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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)

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.

Wladyslaw Gugla surrounded by students in Szynkielow around 1919-20

1919 or 1920 photograph of Wladyslaw Gugla surrounded by students in Szynkielow, where he taught before moving to Wychodzc. (Courtesy of Bozena Rabikowska)

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To read more Tablet in Warsaw coverage, click here.

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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.

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