Zamość region at the turn of 1942 and 1943, Tema was included in one of the groups of deportees. She was beaten by the people accompanying her and forced to leave. One of the Poles advised her to hide in the attic of the chapel in Trzęsiny.nbsp;

“I was happy that I didn't have to ask anyone to stay the night, that I was sitting in a secure place. Nobody saw me there, but from above I saw and heard every conversation of passers-by and those who stepped into the chapel. Suddenly I heard shots. It was a group of Germans adjusting their weapons, shooting in the air just to terrify the people around. There were several of them. It is difficult to describe what I experienced then. I was sure that they would find me and kill me. However, I somehow survived. They went away and did not look for anyone in the chapel, they did not sense that there was anyone hidden there,” recalled Tema in her testimony given in 1960.

She stayed in the chapel for several days. She left it when she ran out of food. She lived to see liberation. After the war, she married Szlomo Wajnsztok and settled in Lublin. In 1957, she and her husband migrated to Israel.

There is a board placed by the chapel with a carved inscription informing of its story: “The present chapel is at least 200 years old. During World War II, a teenage Jewish girl named Tema was hiding in its attic. Thanks to the help of the inhabitants of Trzęsiny, she managed to survive two years and see the end of the war.”

Basement in Rekówka – the place of refuge for a group of unidentified people

On 6 December 1942, German military policemen murdered a group of people in the villages of Stary Ciepielów and Rekówka (Mazowieckie Province), probably as a result of denunciation. The victims were two hiding Jewish people whose names remain unknown to this day, and 31 Poles helping Jews, including Stanisław and Zofia Kosior with children: Jan (10 years old), Mieczysław (8 years), Marian (4 years), Teresa (2 years); Piotr Skoczylas and his daughter Leokadia (12 years); Marianna Kiścińska with Henryka Kordula (10 years), who had come by for a visit. . 

The Kosior and the Skoczylas families lived in one building – its current address is 36 Rekówka. For some time, two Jewish women from Ciepielów lived with them, then a group of four Jews. Their names are unknown. During the raid, no Jews were hiding at the houses of the two families. However, the Germans probably found some books in Yiddish or Hebrew, which confirmed their suspicions.

A physical trace of those events is the preserved hideout – the basement under the outbuilding. It measures 2.8 × 2 m at the base and is 1.7 m high. It was entered through a manhole measuring 75 × 98 cm. Its walls are reinforced with field stones. Originally, the basement had a wooden ceiling, which after the war was replaced with concrete. No traces of the hiding Jews have been preserved, but the memory of its history is kept by the owners of the property. In 2015, at the request of the "From the Depths" Foundation, the Mazowieckie Province Conservator of Monuments entered the basement in the register of immovable monuments.

Basement in Kożuchów – the hideout of Jakub and Aron Apfelbaum as well as Pesa Birman

Another basement used by Jews seeking shelter has been preserved under a wooden building in the village of Kożuchów (Podkarpackie Province). During the war, it was home to Kasper (according to other sources: Kacper) Pilch and his children – Czesława and Stanisław. Brothers Jakub and Aaron Apfelbaum and Pesa Birman from Frysztak stayed at the Pilch family house since June 1943. At first, they hid in the barn, and in the winter, they moved to the basement. It was entered through a concealed opening in the hallway floor, closed with a large, wooden hatch.  

After the Red Army entered Subcarpathia, the Apfelbaum family handed over their family home to Kasper. They moved to the United States after the war. In 2008, Kasper, Stanisław, and Czesława Pilch were honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Józef Oak in Wiśniowa – the hideout of two brothers

The oak named “Józef” grows in the park surrounding the Mycielski family manor in Wiśniowa, Podkarpackie Province. It is about 30 m tall and has a circumference of 675 cm. It is a natural monument, immortalised by many a painter and photographer. In the 1930s, the image of the tree painted by Józef Mehoffer was even featured on the hundred-zloty banknote. In 2016, the Józef Oak won the 2016 Tree of the Year competition in Poland. A year later, it was selected the European Tree of the Year.

During World War II, Jews went into hiding inside the partially hollow trunk of the tree. According to Jakub Pawłowski from the Markowa Ulma-Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II, they were brothers named Hymi, escapees from a forced labour camp or from the ghetto in Frysztak. They were apparently convinced to hide in the tree by Rozalia Proszak. The hollow inside the trunk was truly huge. Its lower part served as a hideout, at the top there was an observation post. Both brothers survived the occupation, but their further fate remains unknown.

Conversations with the residents of Wiśniowa provide varying, at times contradictory information on the people in hiding and the period in which they used the hideout. Archival research carried out so far has been unsuccessful in finding any brothers with the surname Hymi. They most likely had an altogether different name.

In 2020, at the initiative of Natalia Romik, dendrologist Jerzy Bielczyk examined the tree using an endoscopic camera. Inside, he discovered horizontal planks forming a staircase. This may confirm the information provided by the villagers.  

Cellar in the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw – the hideout of Ajzyk and Guta Posner, Mosze Aroniak, Dawid Płoński, Lea and Abram Stolbach

Under the surface of quarter no. 41 in the Jewish cemetery in Okopowa Street, Warsaw, there is a brick cellar. It was built in 1942 by Ajzyk Posner and Mosze Aroniak, probably after the Germans had started the so-called Great Liquidation Action (Grossaktion) of the Warsaw ghetto.

The shelter was small – it was about 1.8 m deep, and ca. 1.5 wide and 2.5 m long at the base. Aroniak and Posner used bricks from the cemetery wall or from the Mausoleum of Jewish Fighters for the Independence of Poland to build the walls of the shelter. They made the ceiling out of iron T-bars and matzevot.

Apart from Ajzyk Posner and Mosze Aroniak, the people who knew of its existence were Dawid Płoński, wife of Ajzyk Guta Posner, and Lea Stolbach-Wajnberger with her twelve-year-old son Abram. They did not stay in the “bunker” all the time – they only hid there when the Germans came to the cemetery. Dawid Płoński described the hideout as follows:  

“Mosze Aroniak […] was an officer in the Polish army. He was a strong, upright man, a beautiful figure. And the manager of the cemetery was Posner. His son was a doctor. We built a grave there with matzevot – not really a grave, but a room, though situated inside a grave. And we made a deal with this doctor that when the Germans came, whoever was in the grave would stay in the grave; and whoever was outside would not run towards it.”

A German patrol appeared in the cemetery on 6 September 1942. Ajzyk Posner, contrary to earlier arrangements, started running towards the bunker. The Germans shot Posner and his wife Guta. 

Dawid “Jurek” Płoński got out of the cemetery and joined the group of the so-called “cigarette sellers” of Three Crosses Square. Lea Stolbach died in the Majdanek concentration camp. Her son Abram was imprisoned in several camps, including KL Auschwitz-Birkenau. After the war, he left for Israel and changed his name to Carmi. In the recent years, he has made several visits to Warsaw, showing Israeli youth the hideout preserved in the cemetery.

Żabiński family villa in the Warsaw Zoo

Near the entrance to the Zoological Garden in Warsaw, there is a modernist villa built in the 1930s. It was the home of Jan Żabiński, the director of the zoo, his wife Antonina, son Ryszard, and from 1944 also his new-born daughter Teresa. During the German occupation, their house provided temporary shelter for many Jews – refugees from the ghetto and those hiding on the "Aryan side." Among them were Marysia Aszerówna, Rachela Auerbach, Maurycy Paweł Fraenkel, Magdalena Gross, Ludwik Hirszfeld, the Kenigswein family, Joanna Kramsztykówna, Marceli Lewi-Łebkowski with his family, Irena Mayzel, Eugenia Sylkes, and Eleonora Tenenbaum.

“Our house was in full sight, only slightly sheltered by some shrubberies. It had huge Venetian windows without curtains, and it was only at dusk, in accordance with the ordinance to darken the city, that we covered them with black paper. In fact, any passer-by could easily observe the residents of the two-storey single-family villa. And that's what we wanted. For the Germans, it was almost inconceivable that any conspiracy could take place in a place so exposed to the public view,” Antonina Żabińska recalled.

When Germans or other bystanders approached the villa, Antonina warned the tenants by playing the piano or singing. They then hid in the attic, in wardrobes, and in the basement. There was also a brick tunnel connecting the basement with the garden. The hiding Jews could also find temporary shelter in cages and rooms for animals.

On 7 October 1965, the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem awarded Jan and Antonina Żabiński the title of Righteous Among the Nations. Since 2015, the Żabiński villa has been made available to visitors who can learn the history of help provided to Jews in this place. One of the rooms open to the public is the basement with the tunnel leading outside the building.  

Building in Zanklewo – the hideout of Izrael, Haszka Fejga, Ida and Icchak Lewin

A brick building covered with a gable roof, located in the village of Zanklewo between Wizna and Jedwabne, provided shelter to Izrael and Haszka Fejga Lewin and their children: nine-year-old Ida Serena and twelve-year-old Icchak. They were helped by Bolesław and Apolonia Dobkowski. A total of fourteen people lived in their house. In 1942, they were joined by another four people.

“There were three hideouts. One was the kitchen cellar. The entrance was located under the table, covered with a rug. It had the area of some 1.2 × 1.2 m and was two meters high. The second, slightly larger cellar was under the grandparents' room. The third hideout was in the attic, where there was an annex and a specially enlarged wardrobe behind the chimney. The Lewin family stood inside packed like sardines,” recalled Zbigniew Dobkowski, grandson of Bolesław and Apolonia.

The Lewins only entered the hideouts in times of danger. After some time, a German officer decided to use the Dobkowski house as his lodging. The people in hiding had to move to a dugout in a field.  

In 1945, the Lewin family moved to Łódź. In the early 1950s, they all emigrated to Israel. In 1991, Bolesław, Apolonia, Tadeusz, Mieczysław, Wincenty, and Jan Dobkowski were honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. In the recent years, Icchak Lewin has often visited Poland. He came to Zanklewo, took part in the anniversary commemorations in Jedwabne, where his relatives and friends were killed. He always stressed: “There were various barns. In some Jews were burned, but in others we were rescued.”

Nowadays, the house in Zanklewo is used as a timber yard.  

* * *

Only a handful of places where Jews hid during the times of the Holocaust have survived in Poland until the present day. The ones that still exist are fewer and fewer – some are dismantled, others are falling into ruin. In 2013, the tenants of the apartment at 4 Kopernika Street in Warsaw dismantled the former hideout of Leon, Blima, and Anna Joselzon. It was specially constructed behind the wardrobe. Four years later, a basement collapsed in the village of Stańkowa in Małopolskie Province; during the war, it was the hiding place of fourteen people, including Anna Grygiel-Huryn, for two years.  

In 2018, during the demolition of the former house of Aleksander and Sabina Smolak in Otwock, the workers found a cellar under the barn. According to Joanna Bąk, the granddaughter of the Smolaks, honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations, Mosze Bajtel was to hide in that cellar during the war. The hatch leading to the hiding place has been secured by the Polish History Museum.

Krzysztof Bielawski, ed. Mateusz Szczepaniak, October 2021


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