I must bring you along with me on my incredible journey through time and space. The time warp is 73 years and the space is across the Atlantic Ocean – to Poland. The warp has been brought to you and made possible by skype and the I-Phone, with an assist from my superhero travel agent Joanna Millick. We live in a crazy, magical world.
I am planning my trip Poland. I will visit Stoczek – Esther’s home town, Bagatelle – Sam’s home town, the forest in which they hid, and Treblinka (all traces of the Death Camp are gone – it is now a large memorial). I really want to find the house and the barn of Halena Olleshkova – Esther’s savior. I just want to stand there and take a picture.
I asked my sister-in-law if she has any idea where the house and barn are located. She said she does not, but she knows that there were two sisters who helped Sam and Esther – Halena and another one, whose name she does not know. “By the way,” she said, “I have these old letters from Poland I found after my father died. Maybe they can help.” But there is one small problem – they are all in Polish.
“Send them over,” I pleaded. “That is amazing.” Well, with the help of superhero Joanna, the letters, ranging from 1971 to 1991, were translated into English. The mythical characters, described by Sam and Esther and the children of these mythical characters, began to take shape before my eyes. The letters are fascinating on many levels, with the majority of them coming from Elzbieta Maleszewski. I thought that perhaps she is Halena’s daughter. But honestly, I could not figure out who was who.
Joanna, who is from Warsaw and speaks Polish, began to google some of the names. Again, through a warp of time and space, she found that the town of Lipki (4 km from Stoczek) has a Facebook page. On that page, she found someone with the last name of Maleszewski – same as Elzbieta.
The gentleman Joanna found on Facebook is actually the administrator of Lipki (think Mayor of a very small town) and his phone number was listed (very brave of him). Well, equally brave – Joanna picked up the phone and called him – his full name is Jaroslaw Maleszewski. And presto, we had a skype call set up for the very next day.
As I sat in Joanna’s office in front of her large computer screen, she clicked a button and poof, Jaroslaw appeared on the screen in Lipki, Poland. His 18-year-old son, Damien, set up the skype call for us and was hovering and waving in the background. We had long talk and it turns out that he is related to Elzbieta’s husband. He sadly informed us that both Elzbieta and her husband had died years ago, but their son Grzegorz Maleszewski, lives in Wengrow, a nearby town. Not only that, Elzbieta’s father-in-law is still alive at 101! He promised to speak to the 101-year-old father-in-law and Elzbieta’s son and get back to us. To top it all off, he told us that he lives just on the edge of the forest where many Jews were hiding during the war and many of the pits that they dug are still there. “Would you take us to see them when I come in June?” I asked. “Certainly,” was the reply. Wow. Chills went up and down my spine.
After we said our goodbyes and the large computer screen reverted to Joanna’s home page, I let out a holler and we hugged each other. This was amazing.
Well, that was nothing compared to what happened next. A week later, we had an I-phone conversation with Grzegorz Maleszewski, Elzbieta’s son. This was warp at its best. He stood in the middle of a green field outside of a meditation center he is helping to build for his church in Wengrow. It was morning in Seattle and evening in Poland. We talked for about an hour and as we did, the sun set. We could see the darkness creep up all around. But his face lit up like the sun as we spoke. He had heard about Sam and Esther and that his grandparents had hid these Jews, but he did not know much of the story. But he described how when he was a boy, his mother, Elzbieta, would receive these beautiful letters from America. He loved the envelopes and especially the stamps. It was a big deal when one of these letters arrived. He explained that Elzbieta was not Halena’s daughter, but the daughter of Wladyslawa and Stanislaw Stys. Further, Wladyslawa is not Halena’s sister, but her sister-in-law. Stanislaw and Alexander Stysh (Halena’s husband) were brothers.
All this time I thought Helena’s last name was Olleshkova, but it is not – it is Stysh. Poles refer to a married woman by reference to her husband. So, Olleshkova means wife of Alexander. Who knew!
OK, stay with me.
Though he did not know much of the Sam and Esther story, Grzegorz knew that his grandfather had been very nervous about hiding Jews – it was indeed very dangerous. They had neighbors who were found to be hiding Jews and they were killed on the spot or taken to concentration camp. It was Wladyslawa who insisted that they help. He told me that both houses – Wladyslawa and Helena’s – are still standing – they are next door to each other and he will take us there. Grzegorz has two children who we hope to meet – a son who is 16 and a daughter who is 18. Grzegorz asked me if I would scan and send his mother’s letters. She died when he was young and it would be very meaningful to have copies of those letters. I assured him I would do so. At the end of this hour long conversation, the sky was dark all around him as he stood in the open field. As he gazed into the camera of the I-phone, he said: “my heart is full and my soul is full of joy.”
An aside (sort of) that you really won’t believe — On August 19, 1992, The Los Angeles Times ran a front page article profiling a 22 year-old Grzegorz and the town of Lipki. Here is the link to the article:
Well, my new friend Grzegorz got together with his great Uncle and Aunt, Geniek and Aliye Stysh. to have yet another call. This one took place, just last Thursday. I met Geniek and Aliye via I-phone. Geniek is the son of Stanislaw and Wladyslawa and the brother of Elzbieta (Grzegorz’s mother). Geniek was a boy of about 8 or 9 at the time of the war. He described how Sam, Esther and Chayim hid in his barn and that his nervous father made a hiding place for them under the hay pile. Geniek would take food out to them in the evening and sometimes stay and play cards. He remembers them all. “Esther,” he said, “was a stunningly beautiful woman.” He recalls how she would come into their house and use their sewing machine to make clothes. She was a very good seamstress. He liked Chayim the best because he was closest to his age. He said that Chayim was with Sam and Esther the whole time. They lived right next door to his Uncle Alexander and Aunt Halena and both families helped. He also remembers Esther’s first husband, Moishe Kwiatek.
Grzegorz sent me an amazing letter written by Geniek in 2010. The letter was addressed to the Polish equivalent of the Veteran’s Administration. He was requesting an additional pension. In this letter he describes how in the years 1942-1944, he and his family helped some Jews hiding during the war. He details that he and his family helped dig a pit (think a cold potato storage pit on a farm) in the forest where they hid during the summer and that they hid in the utility building, the stables and the barn (under the hay stack) in the winter. As the youngest, it was safest for him to bring them food because it would not look so suspicious. Some days it was not safe to bring them food as they lived close to a main road that the Germans would frequent. Also at certain times, German SS would come to the surrounding area to round up Jews in the forest. On days that it was not safe, he left the food in the dog’s pail. At night the hidden Jews would come out and take the food from the dog’s pail. He explained to the Veteran’s board that his family stayed in close connection with Sam and Esther after the Goldbergs moved to America, but that he no longer has any of the letters that they sent to them. The only thing he still has is a picture of the Goldberg family at their oldest daughter’s wedding, with a note on it to his parents (see picture above – Grzgorz sent it via his I-Phone! On left – Sam and Esther; center – Fay and her husband Ernie Schraga; right – Shlomo and Ray Molly).
Grzgorz’s 102 year-old Maleszewski grandfather, did not know Esther and Sam, but he remembers the Kwiatek family, who lived in nearby Stoczek. He did business with them before the war.
It is hard to believe, but from my small hope of being able to see the house and perhaps the barn where Sam, Esther and Chayim hid, I will get to see both houses of these righteous gentiles and the barn and utility building where they hid. I hope to meet so many of their children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren. Besides going out to see the pits in the forest with Jaroslaw, I will go with Grzegorz to meet his Stys grandparents and his Maleszewksi grandfather. With a bit more luck, I will also get to meet some of the other children and grandchildren of these families.
On this journey across space and time, I will not be alone. Shlomo, my husband, and our four children, Elisheva, Jack, Shoshana and Esther and Shoshana’s fiancé – Micha – will be with me. So the children and grandchildren of Halena and Wladyslawa’s families will meet the children and grandchildren of Sam and Esther’s family. My heart skips a beat just thinking about it.