‘We Looked On Him As A God’

How an ordinary Polish farmer labored extraordinarily to save a dozen Jews. And how a Brooklyn woman spent decades lobbying for his Righteous Gentile honor.

04/10/12
Staff Writer
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Sometime in the summer of 1942, as the Nazi noose tightened around the Jews of Poland, Stanislaw Grocholski, a poor farmer who lived in a small village in the southeast part of the country, heard a disturbing rumor — some members of a Jewish family in the region, an old friend among them, had been spotted in one of the nearby fields.

Grocholski, a church-going Catholic, knew what the rumor meant — the Jews had escaped from their nearby town, Urzejowice, on the eve of a “resettlement” order and were hiding to save their lives.

Grocholski decided he had to help.

Each night for a few weeks, he left his house after dark and went, by foot, a few miles each time, to find the Jews. His wife Maria, in tears, begged him not to go; a Pole’s capture by German soldiers, on suspicion of helping a Jew, meant death for the entire family.

Grocholski kept going, to a different field every night. To find people who didn’t want to be found, he whistled an old tune while walking. Maybe one of the Jews in the group, Tsivia Engelberg, now a grown woman with whom he had played as a child decades earlier when the Jewish family’s now-deceased grandfather had befriended Grocholski — then an orphan — would recognize the tune they had whistled together, the farmer thought.

He thought correctly.

Finally, he found the Jews.

In a carved-out space in a large haystack, one of many impromptu hiding spaces in one of many fields where 11 members of the Engelberg family hid by day and picked apples off trees by night for several weeks, Tsivia Engelberg heard the familiar melody. She took a chance and emerged from her haystack.

Grocholski, who recently was honored posthumously as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem, offered to bring the Jews food and reports of the Nazis’ whereabouts, to help them avoid the patrols. Soon, with winter approaching, he offered them shelter, bringing the entire group — and eventually four more members of the family who he had heard were wandering in a forest in the area — to his small, wooden house, off the road in Przeworsk. They stayed in the Grocholskis’ drafty attic two years, still and silent, until liberation by Russian soldiers in the summer of 1944, when Grocholski came up and declared, “You’re free.”

Grocholski carried a dozen members of the Engelberg family, their legs atrophied by the years of inactivity, down the ladder from the attic; two infant daughters in the group had died.

After World War II, the extended Engelberg family left Poland for the United States and Israel. But they never forgot the Grocholskis — Maria had eventually supported her husband’s rescue effort, preparing the Jews meals of beans and potatoes, which Stanislaw carried up the ladder each night. During the Cold War years the Engelbergs sent the Grocholskis food and money, and housed a daughter who came to New York for a year to work as a cleaning woman.

And the Engelbergs made sure that the Polish family’s heroic actions would not be forgotten by the rest of the Jewish world.

Debbie Goodstein, a young Park Slope filmmaker who is part of the Engelberg family, made a 1988 documentary, “Voices From the Attic,” about the Engelbergs’ wartime experience.

Sally Frishberg, Tsivia’s daughter, who was an 8-year-old child in 1942, nominated Stanislaw and Maria four decades ago for Yad Vashem’s highest honor. The application was rejected. The reason was probably because Maria at first had asked the Jews to give her money, jewelry and a fur coat, suspects Frishberg, a retired teacher who at 77 lives in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood and continues to work as a real estate manager.

Upon the advice of Mordecai Paldiel, former director of the Department of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, Frishberg resubmitted the application and accompanying documents of testimony last year with Stanislaw’s name alone. The application was quickly approved.

While some 6,000 non-Jewish Poles have been declared Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem for rescuing Jews at the risk of their lives during the Holocaust, few proactively went out of their way to find endangered Jews, as Grocholski did, says Stanlee Stahl, executive vice president of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. The Foundation publicizes the actions of these heroic individuals and provides cash grants to several hundred of them.

In the presence of the Grocholskis’ three daughters and 27 members of the intergenerational Engelberg family, Stanislaw, who died in 1974, and two other Poles who had risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust, were honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” in a ceremony earlier this year in the town hall of Rzeszow, the biggest city in that part of Galicia. Representatives of the Israeli and Polish governments, and of the Vatican, participated in the ceremony.

Frishberg, who serves as a docent at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, and often speaks to local school groups about what happened to her family during the Shoah, said some words about Grocholski at the ceremony.

“We looked on him as a god,” a simple man who did great things, she says. More than 100 people alive today, including children and grandchildren of the group that hid in the attic, owe their lives to the Grocholskis, she says. Her living room walls are covered with pictures of these relatives.

Frishberg, who came to the United States with her immediate family in 1947, says she has warm memories of Maria, whom she calls a “good woman” who had feared for her own family’s safety. Maria, Frishberg says, enthusiastically aided her husband in keeping the Jews safe and healthy.

During their visit in Poland, the 27 members of the Engelberg family — their delegation was the largest-such group from the United States to travel to such an honoring ceremony in Poland, an official from the Israeli Consulate here told Frishberg — visited the attic, returned to the family’s hometown, toured Auschwitz and their “traveling minyan” attended Shabbat services in Krakow.

When her children were growing up, Frishberg told her about the Grocholskis. She helped design an early Holocaust curriculum for New York City’s public school system. And she “never gave up” her goal of having the deeds of Stanislaw recognized by Yad Vashem.

“It grew on me,” she says. “It became a passion.”

The Grocholskis offer a moral lesson, Frishberg says: “Goodness is more effective than meanness.”

That’s what she told her children, and that’s what she tells the children in the schools where she is invited. “I’m a very suspicious person. I weigh people very carefully,” she says — the Grocholskis passed her test.

Frishbergs’ next goal is to identify and honor the until-now anonymous village priest who persuaded a Polish neighbor of the Engelbergs to whom Tsivia Engelberg had loaned her fur coat to return it, so Maria Grocholski would let Stanislaw bring the endangered Jews into the attic.

The priest’s advice probably saved the Engelbergs’ lives, Frishberg says.

In her speeches, she talks about the evil she witnessed as a child. And she talks about the priest and the Grocholskis. “Because young people must know the good too.”

steve@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

04/12/2012 - 14:01

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