On October 15, 1941 during the German occupation of Poland during World War II, the Germans issued a decree that anyone who provided any form of aid to Jews would receive the death penalty. For Poland, the symbol of Polish martyrdom for helping Jews is the Ulma family of the village of Markowa. At the end of 1942, Józef and Wiktoria, who lived with their six children welcomed to their home eight Jews from the Goldman, Grünfeld and Didner families. Everyone, including the seventh child in Wiktoria's womb, were murdered by the German police on 24 March 1944. That day, March 24th, was chosen as a day for Poland’s Remembrance of Poles who saved Jews.
As of this writing, the web site of Yad Vashem (The Holocaust Martyr's and Heroes Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem) lists 7,177 Poles as Righteous Among Nations, a number which has increased in recent years. Among the names listed are that of Stefania Podgorska and her sister Helena, two Catholic girls who rescued 13 Jews during the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Before the outbreak of World War II, Stefania Podgorska was 14 years old and living in a village outside the city of Przemyśl. Not caring for farm life, Stefania, with her mother’s approval, went to live with her older sister in Przemyśl and obtained a job at a grocery store owned by a Jewish family by the name of Diamant. She was much loved by the entire family who treated her as if she were a daughter. Originally in the hands of the Soviets, the city of Przemyśl fell to the Germans after Hitler attacked Russia. When the Germans occupied Przemyśl on June 28, 1941, there were about 16,500 Jews in the city and life for the Jews became increasingly impossible with a series of anti-Jewish edicts. On July 16, 1942, a ghetto was established and the Diamant family was forced into the ghetto. At the Diamant’s request, Stefania stayed in their apartment while they were in the ghetto. Stefania remained in contact with the two brothers of the family, Max and Chiam, even though it was a dangerous and risky business.
the When Stefania’s mother and brother were taken to Germany as forced laborers, it left her six year-old sister alone and without care and so Helena came to live with Stefania in Przemyśl. By then Stefania was 16 years old.
In 1942 news began to spread that the ghetto was being liquidated. Stefania decided to help.
Through a series of notes smuggled into the ghetto, Stefania agreed to hide the brothers Max and Chiam if they were able to escape. To prepare to hide them, Stefania and Helena left the city apartment and rented a small two-room cottage with an attic, which was located on the outskirts of the city. Max managed to escape the train taking Jews to the extermination camp at Belzec and found safety with Stefania. Chaim did not manage to escape and his fate was sealed at Belzec, the same place where their parents had been taken in an earlier deportation. Max became determined to get his remaining brother Henryk and his fiancée Danuta out of the ghetto and into the apartment. In time, several more arrived until there were thirteen Jews ranging in age from ten to fifty living in the small attic space. They could not leave or be seen. For a Pole to help a Jewish person was punishable by death – for the Poles helping and for the Jews being helped.
The house did not have electricity or running water. A bucket served as a bathroom and had to be emptied daily into the outhouse. Since she was such a young child, Helena did not come under the radar of the Nazis, the neighbors and others in town. She often emptied the bucket in the outhouse, carried water from the well, or was sent to the open-air markets to buy food because she wouldn’t be noticed or draw much suspicion. She kept watch at the window for anyone approaching the house when the Jews came down from the attic to stretch their legs or for a bite to eat. Stefania left the cottage each day to work in a German run factory employing Poles and used her earnings to buy food for everyone. She also traded clothes and goods for food at a time when food was scarce and had to bought in such a way as to not arose suspicion over the large quantities or the frequency of the purchases. Feeding thirteen people was only one of her daily worries. Discovery was her constant fear.
Things became impossibly dire when the Germans set up a hospital across the road from Stefania’s cottage and started taking over homes and apartments in the area. German nurses moved into one of the two downstairs rooms. Stefania and Helena were relegated to the one remaining room where they and the Jewish residents in the attic lived in constant fear. SS men were frequent visitors of the nurses, staying long into the evenings, eating, drinking and playing music for seven months while overhead 13 starving Jews struggled to ignore the smell of food and remain silent as stones lest they be discovered.
Stefania and Helena hid the 13 Jews for a total of two and a half years until Przemyśl was liberated on July 27, 1944. Because of the bravery of Stefania and Helena, all thirteen Jews they hid survived the Holocaust. They were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 1979.
For more reading on these heroic women: The Light in Hidden Places by Sheila Cameron. While listed as a Young Adult book it is certainly of a level that adults can relate to.
Also: Hidden in Silence. Available as DVD Even though this film was made in 1996 it is still worth watching the courage of Stefania Podgorska as she hides thirteen Jewish refugees in her attic during World War ll.
Photo credit of Stefania and Helena Podgorska: Jewsih Foundation for the Righteous
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One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.