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Leader Reporter Uncovers Fascinating WW2 History

By Niall Fitzgerald

Since this past June 6 was the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy that finally brought an end to Nazi terror, the North Shore Leader thought it would be appropriate to examine some terrible WWII history – especially some of its lesser known aspects.

Leader Reporter Chris O’Neill - who has been decorated by the Polish government for his anti-communist activities in Poland in the 1980’s - recently met a fellow activist at a convention in Poland. It turns out that this activist, Paweł Błażewicz, works for the Institute of National Remembrance, a Polish state institution that studies recent Polish history.

Paweł shared with Chris the fascinating stories of Poles rescuing Jews during the Holocaust and told him that he recently finished a series of 20 film shorts devoted to these histories.

Below is a general introduction to the issue followed a short description of the first film with a link.

The North Shore Leader will be publishing 20 installments, each focusing on one particular Holocaust story, with links to all 20 film shorts, over the next few months.

Poles Rescuing Jews from the Holocaust

By Dr. Paweł Błażewicz 

Poland - Biggest Losses in World War II

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, drawing the U.S. into World War II, the Poles had been fighting for more than two years in Europe against the Nazi invaders, who, supported by the Soviet Union, began the war on September 1, 1939. Poland suffered the highest personnel losses in the world during World War II, when compared to  its total state population. The Nazi Reich and Soviet Russia murdered about 6 million Polish citizens. The vast majority were victims of German terror and genocide. The Nazis murdered about three million Polish Jews; the remaining three million victims were mostly ethnic Poles. The Nazis additionally murdered about three million people of Jewish origin that were citizens of other countries of occupied Europe. They murdered most of them in extermination camps organized on the territory of occupied Poland.

Extermination of the Polish Elite

Both the Nazis and the Soviets, at the beginning of the occupation, focused on the extermination of the elite of the Polish state, regardless of ethnicity. This is illustrated by the cemetery in Palmiry near Warsaw, where individual Jewish matzevots can be found amidst a sea of crosses The Nazi occupiers called these extermination actions Inteligenzaktion and AB. Jews, in these actions, were murdered not for their ethnicity, but for belonging to the elite of the Polish state. From the beginning of the war, however, the Nazis locked the Jews in ghettos and took away most of their property.

The Nazi Holocaust of the Jews

From December 1941, the Nazis began the Holocaust - the mass extermination of people of Jewish origin. But as early as October 1941, the Nazis introduced the death penalty for leaving the ghetto, and for the remaining inhabitants of occupied Poland the death penalty for helping such Jews in hiding. At least 300,000 Poles were not frightened by this threat and helped their Jewish fellow citizens in various ways.

Death for Helping Jews

Some scholars estimate the number of Poles helping Jews at up to one million. At least a thousand of such people were killed by the Nazis. The most famous are the members of the Ulma family from Markowa near Łańcut, Poland. This family of eight, waiting for the birth of their seventh child, took in eight Jewish refugees into their small house. When the Nazis discovered them, they murdered all those in hiding and the entire Ulma family. 

Red Beads

Such Polish heroes include families from the villages of Wolica and Wierzbica, depicted in this first film short (8 minutes) called the Red Beads. The film shows the tragedy of the situation in Nazi-occupied Poland. The occupiers learned about the Polish families from one of the Jews the Poles had been were hiding, Pawel Wandersman, who had been arrested earlier. Each of the families he informed upon were hiding relatives of his. The Nazis promised him, in exchange for this information, to save his life. Poles, who under penalty of death, were forced in work in the Polnische Polizei known as the ‘Blue Police’ (organized and commanded by the Nazis), also participated in this Nazi pacification operation. 

Based on the information provided by Pavel Wandersman, the Nazi police first went to Wolica and shot the Gądek couple, Jan and his pregnant wife Wladyslawa and her mother, Balbina Bielawska. The punitive expedition then went to Wierzbica and murdered three families there, first the Książek family of four: Franciszek and Julia and their sons Jan and Zygmunt. Then an invalid named Nowak was killed on his farm, along with his five-year-old daughter. Finally, Nazi gendarmes executed the family of Izydor and Anna Kucharski, along with their five children and their grandmother. The youngest twins, Jozef and Stefan, were 5 years old. The eldest son was at that time in forced labor. Also rescued were Izydor and twelve-year-old Bronislaw, who were only wounded and secretly taken by neighbors to a hospital after the punitive expedition departed. Finally, the Nazis, contrary to their promise, also killed Pavel Wandersman. 

In May 2022, the Institute of National Remembrance conducted an exhumation of the members of the Książek family. On that occasion, red beads were found that belonged to Julia, the wife of Franciszek.

In the series of film shorts Not Only the Ulmas, the Institute of National Remembrance wants to commemorate the tragic victims of Nazi oppression, especially those Poles who risked their lives to help their Jewish neighbors. Most of them have not been recognized for their heroism, and will probably never even be publicly known. We invite you to watch the film Red Beads on social media and on IPNtv's Youtube channel.

Link to the first episode of film series Not Only the Ulmas.

This episode is entitled: Red Beads.

Dr. Pawel Błażewicz is a history teacher and an employee of the Institute of National Remembrance. He participated in the anti-communist movement Solidarity and in  the organization Solidarność Walcząca [Fighting Solidarity] in 1981-1990. Presently, as a volunteer, he organizes humanitarian aid to Ukraine.


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