The small room in the home of Eugenuuisz and Alina Stys in Stare Lipki, Poland (4 kilometers from Stoczek) was filled with chairs and a table laden with food and drink. There was hardly room to get by. It was filled with two generations of the Goldberg family and four generations of the Stys family. They were dressed in the Sunday best to meet us. We all settled in our chairs. Shlomo Goldberg, my husband of 31 years, stood and spoke:
“There is no way to thank you for what you did. What you did was very unusual and we recognize that you and your parents risked your lives. If you had not done that, none of us would be here. It says in our books that if a person saves one life, he saves a whole world. You and your parents saved many worlds.
My father is buried in Israel and on his tombstone there is a verse – ‘You brought me up from hell, gave me life from the depths of the pit.’ As I was preparing for this trip, I read further in the Psalm and the next verse includes a word that we use to describe people like you and your parents, who go far beyond what most people do – ‘righteous people.’ I thought that it is appropriate to sing this to you. So I wrote music to accompany the verse and we would like to sing it to you.”
So, our children, Elisheva, Jack, Shoshana and Esther and our future son-in-law Micha and I, rose from our chairs and stood together with Shlomo before 12 members of the Stys families. We sang the verse from Psalms to the rapt attention of the group. With the song done, the room fell silent. I looked up and saw that almost everyone had tears in their eyes. So did I.
This was really happening. My original dream of going to Poland and, maybe finding the house where the Stys family lived during the war blossomed into something beyond my dreams. Here we were: inside the house where Wladyslawa and Stanislaw Stys lived with their children – Jan, Elzbieta and Eugeniusz – during the war. We talked and talked – it seemed everyone knew the stories of Sam, Esther and Chaim hiding on their property and in the nearby forest – and everyone wanted to talk at once. Jan and Eugenuisz and a bit later Yanina (Helena and Alexander Stys’s 90 year old daughter-pictured at the top) told story after story of the two years in which they risked the lives of the entire family to protect and help these Jews. We heard the story of another Lipki family who was also hiding Jews. The Nazis found out, and the Jews and all members of the family were killed. This was not a hypothetical fear.
We walked through the small yard, covered with scraggly brownish grass and entered an old wood barn filled with old machinery. But on one side, was the space where Stanislaw built a hideout for the Jews. It was made of hay – hollow in the middle. Shlomo and I lay down on the hay to see how it felt. Not too bad – pretty comfortable – but a bit scratchy. We left the barn and saw just outside, where, in the event that it was too dangerous to deliver food to the hideout, it was left in dog’s pail.
We took a picture with the two families standing together outside the barn.
Next, we walked out of Eugenuisz and Alina’s yard, past the dog barking in its fenced in pen, and took a sharp left turn onto the dirt road in front of their home. Walking not more than two minutes, we arrived at the small, old house of Helena (Oleskawa) and Alexander Stys. Here we saw the house where Esther arrived a few days after the terrifying Nazi round up of Jews in Stoczeck in August of 1942. Esther escaped this round up by hiding in the low, small attic in the house of her first husband – Moishe Kwaitek’s – home. Here, we entered and saw the small rooms where the family lived. We saw the room where their son Polikarb (now deceased) made moonshine that he shared with the hidden Jews in the cold winters to warm their souls. We saw the kitchen where Esther would help Juliana Stys -then a girl of 15 – cook mushroom soup and repair her torn clothing on the Stys’s sewing machine. Here is where she taught Juliana how to sew a brassier. Outside the home, there was another barn – another place to hide during the dark, cold winter.
It is not clear, even after talking with the family members for over five hours, where Moishe, Esther and Chayim Kwiatek hid at first – in August of 1942 after the Stoczeck roundup. But, they were somewhere around, or on, these properties – or in the woods just beyond. I am still unclear exactly when Stanislaw built the hideout in his barn – was it in 1942 – or sometime later.
No one could tell us exactly how Moishe Kwiatek.was killed But within a few months of their arrival at the Stys doorstep, he was separated from Esther and Chayim. They all believe he was captured. It could have been a Polish man who would scour the forest looking for Jews to turn them in for a reward – the Jew catcher (it was previously reported in this blog that one of Halena’s sons was the Jew catcher. I now believe this to be false – they all knew about the hidden Jews and they all helped. This secret was keep by all family members, even the young children. The Jew catcher seems to have been an unrelated neighbor).
In early August 1943, after Sam escaped from Treblinka, Helena found him wandering the forest. She introduced him to Esther and then he joined them in hiding. It was after Sam joined Esther and Chayim that the legendary pit in the forest was created. This is where they lived in summer and early fall of 1943 and then again in the spring and early summer of 1944.
Eugeniusz led the way. His daughter drove him part of the way – until the turn off from the paved road. The rest of us walked down a path through the forest to meet him. Our path led to a paved road – no sidewalks. We turned right on the paved road and walked, maybe ¼ mile. There was a small dirt path that turned left from the paved road into the forest. We all followed Eugeniusz, who walked down this path with unexpected speed and confidence, as if he had walked the path just yesterday – not 72 years ago.
The stick-like trees of the forest stood sentinel – testifying to what happened here. The forest is very green, with desiduois and pine trees mixed together. Leaves carpet the forest floor with small plants and mushrooms scattered about. Light enters the forest as the canopy of the trees shoot up high and not wide. The birds sing loudly – trying to tell us something – not sure what.
My kids commented that these trees look just like the forests in all the Holocaust movies. But we were not in a movie – this is real – we were walking through the forest where Esther, Sam and Chaim hid. Their real story – came alive.
I was focused on following that 9-year old boy – now 82. Suddenly, Eugeniusz stopped. I had been looking down at the ground, so as not to trip on a branch or tree stump. I looked up and my mouth dropped open and a gasp exited my throat. There before me was a hole in the ground filled with leaves, but very distinct and visible. This was the pit that Esther, Chayim and Sam dug to hide from the Nazis. While during the cold of winter, they hid in the two barns, during the spring and summer – this was their home. Eugeniusz explained that it was big enough for all three – quite deep. They placed wood planks over the top and then covered the planks with leaves and branches for camouflage. There was a spot at the edge of the pit, where they could remove the planks to get in and out.
Shlomo did not hesitate – he went right down into the pit. He was the only one who dared enter this holy space. At that moment, I did not know what to feel or what to think – I just stood there looking at Shlomo and watching our children with tears in their eyes.
There are many heroes of this story – some are no longer in the world of the living, but some are here – Eugenuisz, Jan, Juliana – the righteous children. But there are other heroes of this story – one man who made this all happen – Grzegorz Malesewska – the son of Elzbieta and the grandson of Wladyslawa and Stanislaw Stys.
After my superhero travel agent – Joanna Millick – helped me find and speak to Grzegorz from Seattle, Grzegorz jumped in to contact all the Stys family members and organized this gathering. He made us two family trees, Helena’s and Wladyslava’s – with pictures! We will take them home and cherish them. He spent the past two days with us – guiding us through this part of Poland – to Stare Lipki where we visited the Stys family and the forest and Wegrow (where he showed us his beautiful home and his contracting business and his store – the” Home Depot” of Poland). He escorted us to Treblinka, to the Bug River, to Stoczek. He showed us memorials deep in the forest where nine Jews had been shot in a pit and the memorial to the Jews of Stoczeck – at the place where some of the Stoczeck Jews were shot. The remnants of the tomb stones from the Jewish cemetery are gathered here. He took us to the Christian cemetery and showed us the graves of his parents, grandparents, Uncles and Aunts. He did this all while snapping tons of pictures and videoing us all.
Just as Shlomo began our visit with this remarkable family by thanking them – I take this opportunity – from the bottom of my heart – to end this blog post by thanking Grzegorz for all he did to make this visit so beautiful and meaningful. You too are one of the righteous. Your grandparents would be proud.