January 17, 2019

Mina Wilner: Saved by a ‘Remarkable Woman’

Late one afternoon in July 1942, Mina Lejzerowicz, 12, dutifully accompanied her parents and two younger brothers to a spot in the Warsaw Ghetto near the high brick wall that enclosed it.

Mina’s father, Berl, opened a potato sack. The plan was to place Mina inside and toss the sack over the wall. On the other side, a Polish man would retrieve her, handing her over to Jadwiga Gagol, the family’s former nanny, who had bribed him. But Mina’s mother objected. “They’re going to kill my child,” she told her husband. “I don’t want to do this.”

A disagreement ensued. Berl suggested a trial run. He filled the sack with stones and wood, then pitched it over the wall. Immediately, the Germans opened fire. Mina’s parents quietly led her and her brothers back to their apartment.

“I didn’t want to go. I wanted to be with my parents,” Mina recalled.

But Mina knew that Jadwiga was determined to save her and her brothers. “I’m not going to allow for the children to be killed,” she had told Mina’s parents. And while Mina’s mother, Cyla, was afraid her daughter couldn’t survive alone, Berl supported the idea.

In preparation to rescue Mina — her brothers were more challenging to rescue because, as circumcised males, they were easily identifiable as Jews — Jadwiga had rented a one-room apartment outside the ghetto, where no one knew her.

“She loved my parents and the three children,” Mina said.

Mina was born in Warsaw on April 1, 1930. Her brother Eliezer was born in 1931 and Moshe in 1936. The family was well off, living in a four-room apartment in an elegant building.

“I grew up in a happy home,” Mina recalled. Her mother, from an affluent family, was a graduate of the Sorbonne, a dentist who didn’t practice. Mina’s father, who grew up poor, co-owned two butcher shops in Warsaw.

Mina began public school at age 6. But walking there, accompanied by a nanny, she was often accosted by Polish boys who called her “dirty Jew” and more than once pushed her to the ground.

On Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany attacked Poland, Mina was at the family’s summer cottage in Michalin, 35 miles southwest of Warsaw, with her brothers and the family’s two maids. Her father sent a driver with a horse and wagon to fetch them.

Back in Warsaw, Mina learned that war had broken out. At night, she and her brothers slept on the floor of their parents’ room, huddling in the basement whenever bombs fell.

By October 1940, the ghetto, in an area that contained their apartment building, had been established. Soon hunger was a constant companion, even though Jadwiga, whenever possible, bribed guards and brought the family food. Other times she threw horsemeat over the wall. Berl retrieved it, cut it up and sold it.

“My parents never ate. Whatever food they had, they gave to the children,” Mina said.

Mina saw skeletal adults walking around in threadbare clothing, and children covered with newspapers on the streets, begging for food. But most horrifying were the dead bodies that piled up, waiting collection by men pulling two-wheeled carts. “You cannot even imagine,” she said.

Mina saw skeletal adults walking around in threadbare clothing, and children covered with newspapers on the streets, begging for food.

When the plan to throw Mina over the wall failed, Jadwiga made arrangements for Mina to walk out of the ghetto with a crew of 20 prisoners who worked for a local farmer. As the farmer headed to lunch that day with his girlfriend, some older prisoners instructed her to run. They pointed to the nearby tram station, where Mina found Jadwiga waiting.

The two returned to Jadwiga’s apartment, where Mina continually cried for her mother. “Take her away,” Jadwiga’s husband insisted. “They’re going to kill all of us.” But Jadwiga refused. “She has to live,” she said.

Mina remained primarily in the apartment, where Jadwiga brought her books and food she purchased with gold pieces and jewelry Mina’s parents had given her.

One morning, Jadwiga came racing back to the apartment. “Quick, hide in the armoire,” she said. Soon, two Germans entered, asking if Jadwiga was hiding a Jewish girl. Mina then accidentally banged her elbow against the armoire, making a noise, and one of the Germans tried to open the armoire door, jangling the keys which Jadwiga had inadvertently left in the lock. But he inexplicably stopped, and they left.

The next day Jadwiga took Mina by train to stay temporarily with her elderly brother and his daughter in Piotrkow Trybunalski, a hamlet 85 miles southwest of Warsaw.

Sometime later — Mina doesn’t know how long — Jadwiga moved her to Sulejowek, a town 12 miles east of Warsaw, to work for an 80-year-old woman. “She was a witch from the witchland,” Mina recalled, although Jadwiga hadn’t known of the woman’s cruel nature. Only through the kindness of two housekeepers who also worked there did Mina receive any food.

In November 1944, the Soviets liberated them. Even then, Mina was afraid to tell people she was Jewish.

One morning, sometime after Jan. 17, 1945, when the Soviets occupied Warsaw, Mina was sent to the city, a 12-mile trek, to find the old woman’s daughter and granddaughter. As she was walking with them, she heard Eliezer calling her name. She hadn’t seen her brother since escaping from the ghetto in the summer of 1942.

At the suggestion of the old woman’s daughter, whom Mina described as “an angel,” Mina took Eliezer back with her to Sulejowek that afternoon.

Eliezer, along with Mina’s parents and younger brother Moshe, had been deported from the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943. Mina’s father, at his wife’s suggestion, had thrown Eliezer from the train, and the boy had spent the rest of the war hiding in forests and wandering from farm to farm.

Later, Mina learned from Jadwiga that her parents and Moshe had perished in Treblinka. Jadwiga had traveled there to try to rescue them, but she was too late.

Appreciative of the wood Eliezer chopped for her, the old woman treated him kindly. But Eliezer soon left for the newly established Jewish orphanage in Otwock, outside Warsaw, to attend school. “I don’t want to go as Jews — they’re going to kill us,” Mina had told him.

But soon after, Jadwiga came to escort her there. “I want you to be educated,” she said.

At Otwock, Mina studied and was treated for tuberculosis. Meanwhile, Eliezer escaped from the orphanage, making his way to Palestine.

Eager to reunite with him, Mina joined a group of orphanage children who were taken to a Jewish camp in Verberie, France, outside Paris, and later — Mina is not sure of the date — to Palestine.

Mina married a Polish survivor in 1949. Their daughter, Clilit, was born six years later. The family immigrated to Los Angeles in 1963, and Mina divorced her husband soon after, supporting herself as a manicurist.

On April 25, 1971, Mina married Henry Wilner, a survivor and widower with three sons. “My husband was my life,” Mina said. Henry died in 1997, and Mina, now 87, has two grandchildren, whom she considers “the biggest gift in my life.”

When Mina left Poland, she lost touch with Jadwiga, who she believes died not long afterward. She had no children.

“She was a remarkable woman,” Mina said. “She saved my life.”