The one dusty road from my family’s farm in the tiny village of Chociszewo, Poland, leads straight to the cemetery, where my great-aunt Stasia Szymanska visits the graves of her husband, parents, and sister Todzia almost daily. Aunt Stasia still remembers the weight of Todzia’s 5-year-old body pressing against her small palms as she and my grandmother carried her casket to the graveyard. “She was beautiful in a little, white dress, like she was going to her First Communion,” Aunt Stasia said, “and she had a wreath on her head. A woman said to me and your grandmother, ‘Take a needle and prick her in the ring finger. If the blood flows, maybe she’s just sleeping.’ ”
Chociszewo is about an hour’s drive northwest from Warsaw, and there was no particular reason to stop there unless you knew they grew some of the most succulent strawberries on earth. The sales from the strawberry harvest are how my family sustains itself, ever since they first tilled the land before World War II. Aunt Stasia, a 77-year-old lifelong strawberry farmer, has cropped, caramel-colored hair that she curls with small, plastic rollers on Sunday mornings and walks around the farm in before going to church. She is the farm matron and lives now with nine family members. Her duties have been whittled down to peeling potatoes in the outdoor kitchen, a job she enjoys because she can still keep an eye on everybody while the Polish soap operas run their course.
About 20 miles north, in the city of Plonsk, Wladyslaw Gugla, the Jewish schoolteacher who hid in my aunt and grandmother’s home during the war is buried in a forgotten grave. “I remembered him walking through our strawberry fields, when it was safe,” Grandma Henia Szczepanska told me. “When the Germans were gone, sometimes he would wander for hours.”
Aunt Stasia looked out the kitchen window at my cousins changing the tractor tires, preparing for the coming raspberries. “Had the Germans known about him, they would have killed us all,” she said, holding a beautiful strawberry between her fingers. Her memories are still vivid of the balding teacher who hid in their home and risked his life teaching children during the war. He was loved by Todzia, my great-aunt and grandmother’s youngest sister, before she died of diphtheria. “Todzia would run after him with a comb and tease him, asking if she could brush the few hairs on his head,” Aunt Stasia laughed. “He would pick her up, and say, ‘O ty!’ and squeeze her.”
When historians like Jan Gross and Timothy Snyder write books about whether Poles helped or murdered their Jewish countrymen during the Holocaust, the people they are talking about are, in many cases, people like my family and their neighbors in Chociszewo. There are many accounts of Polish treachery, but there are also more Poles listed among the Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem than any other nationality in Europe. As of today, 6,339 Poles have been honored by the Righteous Among the Nations. According to the Yad Vashem website, “Considering the harsh punishment that threatened rescuers, this is a most impressive number. On the other hand, when evaluating the role of Poles in the rescue of Jews, one also has to take into consideration that Poland’s Jewish community was by far the largest in Europe and that only about 10 percent of its Jews survived.” Approximately 50,000 Jewish survivors were on Polish soil at the time of liberation, and “about 30,000 to 35,000 Jews, around one percent of all of Polish Jewry, were saved with the help of Poles and thanks to the devotion of Righteous Among the Nations,” according to the site.
Though I grew up in America, I have been visiting my family in Poland since I was a child. But it is only recently, since the great debate began two years ago between Gross and Snyder over the causes and extent of Polish co-operation with the Nazis during the Holocaust, that I thought to ask the old people of my family village about what happened during the war. My grandparents mentioned bits and pieces of our family’s World War II history over the years, but it often seemed too painful for them to recall, or as though they wanted the memories to simply be forgotten. When I finally decided to broach the topic with them, my grandmother repeated that she didn’t understand why I cared to dig so deep into the past, why I cared so much about Wladyslaw and his story.
After breakfast I went down the road to Wychodzc, the neighboring village, where Wladyslaw, my family’s Jewish neighbor, once lived in two rooms that doubled as a secret school. Cherry-red poppies grew on the edge of a field, and workers gathered strawberries in wicker baskets, and as the warm sunlight poured down it was hard to imagine Wladyslaw dying here. The bloodshed in the fields had washed away to make room for the tall sunflowers, tilting their faces toward the sky.
Wladyslaw moved to Wychodzc with his Catholic wife, Marianna—or Marysia, as the villagers fondly called her—before the start of the war and after the scandal of their union rocked Marysia’s hometown, about three hours’ southwest of Wychodzc. “She had been a student of Mr. Gugla’s. She became pregnant with his child when she was in the seventh grade. This was a big scandal,” said Edward Maciaga, 80, a villager whose family also hid Wladyslaw, and whose mother Kazimiera was a close confidante of Marysia’s. “He wanted to marry Marysia, but he was a Jew.” For him to marry her, Marysia’s family demanded he convert to Catholicism. He agreed. He was christened and they got married. “This all was not well-received because he was close to 30 years old, and she was 15 or 16,” Edward told me. “Because of the whole situation, they moved.”
Last summer, in a small cabinet in a school in Chociszewo, I found a sturdy, leather-bound book, where I saw my Grandmother Henia’s grades from 1946, along with her father Czeslaw’s name and profession. Seven rows up, I found Modesta, with her father Wladyslaw’s information, written in extremely neat handwriting. Suddenly, the intertwined histories of the Poles of my family’s village and the Jewish-born schoolteacher they sheltered came alive.
Wladyslaw was also on the run as a teacher. According to Nazi racial theories, the Slavs did not need, nor deserve, education. Limited elementary-level education was in place in some areas, where children were taught in non-Polish languages like German and Russian. (Hans Frank, the Nazi governor general of occupied Poland, worded it best: “the Polish lands are to be converted into an intellectual desert.”) And so Wladyslaw was never even remotely safe from capture, practicing a profession the Nazis honored by sending teachers to the ghetto in the nearby village, deporting them to concentration camps, or immediate execution. “It didn’t matter whether he was a Jew or a Pole. If the Germans found out he was teaching, he would be killed,” said Edward. “Many teachers died in nearby villages. In Czerwinsk, there were teachers who were educating children during the war. They were arrested and died in a concentration camp in Pomiechowek. It was not a simple act to teach children during the war. It was extremely dangerous.” During the war, according to one source, about 15 percent, or roughly 8,000 of Poland’s teachers, were executed.
Every weekday morning during the war, when he wasn’t running from the Gestapo, Wladyslaw carefully arranged six chairs in a room in Wychodzc, where he lived with Marysia and their daughter Modesta. Wladyslaw and the villagers would get warning signals from a Polish housekeeper and not-so-secret lover of the German military police commander. The housekeeper was also, conveniently, a member of the Armia Krajowa, the Home Army, the largest Polish underground resistance movement and one of the biggest in Europe during World War II.
He lived as a panicked man. In one of the rooms that doubled as a secret classroom, he pulled out a table, rug, and several Polish schoolbooks while nervously waiting for his first students to arrive at 8 a.m. He had one ear to my grandmother’s or her sister’s footsteps in the fields—for any sign he should hide. The children never went down the main road where German soldiers would march before resting in Poles’ homes and eating their pigs and drinking their water and complimenting them for learning German and occasionally, depending on their mood, killing their families.
The children entered Wladyslaw’s home from a door on the north side and traveled in small groups or alone. He quickly ushered them in and quietly closed the door. “I was a small girl, but I knew he was Jewish. But we never talked about him in hiding, or his situation,” said my grandmother, who was 7 years old at the start of the war, in 1939. When communism penetrated their lives, their war experiences were silenced behind a thick curtain. “It’s only in today’s times that people talk about it, and it’s taught in schools. Back then, parents didn’t talk about politics, or the Jews, or the Germans. They didn’t talk about it at all,” said Aunt Stasia.
My grandmother and aunt walked through the fields to school with Wladyslaw when he had been hiding at their home at night. They carried Polish books inside books with German writing so that the soldiers would be convinced they were learning German. “One time, a German soldier saw that I was studying in my home and that my notebook was in German. He was pleased that I was learning German,” said Edward, smiling proudly at his small, childish effort to stick it to a German occupier.
The children opened their Polish books, tucked deep into the German literature that they tossed aside during lessons. Wladyslaw, helped by his wife, secretly taught Polish language, math, history, and geography. “On the outside, he didn’t look differently from anyone else,” said Edward. “His accent was Polish. Even from the accent, you couldn’t tell he was Jewish. He just had a personality that was, well, very difficult.” Marysia checked their homework in the room 100 meters from Edward’s home and steps away from the homes of a handful of women with whom Wladyslaw was rumored to be having affairs. The children sensed their tension in the way he talked down to her and in the fights they failed to control.
Love during the war was a strange, dark, and twisted concept. It was the blood that ran red and kept your family glued together and alive, or the very thing that could force a fatal betrayal. “Here in Chociszewo, there was a Jew hiding by a couple’s home. The wife and the Jew fell in love, and she betrayed her own husband to the Germans,” said Aunt Stasia. “She told them he was hiding a Jew. They immediately came, took her husband away, and killed him, and she stayed with the Jew. She lost her husband. When the Russians came later, they took the Jew, and they killed him, too.”
How did she reconcile such betrayals? I asked. “I don’t know. It’s hard to understand people like that,” she said. “But in our home, all kinds of people came, and somehow they weren’t afraid. They knew we wouldn’t betray them.” In addition to Wladyslaw, my family also apparently hid two cousins from the Germans. I finally asked a question often difficult for Poles to broach, and even more so to answer: whether our family had ever betrayed anyone, turned anyone over to the Gestapo. “Oj. My family protected them to the end. Nikogo nie wydalismy,” she said. We never betrayed anyone. I asked my Grandmother Henia, and she said the same.
But my family did turn away Polish partisans seeking refuge. Hunted by the Gestapo because of their resistance work with the Home Army, they came to my family’s door and asked my great-great-grandfather to hide them. He told them to go instead to the neighbors. “He was already afraid for the people he was hiding,” said Aunt Stasia.
Wladyslaw was an excellent mathematician who always demanded obedience. “If anyone misbehaved, whatever he had in his hand, he hit you in the head with it, and that was it,” said Edward. Grandma Henia clarified, “He threw whatever he had in his hand at you. But I was friends with Modesta, so I was in the clear,” she laughed. “But he was a very, very good teacher.” Aunt Stasia, too, said even though he was stern, “I’m indebted to him because he taught me during the war. I finished three grades in one year after the war.”
Wladyslaw, on average, taught 10 students a day, when there were no signals being sent out through the village that the Germans were carrying out lapanki, or captures. The children sat on a rug on the floor po Turecku, Turkish style, with their feet tucked under them because there weren’t enough chairs. There were no desks or furniture or supplies that hinted of a school, in case the Germans stormed in. Each group met for two-and-a-half hours, with the last children quietly departing in the evenings. When the lessons were over, Wladyslaw would let them out one by one, at most two at a time, into the fields, when he felt it was safe. By the end of the war, there were 70 children coming to him every weekday.
Wladyslaw and his family survived off villagers’ donations. Children brought potatoes, bags of flour, sometimes money, or pork, if a pig had been quietly killed. “For killing a pig you were sent to a concentration camp. You killed the pig in a way that it wouldn’t scream,” said Edward.
My family’s farm, before the war, was a place where Wladyslaw and Marysia would spend hours on Sundays while my great-aunt and grandmother played with Modesta. During the war, Aunt Stasia said, “Everyone was afraid of the roundups. It was hard to avoid it. You’d have to never be home.” Aunt Stasia’s father was imprisoned in a labor camp in Germany after he was captured on the front lines. When one of the rooms in the house was taken over by the German army and used as sleeping quarters, the Jewish teacher Wladyslaw and two cousins huddled outside under a mound of potatoes. When roundups shook the village, they hid in the stable.
There were places where Wladsylaw knew he could hide safely. “He hid at our home. There were spaces on our farm where he lay down to hide and sleep. In the morning, he had breakfast with us. He would check to make sure the Gestapo or the zandarmeria weren’t coming, and then he would go back home,” said Edward. But Wladyslaw didn’t stay in one place long, two or three days at most, fearing someone would become too curious about an overstayed visit. “There were those that protected and those that accused. There were those kinds of people, too. It was never said where or when he was hiding for this reason. It was unspoken,” said Edward. He did not say whether he meant Poles or the Gestapo, nor did I ask. Was it because of my own assumption that, regardless of some people’s heroism, there would be Polish neighbors who would betray? Or the opposite—did I believe too immediately in people’s goodness?
Every move was fraught. Marysia suffered when Wladyslaw went into hiding. She was afraid she would be forced on pain of death to tell the Germans where he was. She was afraid that if they captured him, they could capture her, too. She was afraid that if he were taken, she and her daughter would have no way to survive.
Wladyslaw’s fate was always in limbo. “One day he was there, but no one was ever certain that the next day he would still be there,” said Edward. “The zandarmeria would always be looking for someone, but you never knew who, or why. They would suddenly come to your house, look in your attic, they would walk around your property. They were always looking to find something.” The Armia Krajowa sent out signals to villagers when they got word that the captures were coming. “The Germans knew that the AK was gathering strength on our terrain. Everyone was under the belief that at any moment, the Gestapo could come and take you away,” said Edward, whose father, a Home Army member, hid in the barn when the Gestapo came looking to arrest members thwarting their military efforts. “Every child knew that if he ran into a German, he was not supposed to say that he was going to school.”
But there were moments when humanity crept through, like when my grandmother and her sister recalled a German soldier with a boyish face who once came to their farm. He scooped up their little sister Todzia in his arms and nuzzled her. “I have a Kleinkind, a little child like this at home,” he said. “He started crying. He was German, but he, too, was sent out to fight in the war. He was in a foreign country, and left his child behind. He was so young,” said Aunt Stasia. My great-aunt and my grandmother wept when they told this story. I was surprised, and found this deeply layered and disturbing, considering the fate of their own father under the Germans.
Seven kilometers from Edward’s house, two Jews were discovered hiding in a village home. “The Gestapo found them and killed them on the spot. They killed the farmer who was hiding them and his daughter immediately, right by his home. Hiding the Jews was a great risk, but still, there were many Poles that hid them, and lived through it,” said Edward.
Wladyslaw, too, survived the war, but would die in a harrowing way only a few years later. He taught in a white schoolhouse built for the villages in the early spring of 1945, in Miaczyn, where he moved into a second-floor apartment with Marysia and Modesta.
Edward spoke succinctly with his single visible tooth, as we talked in his living room, with its lemon-meringue-colored walls and picture of Pope John Paul II. He had a comb-over paired with a straightforward demeanor and grew bulbous grapes on a balcony that overlooked the fields of Wychodzc. It was airy where we were, like the beginning of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 28, talking over Polish cakes and instant coffee.
As Edward told it, the story of Wladyslaw’s death went like this. It was late morning in the very beginning of summer, cool and around 65 degrees, a few years after the war’s end in 1945. The strawberries were just beginning to bloom as Edward guided the horse and carriage past the farmers’ fields. As he rode quickly down the road out of Wychodzc, blood began to stain Wladyslaw’s clothes, with the metallic smell of iron and shit mingling with the fragrance of the season’s new fruit.
Marysia ran into Edward’s home, terrified. Wladyslaw was sick with heavy diarrhea he expelled mixed with blood. He refused to leave the village and go to the hospital, like a typical Pole with suspicions about doctors and faith in medicine men, like my grandparents who are too stubborn to admit that their growing vulnerability could destroy all they had survived during the war. He had hidden from the Gestapo among piles of potatoes, in stables, enduring jeers from Polish children. He feared capture, ignoring the children’s laughs when he received a dangerous signal from the Home Army and suddenly ran to hide.
But there were times when Wladyslaw perhaps felt abnormally fierce. He would casually come out of hiding to face German soldiers who made frequent stops at village homes. He politely made small talk while looking into the eyes of a young boy with a uniform and a gun, whose mission was to find Slavic pigs like him. “He spoke fluent German,” said Edward. Who’s that man? a curious soldier would sometimes inquire. He’s one of our farmhands, the Poles would reply as coolly as they could, while gently pushing their children’s German-language schoolbooks into the center of the kitchen table.
Wladyslaw had been sick for two days, and when the blood began to flow and his body refused to heed him, he became so weak he couldn’t walk. A village doctor had insisted days before Wladyslaw go to the hospital, and the sick man finally gave in. He climbed into Edward’s carriage, lay back, and rode with Edward and Marysia to Plonsk. His frail body was ravaged with dysentery. “Every half hour, he would get out and relieve himself,” said Edward. “The blood loss was so great. If he had agreed to go a day earlier, then maybe they could have saved him.”
Two days after Wladyslaw was admitted to the hospital, Marysia received a telegram saying her husband had died and that she should come retrieve his body and bring funerary clothes. Marysia packed a suit and returned to the hospital to claim and bury his body. “When he died, I didn’t see any great sorrow in her. Modesta grieved his death much more than her mother,” said Edward.
In the funerary photo my Aunt Stasia kept, I didn’t immediately notice Marysia, until I saw near the body a ghost-like figure draped in black, with a long veil that completely hid her face. Next to her stood her daughter Modesta, Edward’s mom Kazimiera, and a handful of teachers and school officials from the villages near Wychodzc and Plonsk. “No one in her family came for the funeral,” said Edward, who stood guard next to his horse and carriage after driving his mother and Marysia to the cemetery. A few days after the funeral, Marysia and Modesta packed up and left the village to live with Marysia’s family. In letters, she wrote she had remarried. I could not locate her or Modesta for this piece.
There were many times while digging into Wladyslaw’s past that I felt a heavy burden writing about his life, legacy, and bravery long forgotten. His story is ambiguous and difficult to trace, captured only in glimpses in dusty archives, and in the aging minds of villagers, strangers who only knew him through children’s eyes and through the stories of their parents, long gone. It was a story that fascinated and tormented me with the frequent nightmares I had about him while in Poland. Was I the only one who really cared about preserving any part of his past? Why had so many forgotten him?
I went to the Plonsk cemetery to look for his grave. I walked through every row, looking for any sign of him, a photo, a browned note left behind, a letter from Modesta. I went to the office where cemetery records were kept, and there was no trace of him, though the helpful women said it was common for records from right after the war to be nonexistent, and that he was likely buried in one of the unmarked graves. I went to the church that had overseen the funeral, and an exasperated priest insisted they didn’t have funerary records from that period.
I asked an old lady in her eighties with a flowery handkerchief wrapped tightly around her head and rosy, cantaloupe-colored skin if she’d ever seen his name on any gravestones. “I’ve been coming here all my life,” she said staunchly, swaying in her wool layers and heavy sweaters that squeezed her enormous bosom in the 80-degree heat. “And I’ve never heard that name.” She pointed to the rows where her ancestors lay. Had it been spring, the cemetery would have been overpowered with the fragrance of chrysanthemums, a Polish funerary flower.
I held Wladyslaw’s black-and-white funeral photo. The old lady was curious why I was looking for a nearly 65-year-old grave. He was Jewish, I said in Polish, and she interrupted, saying, well, he wouldn’t be buried here, this is a Catholic cemetery. I said I know, but he converted to Catholicism before World War II. “Well, then he could have been buried here,” she said. “He’s probably in one of the graves that have lost their names.”
I walked slowly near the looming trees and their protective arms near the low stone wall, where Edward remembers Wladyslaw being buried. “Look for the trees, and walk close to the stone wall,” he urged. I photographed every unmarked grave, hoping I’d find some sign. The old lady with the graveyard map memorized went back to tending to her friends. I looked down at the photo often, and hoped for a hand to reach out and grab me, but not even a faded tombstone hinted at his history.