The one dusty road from my family’s farm in the tiny village of Chociszewo, Poland, leads straight to the cemetery, where my great-aunt Stasia Szymanska visits the graves of her husband, parents, and sister Todzia almost daily. Aunt Stasia still remembers the weight of Todzia’s 5-year-old body pressing against her small palms as she and my grandmother carried her casket to the graveyard. “She was beautiful in a little, white dress, like she was going to her First Communion,” Aunt Stasia said, “and she had a wreath on her head. A woman said to me and your grandmother, ‘Take a needle and prick her in the ring finger. If the blood flows, maybe she’s just sleeping.’ ”
Chociszewo is about an hour’s drive northwest from Warsaw, and there was no particular reason to stop there unless you knew they grew some of the most succulent strawberries on earth. The sales from the strawberry harvest are how my family sustains itself, ever since they first tilled the land before World War II. Aunt Stasia, a 77-year-old lifelong strawberry farmer, has cropped, caramel-colored hair that she curls with small, plastic rollers on Sunday mornings and walks around the farm in before going to church. She is the farm matron and lives now with nine family members. Her duties have been whittled down to peeling potatoes in the outdoor kitchen, a job she enjoys because she can still keep an eye on everybody while the Polish soap operas run their course.
About 20 miles north, in the city of Plonsk, Wladyslaw Gugla, the Jewish schoolteacher who hid in my aunt and grandmother’s home during the war is buried in a forgotten grave. “I remembered him walking through our strawberry fields, when it was safe,” Grandma Henia Szczepanska told me. “When the Germans were gone, sometimes he would wander for hours.”
Aunt Stasia looked out the kitchen window at my cousins changing the tractor tires, preparing for the coming raspberries. “Had the Germans known about him, they would have killed us all,” she said, holding a beautiful strawberry between her fingers. Her memories are still vivid of the balding teacher who hid in their home and risked his life teaching children during the war. He was loved by Todzia, my great-aunt and grandmother’s youngest sister, before she died of diphtheria. “Todzia would run after him with a comb and tease him, asking if she could brush the few hairs on his head,” Aunt Stasia laughed. “He would pick her up, and say, ‘O ty!’ and squeeze her.”
When historians like Jan Gross and Timothy Snyder write books about whether Poles helped or murdered their Jewish countrymen during the Holocaust, the people they are talking about are, in many cases, people like my family and their neighbors in Chociszewo. There are many accounts of Polish treachery, but there are also more Poles listed among the Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem than any other nationality in Europe. As of today, 6,339 Poles have been honored by the Righteous Among the Nations. According to the Yad Vashem website, “Considering the harsh punishment that threatened rescuers, this is a most impressive number. On the other hand, when evaluating the role of Poles in the rescue of Jews, one also has to take into consideration that Poland’s Jewish community was by far the largest in Europe and that only about 10 percent of its Jews survived.” Approximately 50,000 Jewish survivors were on Polish soil at the time of liberation, and “about 30,000 to 35,000 Jews, around one percent of all of Polish Jewry, were saved with the help of Poles and thanks to the devotion of Righteous Among the Nations,” according to the site.
Though I grew up in America, I have been visiting my family in Poland since I was a child. But it is only recently, since the great debate began two years ago between Gross and Snyder over the causes and extent of Polish co-operation with the Nazis during the Holocaust, that I thought to ask the old people of my family village about what happened during the war. My grandparents mentioned bits and pieces of our family’s World War II history over the years, but it often seemed too painful for them to recall, or as though they wanted the memories to simply be forgotten. When I finally decided to broach the topic with them, my grandmother repeated that she didn’t understand why I cared to dig so deep into the past, why I cared so much about Wladyslaw and his story.
After breakfast I went down the road to Wychodzc, the neighboring village, where Wladyslaw, my family’s Jewish neighbor, once lived in two rooms that doubled as a secret school. Cherry-red poppies grew on the edge of a field, and workers gathered strawberries in wicker baskets, and as the warm sunlight poured down it was hard to imagine Wladyslaw dying here. The bloodshed in the fields had washed away to make room for the tall sunflowers, tilting their faces toward the sky.
Wladyslaw moved to Wychodzc with his Catholic wife, Marianna—or Marysia, as the villagers fondly called her—before the start of the war and after the scandal of their union rocked Marysia’s hometown, about three hours’ southwest of Wychodzc. “She had been a student of Mr. Gugla’s. She became pregnant with his child when she was in the seventh grade. This was a big scandal,” said Edward Maciaga, 80, a villager whose family also hid Wladyslaw, and whose mother Kazimiera was a close confidante of Marysia’s. “He wanted to marry Marysia, but he was a Jew.” For him to marry her, Marysia’s family demanded he convert to Catholicism. He agreed. He was christened and they got married. “This all was not well-received because he was close to 30 years old, and she was 15 or 16,” Edward told me. “Because of the whole situation, they moved.”
Last summer, in a small cabinet in a school in Chociszewo, I found a sturdy, leather-bound book, where I saw my Grandmother Henia’s grades from 1946, along with her father Czeslaw’s name and profession. Seven rows up, I found Modesta, with her father Wladyslaw’s information, written in extremely neat handwriting. Suddenly, the intertwined histories of the Poles of my family’s village and the Jewish-born schoolteacher they sheltered came alive.