Sunday, April 28, 2013
One young girl...
by Tadeusz K. Gierymski
The Righteous Among the Nations, the rescuers of life, are for me the most admirable people to emerge from the abattoir of WW II.
"Hidden in Silence" is a TV movie, telling the remarkable story of Stefania Podgorska, who for two and a half years hid and cared for 13 Jews in Przemysl, a small town (about 70,000 inhabitants in 1991) in south-east, German-occupied Poland. At the beginning of the WW II it was occupied by the Soviets.
I shall relate this story as real Stefania and Max tell it in the documentary film, "The Other Side of Faith."
Stefania, an ardent Catholic, was only 16 when, in November 1942, Max Diamant, who adopted the name "Joseph Burzminski," appeared at her apartment, asking for refuge. He jumped out of a train on the way to Belzec from Przemysl ghetto.
She had worked in Diamant's family store, lived with them, and after the Diamants had to relocate to the ghetto, she stayed on in theirapartment. She not only let him stay, but later went searching for his brother Heniek and Heniek's fiancee Danuta, to induce them to escape from the ghetto and to hide in her apartment.
At this time she was also taking care of her six-year old sister, Helenka, and was fully aware that she was risking not only her own, but also Helenka's life. When it became necessary for them to leave the old apartment, Stefania rented a flat consisting of two rooms and a kitchen in a ramshackle building without electricity, without running water, with only a privy, on Tatarska 3. There they walled off a cramped space in the attic above the apartment, where eventually nine adults and four children had to hide, as Joseph put it, "stacked up like sardines, head-legs, head-legs" much of the time. Joseph was a designated look-out, and the twisted position he had to maintain resulted in scoliosis.
Stefania worked in a factory to earn money "for her people," as she called them in the documentary film, and to be "legal" herself. She had to shop for, and to bring the food in unobtrusively; she had to help with complications of hygiene and demands of nature of thirteen people, who could not show themselves in public.
In the last weeks of the occupation Stefania was ordered by the Germans to vacate the premises in two hours. It was a death sentencefor the Jews hiding there, as it would have been impossible to find another hiding place, and to evacuate them at such a short notice. They asked Stefania to run and save herself and Helenka.
In despair, unable to abandon them, she went to pray in the nearby church instead. There, as she tells it in the documentary, she heard a woman's voice, a sweet, calm voice, telling her not to worry. She went home, assured her less than convinced charges that everything would work out just fine, and refused to leave them.
In the TV film she prayed in front of the pictures of Jesus and Holy Mary on the wall of her apartment, and "her people," somewhat hesitatingly and as if to support her, also slowly knelt behind the praying girl.
Shortly before the deadline she was told that only two German army nurses would be billeted in one of the rooms, and that she and Helena would be allowed to stay in the other.
The nurses had their soldier lovers spent the nights with them, and Stefania and her charges lived in constant terror of discovery until the Germans were driven out of the city by the Soviet Army.
They all survived the war, thanks to her, to Joseph, and their strong will to live. The group dispersed to other countries in Europe, to Israel and the USA. Only Dr. Schillinger and his daughter Judy remained in Przemysl. Helena is a physician in Poland.
In 1945, still in Poland, Stefania married Joseph. They now live in Boston where he is a dental surgeon and she works as his office assistant. At least such was the case in 1990 when Stefania and Joseph visited Przemysl to make a documentary, the production of which was encouraged by the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
One or the other is filmed at various locations: the railroad tracks where Joseph jumped off the train, at both apartments, in the attic, inside the church, on the streets of Przemysl, as they tell their recollections to the camera.
Like practically all rescuers, when praised, when called "heroic," Stefania answers that she only did what she thought she should do.
The documentary is free from artifice and lacks finesse; perhaps this fact gives it an extra dimension.
("The Other Side of Faith," Produced by the Documentaries International, a program of the Washington Liaison Office of T.S.E. Limited, 1990.)
"Hidden in Silence," the TV movie contains some events not described in the documentary, but its fictionalization does does not seem to do violence to the story as told by Stefania and Joseph.