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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 February, 2005, 16:18 GMT
Heroes who defied the Holocaust

By William Horsley
BBC News, Poland

The 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was marked by a moving ceremony at the site of the death camp in Poland where more than a million people died. These days it is the country's proud claim that it was the only European nation to struggle against the Nazis from the first day of the World War II to the last.

The former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau
The site has become the most powerful symbol of the Holocaust

Aleksandra is highly unusual, she is a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust in Poland.

The story she told me starts early in the war, when she was only five.

The Germans were trying to force Poland's three and a half million Jews into ghettoes before sending them away to be slave workers or to the death camps.

Aleksandra's Jewish mother and non-Jewish father took her with them, far outside the capital, to be hidden in the home of a wealthy Polish farmer and mill owner. The SS and police tended to leave the house alone because it was near a wood where the underground resistance was active.

But the Nazis' penalty for any Pole found helping Jews was death for the fugitives, for the person responsible AND all their family.

A much-hated breed of informers had appeared, who grew rich by threatening to hand Jews over to the Gestapo, and extorting money and jewellery in exchange for their silence.


One day a stranger came to the mill and Aleksandra, hiding in a nearby room with her mother, heard him having a violent argument with her father.

He was shouting "I know your family are here. I can smell Jews from five kilometres away".

Aleksandra realises now that the family who looked after her were risking their own lives every moment of the war

The two men had a fight. The other man pushed her father into the machinery of the mill and he died.

But through the protection of the farmer's family, and the help of a Catholic priest who supplied the family with forged papers saying they were "Aryans", Aleksandra and her mother survived the whole of the Nazi occupation of Poland.

The twist in the story is that Aleksandra herself, now a 69-year-old physics professor, only found out a few years ago that she had spent her earliest years hiding because she was half Jewish.

Her mother had kept that fact from her for years, because even though the number of Jews was drastically reduced after the war, to around 60,000, they were not well treated and did not feel welcome in post-war Poland.

Aleksandra realises now that the family who looked after her were risking their own lives every moment of the war. And she has gathered the evidence of how she and her mother were saved.

Stories of heroism

She is confident that the Yad Vashem Institute in Israel will add the names of the farmer and his wife, who have since died, as well as their son, who is still alive, to the list of the Righteous Among the Nations, which already includes 6,000 Polish names, beside others like Raoul Wallenberg, Oskar Schindler and Nicholas Winton, all gentiles who saved the lives of Jews.

Steven Spielberg's World War II drama Schindler's List
The rescue of over 1,000 Jews was depicted in the film Schindler's List

And late in her life, Aleksandra Kopystynska has joined a growing organisation called The Children of the Holocaust, which honours and cares for the survivors among the Polish men and women who rescued Jews from persecution, and who are themselves now old and in need of help.

I met one of them, Kzysztof Dunin-Wasowic, who is now 82.

In the war he was in the underground movement, which acted on orders from the Polish government in exile in London, distributing money and food, and forging identity papers for Jews outside the ghettos.

He remembers how the ringleader of one blackmailing gang, who was threatening his own family, was sentenced to death by the underground, and was duly killed, as were dozens of other traitors.

But later the Nazis arrested Kzysztof and he was lucky to survive a year in Stutthof, one of the most terrible of the concentration camps, on the Baltic sea.

Many stories of heroism and despair from those times in Poland are only now being rediscovered.

Network of support

Kzysztof told me that one umbrella organisation, called Zhegota, the Council for Aid to Jews, maintained the most extensive network of support, and directly saved the lives of several thousand of Poland's Jews, many of them children.

Sign reads 'Stop!' in the former Auschwitz concentration camp
The Nazis killed over a million people in the Auschwitz camp

One of Zhegota's leading members was Wladislaw Bartoszewski, a former inmate of Auschwitz who was one of the few actually released from there, and who later took part in the Polish nation's desperate bid for freedom, the armed Warsaw Uprising in 1944.

It was by far the biggest of its kind against the Germans in occupied Europe.

And 60 years on from those events, the Poles are of course also honouring their own massive losses of three million non-Jewish Poles who also died in the war, including hundreds of thousands in concentration camps.

So it was fitting, perhaps, that Bartoszewski, a Polish Catholic who became Polish foreign minister, was one of the survivors who spoke at the highly-charged ceremony of the camp's liberation inside Auschwitz itself.

He is one of the most persuasive voices appealing for a better understanding about the Holocaust and for more tolerance among the races of Europe and the world.

His presence there, along with hundreds of Jewish survivors, made Auschwitz this week not only a warning to humanity, as the words on the monument suggest, but also a sign that hope can yet be found in the lives of men and women who lived through the Holocaust.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 29 January, 2005, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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