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A Polish Village’s Secret

A farming town hid a Jewish-born teacher during the Holocaust. I went to dig up what it had buried.

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The author’s great-aunt, Stasia Szymanska, and cousin, Stasia’s grandson, Pawel Szymanski, on their farm in Chociszewo, Poland, where schoolteacher Wladyslaw Gugla hid during the war. They are both farmers and both live at the house. (Courtesy of the author)

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.

In Poland, during World War II, there were those who protected and those who accused

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.

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What a compelling tale. I have to say that, as a child, in Hebrew school, most of the holocaust literature I was exposed to focused on the perspective of the Jews, with discussion of Righteous Gentiles being limited to the textbooks. Even as an adult, the holocaust literature I’ve read is rarely told from the Gentile perspective. At the moment, I am reading The Baker’s Daughter, by Sarah McKay and I am very conscious of the fact that this is one of the few books I’ve read that tell the story from the German or non-Jew perspective.

Nici G says:

Given the limited access to direct information I’m very impressed with the detail you were able to cover in this story. This is a very interesting read from a very different perspective than most people are offered.

phoebes says:

I wonder if the village would have hidden and supported him if he hadnt been a baptized Catholic?

Did you read the whole piece? The villagers also hid non-converted Jews.

Obama got it right the first time. Poland doth protest too much methinks.

mhall46184 says:

God bless them all.

I visited Yad Vashem in Israel (Garden of Righteous Gentile). Very impressive and tells a story little known of brave people who saved Jews in Poland! Brave folks!

Yes, a wonderful book…I guess it took all this time for us to even care to view the picture in all its’ gory details…humans are multifaceted. As a student of the Holocaust…I don’t know if I was ready to read about “the other side” until recently.

Doreen Carvajal says:

Haunting, melancholy story. But best of all it was so nuanced and complex.

I always wondered why *anyone* would hide Jews. The Nazis would kill you and your whole family for doing it. Sounds like Wladyslaw had something to offer–he was a teacher, which meant he kept Polish history and culture alive for Polish children under German occupation. I’m not an expert on Polish culture, but the sense I get was that they were frequently occupied by other nations (usually Russia or Germany) trying to wipe them out, so this would have been important to them–think of teaching Jewish children Torah in an Israel under Greek, Roman, or Ottoman occupation.

My mother’s family was hidden by Polish farmers. Thank you for writing this. It’s eerie and wonderful to read it from your perspective.

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A Polish Village’s Secret

A farming town hid a Jewish-born teacher during the Holocaust. I went to dig up what it had buried.