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A Polish-Israeli Christmas Tradition Among the Children of Survivors

Every year at Christmas, Howard Kaplan sends thanks and a modest gift to the granddaughter of the woman who hid his mother from the Nazis

Hillel Kuttler
December 24, 2018
Photo courtesy of Howard Kaplan
Toby and husband Syoma Kaplan bookend Aleksandra Tarasowa during a visit in 1990Photo courtesy of Howard Kaplan
Photo courtesy of Howard Kaplan
Toby and husband Syoma Kaplan bookend Aleksandra Tarasowa during a visit in 1990Photo courtesy of Howard Kaplan

Howard Kaplan opened his laptop and went online Tuesday night to wire a modest sum of money to Renata Zawodzińska-Kądzioła, a woman in Poland he’s never met.

This has been a cherished Christmas tradition that Kaplan, an observant Jew residing in the northern Israel town of Zichron Yaakov, has maintained in the decade since his mother, Toby, died at age 87. Toby had mailed cash every Christmas—and Easter cards and packages during the year—to Zawodzińska-Kądzioła’s grandmother and mother at least as far back as the late 1950s.

The grandmother, Aleksandra Tarasowa, gifted Toby with life.

From early October 1942 to late March 1944, Tarasowa hid Toby Kaplan—whose name then was Tola Tepper; Toiba (dove) in Yiddish—and seven other Polish Jews in a bunker under her house near Kremenets, in present-day Ukraine. Tarasowa was an observant Catholic with a 2-year-old daughter, Irena. Her husband, Ryszard Lewicki, had died, so Tarasowa went to live with her adoptive mother, Olga. Toby would later recall Tarasowa as a “good-hearted … and enlightened” woman.

Toby reached Tarasowa after a 16-month ordeal that began when she fled her native Kremenets in June 1941, just ahead of the German occupation. Her path continued thus: avoiding a pogrom and an akzia (mass killing); ransoming her mother; being incarcerated in Kremenets’s ghetto and in Dubno’s jail; escaping, only to be betrayed by a Ukrainian woman; escaping again, learning days later that her parents Nachman and Rachel and sisters Liba and Sheyndel were among those shot in the jail; walking six nights to reach family friends, with whom she stayed a week; voluntarily entering the Dubno ghetto; and leaving it with a friend from Warsaw, Zofia Kręglicka.

Toby’s non-Jewish acquaintances in Kremenets directed the two women to Tarasowa’s house. The walk entailed still more danger: Disguised as non-Jews, they passed German soldiers massing for the Dubno ghetto’s liquidation. Situated in a large, park-like garden, the house was the only residence around, “concealed among the mountains, as if made for hiding,” Toby wrote in the Kremenets memorial book (known as Pinkas HaKehillot, an encyclopedia of Holocaust-decimated communities) published in 1954.

Jan “Yaakov” Kot, from Kalish, was already there. Later, five more Polish Jews arrived: Piotr “Pinkhas” Cajtak, from Warsaw; Avraham Czacki and Vova Landesberg, from Kremenets; Henryk Kot, from Lodz; and Mietek Alerhant, from Chelm. Toby helped to dig the bunker where the octet would hide. The digging was always at night. Completed, it measured 11 yards long, 1 yard wide and a yard high.

Czacki, an electrician, installed a warning system, with lights in the bunker blinking three times when German soldiers visited. That happened often, because Tarasowa’s friend and housekeeper, Maria Dec, did the Germans’ laundry. Consequently, the house was never searched for Jews.

“Sometimes we would dare and go up to the room above to get a fresh breath of air, and the Germans arrived at the laundry just then,” Toby wrote in the memorial book. “Immediately, the light code was given, and we escaped into the bunker. Even with … all the precautions that we took, I still cannot understand today how we managed not to be caught during the 18 months that we were there. Indeed, it is a miracle.”

There were other close calls. Olga, who suffered from dementia, “would start mumbling about the Jews being down there, and then a great fear would assail us,” Toby wrote. The housekeeper Dec once asked the Jewish refugees if they’d accept into the bunker a German soldier wanting to desert.

“We told her that if he will show up, we will immediately shoot him to death with the single gun that we had,” Toby related. “She never again approached us with this request.”

Apparently, only four outsiders knew of the secreted Jews, and all helped. Galina Soroczynska was a nurse who’d sheltered Henryk Kot before moving him to the Tarasowas; her husband had installed the bunker’s vent. She visited bringing newspapers and “encouraged the hidden as much as she could,” Toby wrote. Soroczynska later joined the Polish army and died in service. The Christian wives of two hidden men, Landesberg and Jan Kot, brought food for everyone.

After their liberation by Russian troops, Toby left for Rovno and then Chelm. There, she met Syoma Kaplan, a Jewish soldier from Swiclocz. They soon married, moved to Berlin, where their son Aaron was born, and to Israel in 1948, where Ruth was born two years later. The Kaplans first lived in Jaffa (as did Toby’s friend Kręglicka), then Tel Aviv. In 1960, they left for New York; Howard was born there in 1963.

Ruth Kaplan Goldenbroit remembers her mother sending gifts to Tarasowa and to Dec from Israel, but best recalls the Brooklyn years. Toby would order care packages or make her own, filling cardboard boxes with coffee, Spam, flour and sugar, along with underwear and socks from the Brooklyn clothing store owned by Toby’s brother Fishel, who’d fled Poland prewar and is now 98 years old. Howard recalls Toby purchasing beautiful Christmas cards, applying glue to paper currency and adhering the bills to the cards’ interior, hidden from Poland’s postal officials. Twice before Toby’s death from cancer in 2009, Ruth pushed her mother in a wheelchair to a travel agency near Kings Highway. There Toby sent Christmas money orders to Irena, as she had since Tarasowa’s death in 1996.

Her children never asked Toby what she was doing or why. They knew. The suffering Toby and Syoma, known as Simcha and Sam, endured in Europe was palpable.

“We grew up with this every day of our lives, seeing my father cry, and the misery. My mother was sad. My father described how he left for the army and said goodbye to his parents, never realizing he’d never see them again,” Ruth said.

Toby’s family describe her as quiet and kind, never criticizing anyone, readily donating to American and Israeli charities, eager to please. She’d shlep on subways to buy the jarred gefilte fish her visiting granddaughter, Kayla Kaplan, loved, even though Toby prepared a tastier version from scratch.

Her gratitude took another form. Toby and Kręglicka began the process culminating in Yad Vashem’s designating Tarasowa in 1972 and Dec and Soroczynska in 1976 as Righteous Among the Nations for saving them and the six other Jews. Zawodzińska-Kądzioła said Tarasowa was “really moved” by the Warsaw ceremony honoring her. Kręglicka sent letters and occasional gifts over the years, but no others did besides Toby, Zawodzińska-Kądzioła said.

After Toby was widowed and then died, Kaplan suggested to his brother and sister that a portion of their inheritance be set aside and drawn from each year as gifts to Tarasowa’s descendants. (Dec was married, but died childless in 1990.) The siblings agreed.

“It’s important to continue to express some type of gratitude for an action that was so selfless,” Kaplan, 55, explained. “It wasn’t just a matter of [their] helping someone, but doing it at peril—the ultimate someone can do. So many branches of our family were wiped out, but thanks to these ladies, ours is alive.”

“My [late] mother and I were really moved when we got the first letter from Howard. I am very happy that we are still in touch,” Zawodzińska-Kądzioła, 52, wrote in an email that her 19-year-old son, Krzysztof, translated. “I still remember the packages from Tola. We got them during difficult times, and those gifts were really helpful.”

Zawodzińska-Kądzioła, a resident of the southwestern Poland town of Dzierżoniów, was very close to her grandmother, who worked for a radio manufacturer and was a marvelous cook whose specialties were rose jam and apple strudel. Tarasowa had moved in 1946 to Dzierżoniów, nearly 500 miles west of Kremenets, after a brief marriage to Cajtak, one of those she rescued. Zawodzińska-Kądzioła has never seen the house in Kremenets where those lives were saved and doesn’t know if a photograph exists of it. Tarasowa rarely spoke of her Holocaust-era heroism.

“I admire her,” Zawodzińska-Kądzioła wrote. “I think she was a very brave person, who did something amazing.”

Kaplan hopes that Kayla, 23, and son Benjamin, 25, continue the family’s tradition.

“It would be important for us [to do] for the same reason it was important for my father to do even when my grandmother was no longer alive,” Kayla Kaplan said.

Yisrael Motzen, Howard Kaplan’s rabbi in Baltimore before Kaplan and his wife Roberta moved to Israel in 2017, cited midrashic literature on Abraham and Moses for dramatic examples of gratitude.

“It demonstrates how fundamental gratitude is in Jewish thought,” Motzen said. “There’s no point at which you fulfill your debt of gratitude that this woman risked her life. There’s no end to the ramifications of this act of kindness.”

Several hours later, Kaplan wired the gift to Zawodzińska-Kądzioła. Then he video-chatted briefly with her–just the second face-to-face contact between the two families since World War II, following his parents’ visit to Poland in about 1990.

“It’s nice to see your faces and hear your voices after so many years. I’m very, very happy to see you,” Kaplan told Zawodzińska-Kądzioła and her husband, Roman.

Five minutes later, Zawodzińska-Kądzioła called back. She wanted to continue the conversation on the weekend, when Krzysztof and his brother Michal, 21, would be home from university for Christmas and could participate.

A date was set for Saturday night.

Hillel Kuttler, a writer and editor, can be reached at [email protected].