I thought I knew my family’s Holocaust story — until I met this man
I was in the middle of an email exchange with my Israeli cousin, Miriam, when she unwittingly dropped the bombshell.
I had written to her early last year to tell her that I would be making my first visit to Poland. I knew she had traveled to the small town that was the childhood home to our fathers’ brothers who are now deceased. So I asked her for details.
Writing in Hebrew, Miriam shared the address and a photo of the building where our fathers lived. Then, several emails later, she added a detail. “There’s a man in Warsaw whose parents saved my parents’ lives during the Holocaust,” she wrote, “in case you’re interested.”
Had I understood correctly?
I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. My father, Samuel Halbert (Halberstadt), narrowly escaped the Nazis, thanks to a counterfeit passport, but his parents, a sister, and her husband and son were murdered in Treblinka. In my childhood, my father suffered nightmares about the war. He so hated Poland that he wouldn’t even admit he was born there. His mantra was that the Poles were hateful, evil and eager to kill Jews.
Certainly, I had heard about righteous gentiles, selfless people who found ways to save Jewish lives. But my own relatives’ lives? How had I never known?
My plan was to join a Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) Los Angeles adult delegation to March of the Living, the program that takes thousands of Jewish teenagers to Poland each spring to bear witness and remember. I already had scheduled an extra day to visit Siedlce (pronounced SHED-litz), my father’s birthplace. Now I made an additional plan: to meet the man my cousin told me about, Janusz Kowalski.
I was so excited to hear his story that the meeting became a focal point of my journey. Painful as it was to stand at Treblinka and Majdanek, at Belzec and Auschwitz-Birkenau, knowing that I would encounter this righteous man somehow made it all the more bearable.
I felt that most acutely on the day the 12,000 march participants gathered at Auschwitz. During a memorial ceremony, a video of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was projected on giant monitors. His voice booming through the loudspeakers, he acknowledged Auschwitz as the place where “millions perished, and no one lifted a finger.”
No one lifted a finger. In my head I was screaming, “That’s simply not true!” His words irked me, in part because I was so focused on what I would be doing soon — meeting a Polish man who actually had done something.
A few days later at my Warsaw hotel, I met my guide, Dominika, a Polish-Jewish woman who was around 30 years old. She and her husband drove me the 43 miles to Siedlce. When my father was growing up there, it was a lively center of Jewish life, with some 15,000 Jews, two Yiddish newspapers, several synagogues, even a Jewish hospital. The Nazis murdered nearly all of Siedlce’s Jews in Treblinka. And now, set within the drab, Soviet-era cinderblock buildings, Dominika pointed out the scattered black stone monuments honoring Polish resistance fighters, some of them Jewish.
We also found the apartment house, pictured in my cousin’s photograph, where my grandparents, Herc Halberstadt and Jenta-Gitla Liberant Halberstadt, lived. I tried to imagine my grandparents living here, my father walking these streets as a boy. We visited sites where two synagogues had stood before they were destroyed by fire during World War II. She pointed out where Talmud Torah, the religious school, had stood. We walked through the lone remaining Jewish cemetery, among four that once existed, in search of my great-grandmother’s grave.
Then we drove back to Warsaw, where we had arranged to meet Janusz Kowalski at a cafe. Janusz is 85 years old. Dressed in a dark suit, he immediately struck me as spry and sharp. I instantly felt that I was in the presence of a righteous man, a godly person. Almost without hesitation, speaking through a translator, he launched into his story — as if he had been waiting years for someone to ask.
Janusz grew up in Warsaw. His father, Witold, was a postmaster. Janusz was 9 years old in the summer of 1939 when, anticipating the German invasion, his father sent his mother, Maria, along with Janusz and an older brother, to a vacation house near Bialystok for their safety. The father stayed behind in Warsaw.
When the Germans invaded, the mother and children fled for their lives. They hoped to return to Warsaw but, in the chaos on the streets, couldn’t penetrate the crowds fleeing the city. They were on the outskirts of Siedlce when they encountered a column of German tanks. Suddenly caught in the crossfire, Janusz watched helplessly as German gunfire killed two nearby Polish soldiers and then his brother, who died on the spot as Janusz watched in horror. Another bullet struck Janusz’s mother in the arm.
After a German medic helped bandage Maria’s arm, the pair — unable to retrieve Janusz’s brother’s body amid the gunfire — took refuge in a nearby town. The next day, German soldiers threatened to kill his mother, but she begged them to spare her for Janusz’s sake. A Polish noble family took in Janusz and transported Maria to a hospital in Siedlce.
There, her condition worsened, her arm becoming so infected that doctors considered amputation. Despite frantic efforts, she couldn’t reach her husband, Witold, who was in Warsaw, unaware of what had befallen his wife and children. Maria finally prevailed upon a patient who was being discharged to make contact in Warsaw with her husband, who rushed to Siedlce to reconnect with her.
First retrieving Janusz from the home where he had been sheltered, Witold made his way to Lochow, the place where the tank battle had occurred. There, he learned that a Jewish man had buried his son and the two Polish soldiers, on orders from the Germans. Witold found the man, who escorted him to the grave. The grieving father expressed gratitude for the man’s kindness. It was Witold’s first close encounter with a Jewish person, and it left a positive impression.
Soon after, he had another. Witold was at a barbershop in Siedlce when he struck up a conversation with a Jewish doctor, the head of Siedlce’s Jewish hospital. Hearing Witold’s story, the doctor offered financial and medical help.
Witold, grateful, was quick to reciprocate, volunteering to transport letters and money to Jews suffering under Nazi occupation in Warsaw.
I instantly felt that I was in the presence of a righteous man, a godly person. Almost without hesitation, speaking through a translator, he launched into his story — as if he had been waiting years for someone to ask.
As the war raged around them and Maria recovered from her injuries, the Kowalski family relocated repeatedly, ultimately to a bare-bones one-room apartment in Siedlce. Because the building lacked running water or toilets, the Germans were unlikely to seize it for themselves.
That was where the Kowalskis’ fate intersected with my family’s.
As it happened, my aunt and uncle, Israel and Rachela Halberstadt, lived across the street. At some point, they met the Kowalskis. Rachela was working as a nurse at the Jewish hospital when German soldiers opened fire there, killing nearly everyone: doctors, nurses and patients. Rachela managed to flee and hid in the bushes until the Germans moved on.
Traumatized, she showed up at the Kowalskis’ door. Fully aware that hiding a Jewish person under Nazi occupation meant risking their own lives, they agreed to take her in.
Not that there was anywhere to hide Rachela in the small flat. With Janusz sleeping in the kitchen, his parents sleeping in one bed, and Rachela in another, hiding under the blankets when she had to was all she could do to conceal herself.
Janusz was 11 years old when his parents took in my Aunt Rachela. They sheltered her for two years. To hide her Jewish identity, she assumed a Polish name, Jadzia.
There were close calls. Once, after Rachela inadvertently opened a window and a neighbor spotted her, a German soldier knocked at the door to inquire. Janusz, the only one home at the time besides Rachela, pretended he was alone, even sitting on the bed to conceal her, trying to hide his fear.
Maria and Rachela were the same age. They grew close, sometimes crying together over events raging outside, such as the time German soldiers abruptly shot an elderly Jewish man drawing water from a nearby well.
To pass time, Rachela, a talented knitter, spent long hours in the apartment making sweaters. Maria sold them, passing off the work as her own, to bring in extra income.
Since the apartment had no running water and no toilet, it fell to Janusz to dispose of the waste. Rachela, who couldn’t risk stepping outside, regularly expressed gratitude to the boy for taking on that task.
Meanwhile, Rachela’s husband, my Uncle Israel, was facing his own difficulties. Taking refuge in a series of Warsaw hideouts, he repeatedly found himself back on the street, alone, bereft and afraid. When Maria learned of his predicament, she contacted a brother-in-law and persuaded him to create a hiding place in his Warsaw flat. While Rachela hid with the Kowalskis, Israel spent 18 months concealed at the relatives’ place, along with eight other Jews.
In 1944, with Russian forces closing in on Siedlce, the Kowalskis and Rachela fled to the countryside. When they encountered a troop of German soldiers, they feared Rachela’s Jewish appearance might raise suspicions. Those anxieties were heightened when the commander asked Maria in German to cook dinner for his men. Only Rachela understood both Polish and German, so she stepped in as translator. Fortunately, the soldiers were too focused on filling their bellies to ask whether she was Jewish. The soldiers moved on the next day.
Within days, Russian troops arrived and liberated the area. My Aunt Rachela parted with the Kowalskis and made her way back to Siedlce, where she reunited with my Uncle Israel and others who had been in hiding with him in Warsaw.
The Kowalski family relocated to a different part of Poland. It wasn’t until four years later, in 1948, that Witold and Maria met again with Rachela and Israel. (Janusz was away, serving in the military.) The Halberstadts came to visit with their new baby — my cousin Miriam — just before they emigrated to Israel. Grateful for everything the Kowalski family had done, the Halberstadts made a generous proposition. They offered the Kowalskis their Siedlce home.
The Kowalskis refused to accept the gift.
Sitting in the café in Warsaw, I was stunned. Stunned by the selfless acts of this man and his parents. Stunned that they had refused compensation for their heroism. Stunned that seven decades later, I was sitting across from Janusz, hearing this story for the first time.
Then Janusz pulled out an olive wood box and opened it, displaying its contents: a medal, with words in Hebrew: “A sign of gratitude from the Jewish people.” And beneath that, their names: “Kowalski Witold, Maria & Janusz.”
It had been presented to Janusz’s parents in the 1950s by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, where the Kowalskis are among more than 26,000 individuals honored as chasidei haumot haolam, righteous among the nations, for risking their lives, liberty or positions to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Now, sitting in that Warsaw café, I was stunned by something else: No one had ever told me this story.
While my father had spent years disparaging Polish people, my aunt and uncle knew better. Perhaps they thought my father had told me. For years, they had kept in touch with Janusz’s parents, routinely sending financial support from Israel, even when they themselves were strapped. My cousin Miriam and her children visited Janusz in 1994, and in recent years she has provided occasional financial support. Janusz told me that the money helped him to pay for repairs at the grave of his brother, the one killed by German gunfire.
In the café, he pulled out something else: a folder filled with photos Miriam had sent him over the years, including pictures of my Israeli cousins at Miriam’s wedding, her children and her grandchildren. As he spoke of them, it was as if he were speaking of his own family. In a way, he was.
After the war, Janusz went on to pilot planes in the Polish military. Later, he spent a decade as a provincial governor of the district that includes Siedlce. In that capacity, he oversaw the maintenance of the area of the Treblinka death camp, a responsibility whose significance he clearly took seriously. He also worked to support the repair of neglected Jewish cemeteries.
He now lives with his wife, who is seven years younger. Although I asked him to bring her along, he declined, explaining that she doesn’t share his interest in the past. I asked Janusz if, as a child, he had fully understood the danger of the situation. He told me he was sure his parents had lived with great fear, but they understood the importance of what they were doing.
“We were characters in a play,” he said, smiling, “and each of us understood our role.” He said he had experienced more fear later in life, flying poorly equipped airplanes.
As we stood to leave, Janusz gave me a warm hug. An hour earlier, we had been strangers. Now, we both understood the close bond that linked us. He told me to be in touch on my next trip to Poland, but I knew I was unlikely to return.
People often ask: Where was God during the Holocaust? Where is God whenever people face calamities? The answer I prefer is the one I once heard from the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino: God is the response.
On my trip to Poland, I learned about the Kowalski family’s response. They didn’t need to help my aunt and uncle, who were strangers. But because they acted, they gave life to my cousin Miriam, and her three children, and their nine children. Indeed, if not for the Kowalskis, none of those people, would be alive.
I have thought of Janusz many times, especially in recent months amid the news of travel bans and deportations. At my synagogue, IKAR, one recent Shabbat, Rabbi Sharon Brous made the connection even more explicit in a sermon. She reminded us of the thousands of righteous gentiles who risked life and liberty to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust. “We work very hard to honor them, and we should,” she said. But in this moment, she said, the best way for us to pay respects to their memory is for us to stand up for those who are vulnerable, “to strive to become righteous Jews.”
My father died in 1982. I’m not sure if he knew of the righteous acts of the Kowalski family. If he did, he never told me. I wish he had. There were so many painful events he simply wouldn’t talk about. In any case, I’m so thankful I had the opportunity to meet Janusz. It changed my life and reminds me every day about the steps we all can take toward making a difference in another person’s life.
Janet Halbert, a Los Angeles CPA, is a longtime social justice activist. She was founding treasurer of Bend the Arc (formerly Progressive Jewish Alliance) and serves on J Street’s national finance committee.