Tears ran down his cheek as Jan told of an event that happened when he was eleven years old. He sat in his seat in the Stoczek school house, looking out of the window. It was the fall of 1942. He watched as Nazi soldiers, armed with guns and clubs forced a group of Jews to dig a large pit in the middle of the Jewish cemetery. Then the Jews were lined up along the pit’s edge and with their face looking down into the pit and their back to the Nazi killers, they were shot, one by one, in the back of the head. The force of the shot, made their bodies topple over, down into the pit.
When Jan finished speaking, his face glistened with sweat from the exertion and the room was still – we all felt his intense emotion. Soon after these killings occurred, Esther, Moishe and Chaim Kwiatek entered Jan’s life in a dangerous and everlasting way. Jan’s mother, Wladyslawa, his Uncle, Edward, and his next-door neighbor and Aunt, Helena, agreed to help Esther, Moishe and Chaim – to assist in their hiding and provide them with food – as they could.
Jan, and the other children, were a part of the drama. Jan would visit the hiding Jews – in their barn or out in the forest where they hid in the spring and summer. When the hunted Hebrews were hiding in the barn, Jan’s mother would put a headband around his head with the words “TYPHUS” and send him out into the yard to play. If any Nazis would come snooping, they would see the forehead message and run the other way.
Jan knew that hiding these Jews was dangerous and if they were discovered by the Nazis or a fellow Pole who informed on them, they would all be killed. But they did it anyway. And they all kept this family secret. Esther hid in and around the Stys farms for two years. Sam joined her after his escape from the Death Camp Treblinka. He was there for one year.
I had the honor of meeting Jan Stys last June, together with my husband Shlomo and our children. He is pictured above in a blue shirt and suspenders, surrounded by his children and nieces.
I heard the news of his death when I woke up yesterday morning, my last day of a wonderful Passover in Milano Maritima – on the Adriatic Sea. I awoke at 5 AM to say goodbye to Shlomo, who was traveling back to Seattle on an early flight. I would be leaving later – on a different flight. I would be flying to Poland with my daughter Esther — to see Jan and the rest of the Stys clan.
I checked my phone, as we all do in the morning and I saw that I had a Facebook message from my superhero friend -Joanna Millick. I pressed the little circle with Joanna’s picture on it.
“Hi Karen, I just got a message from Grzegorz. His Uncle, Jan Stys, passed away. His funeral is tomorrow [Wednesday] at 2 PM. Grzgorz asked me to let you know.”
I had to sit down. I was shocked. Here I was looking forward to my trip and knowing that just tomorrow [Thursday], I would see Jan. But this is not to be. I missed his funeral by hours – our plane arrived in Warsaw at 5:30 PM yesterday (Wednesday). The sadness I felt and still feel is not just for the loss of Jan Stys – which is enough – but it is for a generation that is leaving us.
Today, Esther and I will drive out to the Stoczek area. I will see Grzgorz and I hope to see Eugenuisz and Alina Stys. Eugenuisz is Jan’s younger brother.
In the airport, I found a beautiful candle shop. I bought this candle to give to Eugenuisz and Alina. I know candles are important in the Catholic religion, but I do not know the details of their meaning. But I do know that in the Jewish tradition when a person dies, the close family members light a large Yartzheit candle that burns for the seven days of Shiva – the time when close family members sit at home and grieve, while visitors come and attempt to comfort the mourners.
I hope this candle and our visit will be a comfort to the entire Stys family.