Holocaust Story

August 2012
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Lost and Found

By Nadja Zajdman 2004

During a time of war and a place of horror, a time and a place we consider unrelated to our own, friendship flourished between two young men wooing two Jewish sisters. One of the men was a Polish Catholic, the other, a Polish Jew. The Catholic youth became a smuggler. When Warsaw's Jews were walled into their ghetto, Janek's business activities allowed him daily access to the girl he loved. Unknown even to the members of his immediate family, he had joined the Underground.

Janek Bartczak was generally perceived as a dandy. His brother-in-law, a policeman who patrolled outside the Ghetto gates, dismissed him as a spiritual lightweight. He strutted through the streets of the Ghetto in knee-high black-leather boots, a black leather coat, and a Tyrolean-type hat. His hair was flaxen and his features, Slavic-sharp. His intimidating appearance made a powerful impression on his Jewish friend's teen-age sister Renata. His phantom would swagger through the back alleys of her memory for the next fifty years. Trying to transmit his image as vividly as she could, Renata would come to call her ghost "Richard Widmark."

During the height of the deportations in the summer of 1942, Renata was arrested by Janek's brother-in-law at the Ghetto gates. The arrest had been pre-arranged. Pawel Golombek used his position to lead out to safety the Jews he was supposed to be shutting in. His apartment had become a safehouse. He and his family supported not only themselves, but also the escapees he sheltered, by the smuggling activities of his wife's two brothers, and by selling the moonshine manufactured in the kitchen, as well as his policeman's salary. An unquestioned arrest, a child snatched from Umschlagplatz, hidden under his coat, and delivered to the sanctuary presided over by his wife and mother-in-law--he committed these acts of breathtaking heroism under the noses of the Germans and his anti-Semitic neighbours, acts which, had they been discovered, would have led not only to his execution, but to the execution of his entire family.

As of September 1, 1942, there were two Jewish girls sheltered by the Golombeks. There was the dark-haired, dark-eyed, ten-year-old Isabella whom Golombek's sister-in-law claimed to neighbours, to be her illegitimate daughter by a Roma. There was the blue-eyed Renata, whose chestnut hair had been bleached blonde by her brother. Renata had come from a wealthy family, and had grown up on fashionable Krolewska Street. She'd been pampered and perhaps, a touch spoiled. Three years earlier, she'd been setting the table for her mother's birthday breakfast when the roar of the Luftwaffe signalled the invasion of Poland. Since that day, she had endured bombardment, homelessness, and refugeehood. She had witnessed the death of her mother in Soviet-occupied Poland, and had been caught in Operation Barbarossa. She had slept in ditches and stolen food from fields. After an arrest and an escape, she had been chased through the woods, captured, and her throat was cut like any other hunted animal. She had been beaten by Polish police, thrown into jail, and further beaten in a cell shared with Polish prostitutes. She had smuggled her way into the Warsaw Ghetto, to her brother and sister, and her brother had her smuggled back out.

On the evening of September 1, 1942, the Russians sprang a surprise bombing raid on Warsaw. They tossed flares from the sky in order to identify their targets. The Golombek family, along with Isabella, hastened to the basement of their apartment building. Renata was instructed to remain upstairs, for fear she'd be recognized as a Jewess and betrayed by their neighbours. Feeling abandoned in the safehouse during the bombardment on the anniversary of her dead mother's birthday, the girl snapped. She went to the bathroom, found a razor knife, and was on the verge of using it when Janek Bartczak returned upstairs. He grabbed the knife before it reached her wrist, pulled the hysterical girl out of the bathroom, wrapped her in blankets and then into his arms. Stroking her head, Janek rocked her and soothed her with visions of survival and a new world--a world at peace and free from humiliation, violence, and pain. He sang lullabies until Renata finally fell asleep. What sent Janek into the apartment precisely at the moment the Jewish girl was yielding to despair, we don't know, but clearly, he'd been sent. Had he not, I might never have been born. My mother was yet to endure a return to the Ghetto and its subsequent uprising, an escape through the sewers, deportation to Germany and slave labour in the factories of Mannheim under false papers as a Polish Catholic, and the Allied invasion. Victory and peace, for her, heralded three years in a displaced persons' camp. Immigration to Canada in 1948 led to further exploitation as a domestic servant in the kind of homes which resembled the home she'd come from.

During a brief, unhappy return to Poland in 1945, my mother was informed that Janek Bartczak had perished on the Warsaw barricades during the uprising in August of 1944. She mourned him, and in her mind, she buried him--until early in 1996. My mother has become deeply involved in Shoah education. She lectures, guides, and works as an interviewer on oral history projects. She was one of the first members of the child survivor movement. The network she has developed extends around the world. In 1996 she decided to find out what had happened to the child Isabella, with whom she'd shared sanctuary in the Golombek household 62 years ago. During her search she stumbled upon an old address for one Janek Bartczak. My mother runs regular spot-checks, and one must be prepared. In the present act of her life, the imperative to impart the legacy of her spectres has become even more intense. I was with my mother during the first weekend in February, 1997. Casually she queried, "Who was Pawel Golombek?" Innocently I answered, "He was a Polish policeman."

"Right. And who was Janek Bartczak?"

"Ahh--Richard Widmark?" Mama smiled. Close enough.

"What happened to him?"

"He was killed in the August '44 uprising."

"Not necessarily." She called a member of her child survivor group in Chicago, a woman for whom she'd been instrumental in re-uniting with a twin brother in Poland. The woman went to the address the next day. "He doesn't live there anymore. The neighbours say he moved to Arizona." Within the week, Bartczak was resurrected, metaphorically enough, in Phoenix...In the summer of 1944, trapped on the barricades in the Old City, Bartczak ducked into the sewers and re-surfaced in the centre of Warsaw. Starving, stinking, he hauled himself, half-dead, out of a manhole--and looked up into the face of his stupefied brother-in-law!

Continuing to fight as a soldier of the Underground, Bartczak was captured by the Germans and sent to a POW camp in Germany. In the spring of 1945, he escaped to the American zone. He made his way to Italy and joined the Polish army-in-exile under General Anders' command. His unit was transferred to England. Only in 1947 did he notify his family in Poland that he was alive. He immigrated to South America. He married an Argentinian woman. They had a son. In the 1960s, the Bartczak family immigrated to the United States and settled in Chicago, where they remained until 1995...

"I have to go see him."

"I know."

"You have to come with me."

"I know that too."

"It will be a nice vacation for you. You'll be able to take off your boots, wiggle your toes, lie in the sunshine, swim in an outdoor pool--"

"Too bad we couldn't have gone in January."

"Sorry darling. Janek Bartczak was still dead in January."

My mother flew to Phoenix, alone, after Easter, '97...During the 1944 uprising, Zofia Bartczak Golombek, her nine-year-old son Andrzej, her mother Maria, and the Jewish child whisked away from Umschlagplatz two years earlier, were arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Neighbours had betrayed them for saving and sheltering Jews. The child snatched from Umschlagplatz was spared the gas chamber because Maria claimed her as a granddaughter. In January of 1945, in the face of advancing Russians, the Germans evacuated Auschwitz. The two women, with the two children, escaped during the early days of the death march. After the war Janek's Jewish friend, my uncle Aleksander, moved Pawel Golombek and his family from Warsaw to Gdansk, and got him a job as a doorman in a government office. In 1946, Golombek travelled back to Warsaw with the child he had carried under his coat, a girl who had become a sister to his son, and delivered her to Jewish community representatives, who sent her to a surviving father in England. Facing arrest and possible execution by the Russian occupation, which accused him of having collaborated with the Germans because he'd been a policeman, my uncle Aleksander testified on Golombek's behalf. My uncle was the only Jew to maintain contact with the Golombek family, until he immigrated to Australia in 1959.

In 1961, Pawel Golombek was suffering chronic asthma, and he was destitute. His 86-year-old mother-in-law was incapacitated, and his wife was chronically ill from her ordeal in the concentration camp. This giant wrote to Warsaw's Jewish community, asking for financial assistance. As far as we know, there was no response. He died five years later, at the age of 60. The deaths of Maria and Zofia followed. Sixty-nine-year-old Andrzej lives in modest circumstances, in the vicinity of Gdansk.

Isabella survived. She has her own story.

During her visit to Phoenix in April of 1997 my mother interviewed Bartczak, in Polish, for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. Thirty years earlier he had tried to trace the Jewish woman he left behind, to no avail. When my mother got involved the woman was located, and contacted. Ada had survived, immigrated to the United States, married twice, and was living in New York. The wartime lovers were re-united over the phone, but they would never see each other again. On Tuesday, July 13, 1999, my mother called Janek to say good-bye. She was leaving for her annual sojourn to Poland. On Sunday morning, July 18, Bartzcak’s son called Montreal looking for my mother, and found me. His father was in hospital, having sustained a mild stroke. In the evening, Tony called again. Bartzcak had suffered a second, fatal stroke and died for the second, final time. He was 79…Due to the testimonies of my mother, Ada, Isabella, and the child hidden under a coat, who’d been sent to a surviving father in England, in the spring of 2003, Janek Bartzcak and Pawel and Zofia Golombek received posthumous official recognition and medals as Righteous Among The Nations from Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem…My mother had not only managed to say good-bye, she had found a way of saying thank you.


from the August 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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