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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)

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.

***

Wladyslaw Gugla's funeral in the Plonsk cemetery

Wladyslaw Gugla’s funeral in the Plonsk cemetery. His wife Marysia is draped head to toe in black. Their daughter Modesta is the young girl standing to Marysia’s right. To Modesta’s right is villager Edward Maciaga’s mother, Kazimiera. Teachers, friends, and colleagues of Wladyslaw surround his body. (Courtesy of Stasia Szymanska)

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.”

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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.