Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Girl and a Half

Stefania’s Story:
For the last sixteen months of the war in Nazi occupied Poland, 17-year-old Stefania Podgorska and her seven-year-old sister Helena hid 13 Jews in their apartment's attic. It began with sheltering Max Diamant (he later changed his name to Joseph after the war due to prejudice) and later invited his brother and his brother's girlfriend, Danuta. But as time passed, the group multiplied. Despite the constant threat of imprisonment and execution if her thirteen Jewish friends were discovered, Stefania continued to provide them a safe haven. Not only that, she fed, clothed and disposed of their waste the entire time. Even when a young suitor attempted to court her, she turned him away. Towards the end of the war, an empty building from across the street was converted into a makeshift hospital.

One afternoon, two SS soldiers knocked on her door. “You have been ordered to vacate the premises within two hours.” They read to her from an official-looking sheet of paper.

“This residence has been commandeered by the Third Reich. The penalty for noncompliance is death.”

“Two hours! How will I find a place for my sister and me in just two hours?” she cried, but the soldiers merely repeated the orders and left.

For the next hour and a half Stefania ran through every street in town - but she could find nothing that would shelter all fifteen of them. After three years of looting and deprivation, the buildings were in worse shape than ever. There were doorways but no doors; houses without ceilings; rooms filled with the rubble of loose masonry and roofing material.

[In a 1990’s interview Stefania recalls] “Just ruins, nothing more. Almost two hours had gone already. So I came home. I started to cry. I said, ‘How can I leave thirteen people to certain death? I can run out, but these people will be dead…’ There was nothing available, nothing. Only twenty minutes left. I came home. I said nothing. All my thirteen came down to me, with the three children. The pressed against me, so tightly, they looked at me. My decision. Will I leave? My decision. Will I leave them or not?

“All thirteen of them said to me, ‘Run away. You don't have to die with us. We have to, but you don't have to die with us. You cannot help us anymore. Save your life and your little sister and run away, because you still have 10 minutes.’ Joseph pushed me. They said, ‘Run away. Don’t die with us. You cannot help us anymore. What you could do you did, but not now. Save your life and Helena. Go. Run away.’

“And all these people watched me, the children pressed so close I could hear their breathing, my sister too. So I really, I didn't know what to do. I said to them, ‘Well, first of all, come on. We will pray. We will ask God.’ You see, I had a picture which I bought as a little girl, of Jesus and his mother, and it always hung on my wall. And I said, ‘Come on - we will pray. We will ask God.’

“First I knelt, then my sister and all the thirteen after, behind me. And I prayed, and I turned to look. All thirteen were in deep, deep prayer. And I asked God not to let us be killed. Help, somehow. I cannot leave this apartment. I cannot leave thirteen people for certain death. I will be alive if I go, but thirteen lives will be finished - children too, and young people. I asked God, ‘Help, somehow.’

“And again I heard a voice, a woman’s voice. It was so beautiful, so nice, so quiet. She said to me, ‘Don’t worry. Everything will be all right. You will not leave your apartment. You will stay here, and they will take only one room. Everything will be all right. I am with you.’ And she told me, ‘Be quiet. I’ll tell you what to do.’ She said, ‘Send your people to the bunker. Open the door. Open the windows. Clean your apartment and sing.’

“I was like hypnotized. My head was bent down, and I was listening, I was listening and the voice said again, ‘Everything will be all right.’ Then it disappeared. I listened a few minutes more, but nothing more came.

“So I got up and said to my people, ‘Go the attic,’ exactly like the lady told me. I said, ‘I will not move from my apartment. I will stay here, so go to the attic and be quiet, very quiet.’

“And you see, I was completely different. My people looked at me, all my thirteen, and they thought something was wrong with my mind. But I said, ‘Okay now, go out, go to the bunker. Everything will be all right if you stay quiet over there.’

“And I opened the window and the doors, and I cleaned. I started to sing. I don't know how I became so happy. And all the neighbors came, and they said, ‘Miss Podgorska, what happened? Why haven't you moved? The Gestapo, the SS will come. They will kill you. This is war, this is the military. They have no mercy for the enemy - and they are our enemy. Go out. We don't want to see you killed. You're too nice, too young to be dead.’

“I said, ‘I have no place to go.’ They said, ‘Don't you have a friend? Go stay with her.’ I said, ‘No, I will not leave my apartment.’ And they also thought something was wrong with me.

“The janitor's husband came, and he said, ‘Miss Podgorska, I will throw you out. Go out, I don't want to see you be killed - I have no place to bury you.’ And he was serious. … I said, ‘No, I am sorry, I will not move from my apartment.’ And he said, ‘Something is wrong with you,’ but he left.

“I kept singing and cleaning my apartment, and exactly ten minutes past the two hours an SS man came. He was so friendly. He was laughing to me from a few yards away. He came closer to the window and he said - he spoke a little Polish, very broken but he spoke - and he said it was good that I hadn’t moved from my apartment because they would take only one room. This last room, they would take. He said, ‘Very well, you can stay.’”

However, two German nurses moved in, claiming one room as their own. But they were none the wiser of what was going on right over their heads. Months passed and the Russians conquered their village and for them the war was over. All thirteen Jews survived the persecution and were finally granted freedom. When the Russian soldiers realized what happened, they were amazed. Two girls, no, “a girl and a half” saved thirteen lives.

Max/Joseph and Stefania later married, immigrated to Israel and then eventually settled in America. Together they had one son. Stefania wrote down her inspirational story but it was rejected because according the publishers there are just too many holocaust stories out there. However, her story was adapted into a TV movie, called "Hidden in Silence" in 1996. It starred Kellie Martin as Stefania "Fusia" Podgorska, Tom Radcliffe as Max Diamant, Marian Ross as Mrs. Diamant, and Joss Ackland as a factory manager.

Max/Joseph has since passed away, but Stefania still lives in California.

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