Catholic hero of Auschwitz dies

An amazing story of courage and young love.  Details:

The young Catholic man spirited his Jewish girlfriend out of Auschwitz in 1944, saving her life. Yet it took 39 years for them to see each other again.

Jerzy Bielecki, a German-speaking Polish inmate at the same Nazi death camp, lived to age 90 and died peacefully in his sleep Thursday at his home in Nowy Targ in southern Poland, his daughter, Alicja Januchowski said Saturday.

Januchowski, a New Yorker, spoke to The Associated Press from Nowy Targ, where she had been with her ailing father.

The Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem awarded Bielecki the Righteous Among the Nations title in 1985 for saving the girlfriend, Cyla Cybulska. It all happened in July 1944, when the 23-year-old Bielecki used his relatively privileged position in Auschwitz to orchestrate a daring escape for both of them.

Bielecki was 19 when the Germans seized him on the false suspicion he was a resistance fighter, and brought him to Auschwitz in April 1940 in the first transport of inmates, all Poles. He was given number 243.

Cybulska, her parents, two brothers and a younger sister were rounded up in January 1943 in the Lomza ghetto in northern Poland and taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her parents and sister were immediately killed in the gas chambers, but she and her brothers were sent to work.

By September, 22-year-old Cybulska was the only one left alive, with inmate number 29558 tattooed on her left forearm.

They met and their love blossomed, making Bielecki determined to find a way to escape.

From a fellow Polish inmate working at a uniform warehouse, Bielecki secretly got a complete SS uniform and a pass. Then dressed as SS officer, he pretended he was taking a Jewish inmate out of the camp for interrogation. He led Cybulska to a side gate, where a sleepy SS-man let them go through.

The fear of being gunned down himself reverberated through his first steps of freedom.

“I felt pain in my backbone, where I was expecting to be shot,” Bielecki told the AP in an interview in 2010.

For more than a week they hid in the fields during the day and marched during the night, until they reached the house of Bielecki’s uncle. There, they were separated, as the family wanted Bielecki back home in Krakow, and Cybulska was sent to hide with a farm family.

They failed to meet back up after the war.

Bielecki stayed in Poland and settled in Nowy Targ, where he raised a family and worked as the director of a school for bus and car mechanics. Cybulska married a Jewish man, David Zacharowitz, with whom she went to Sweden and then to New York.

Sheer chance allowed them to meet again. While talking with her Polish cleaning woman in 1982, Cybulska related her Auschwitz escape story.

The woman, stunned, said she had heard Bielecki tell the same story on Polish TV. She then helped Cybulska find Bielecki in Poland.

In the summer of 1983, they met at the Krakow airport. He brought 39 red roses, one for each year they had spent apart.

Cybulska died in New York in 2002.

Bielecki is survived by his wife, two daughters, four grandchildren and a great-grandson. A Catholic funeral Mass and burial are to be held in Nowy Targ on Monday.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him…

Comments

  1. Wow, wonderful story! I had not heard about these people before, thanks for sharing this article.

  2. Fiergenholt says:

    As the actual survivors of the death camps die off naturally, members of their families often look for places that will protect their loved ones mementos. As a result a lot of Jewish congregational museums across the country have been formed. There also have been larger facilities built that willing offer protection for concentration camp items and photos.

    The southwest Ohio region has traditionally had a large Jewish population. Maybe 20-25 years ago, a lady from Dayton named Renate Friedman, started to pull together a small collection of concentration camp items and just as quickly, the word got out that she was willing to be a curator of photos, letters, mementos of all kinds. Items poured in when family members realized that someone would properly care for their grandparent’s treasures. For a number of years she would put those items on display in whatever public space she could find: shopping malls; high-school lobbies; church and/or synagogue halls.

    Finally, someone suggested to her that she approach the National Museum of the United States Air Force, at nearby Wright Patterson Air Force Base, to see if they would be willing to host her exhibits on a temporary basis.

    A deal was cut; the museum staff went to work creating a display area and creating video interviews — particularly of military veterans talking about their first encounters with the camps.

    The plan, I think, was that the space at the NMUSAF would be temporary but an amazing thing happened. Because of the uniqueness of the display (and the continued support of the Jewish community in providing speakers and docents) attendance — particularly from grade school field-trips — shot up dramatically. Apparently in Ohio, all fifth graders are required to learn a unit on the Holocaust; thus grade school teachers (always on the prowl for enrichment programs) saw this exhibit (and the speakers on the NMUSAF’s list) as an unusual opportunity. The rest — as they say — is history.

  3. Deacon Norb says:

    Dcn Greg!

    Thank you for this post. I have visited two of the camps — Auschwitz (June 2004) and Flossenburg (October 2007).

    I will say this; if you visit any of the camps — but particularly Auschwitz — you will be changed forever.

    Saint Maximilian Kolbe’s death cell is a required stop if you make it to Auschwitz.

    At Flossenburg, the required stop is the plaque imbedded in the stone parade ground indicating the spot where Lutheran Theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer was executed.

  4. ron chandonia says:

    This is a beautiful story, one that should be instructive to us today. As the article explains it, the motive for this rescue was the personal relationship that developed between Januchowski and the woman whose life he saved. Today we rightly celebrate the fact that other Christians elsewhere in Europe also took great risks to save Jewish neighbors and friends from the Nazis.

    But when I read their own accounts, I notice that few of these heroes explicitly cite their religious faith as the reason for their behavior. In fact, many Germans apparently believed their faith required them to follow whatever laws were passed and to cooperate with those in authority. With good reason, Gordon Zahn titled his biography of the Austrian Catholic war resister, Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, In Solitary Witness.

    At least here in America today, Catholics have largely gotten beyond that uncritical authoritarianism, but we seem every bit as much the social conformists as European Catholics in the 1940s were. I wonder how many of us would risk life and limb–or risk anything important–to stand up for outcasts with whom we have no personal connection. I suspect not very many.

  5. If you are traveling to Washington,D.C. take the time (a half day) and visit the National Holocaust Museum. Check their website because you will need tickets. The exhibit is stunning and speaks to what is truely evil. Every person needs to experience a tour of this museum and understand what happens when “love thy neighbor” is not practiced.

  6. Dear Deacon. When are you going to publish a story about fr Titus Brandsma, a Dutch Carmelite priest. Who was an educator at the Catholic University of Nijmegen The Netherlands. Throughout his priesthood he was an heroic defender of the Catholic faith in the Netherlands. There are several books written about the priest specially his resistance againts the German occupation of Holland.1940.1945 “In Dachau. I will meet friends, and God the Lord is everywhere.`Titus wrote to his relatives. In my sorrow I`m content, As Sorrow it`s no longer meant, But as the most desired lot That makes me one with Thee, Oh God. Blessings . John.

    [Thanks for bringing him to my attention, John. I'd never heard of him until now. Dcn. G.]

  7. Studying the life of Bl Titus Brandsma has been one of the components of our lay Carmelite formation. The National Shrine of Our Lady of Mt Carmel in Middletown, N.Y. will be able to give you plenty of information. This holy man is well worth knowing about, especially as we wade forward into uncertain times.

    p.s. The shrine chapel has a display of relics that will blow your mind. If you’re ever up in that neck of the woods, check it out.

  8. A very touching and inspiring story.

  9. Old Buckeye says:

    Fiergenholt, I have seen that display at Wright Patterson and it brought me to tears. Very powerful presentation in a small setting. I don’t know if I could make it through the Holocaust museum.

  10. Fiergenholt says:

    For the rest of the folks visiting this blog-stream, and who have not had the chance to visit this Holocaust exhibit at Wright-Patterson AFB, here is the link:

    http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=15143

  11. poetcomic1 says:

    Exactly HOW did he live in Auschwitz from 1940-1944? I’d rather not know the details. I’m glad he got his then-girlfriend out but am I missing something here?

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