A Polish Catholic woman discovers her Jewish identity

It’s a journey more and more Holocaust survivors are undertaking:

As Nazi troops imposed their terror on Warsaw, an 18-year-old Polish girl slipped into a Warsaw church with an elderly rabbi to teach him how to dip his hand in holy water and cross himself.

The rabbi, his newly shaven beard leaving his cheeks white, approached the lesson with gravity, skimming the water in the church font and crossing himself with slow reverence, hoping this would help him pass as Catholic.

“You’ve already exposed yourself! You’re dead already!” the teenager whispered in his ear, and showed him how to perform the sacred gestures the way she and other Catholics did, so quickly and automatically that she barely touched her head and chest.

“Without respect?” the rabbi asked.

“Without any respect!” the girl replied.

It was 1943 in Nazi-occupied Poland and any mistake could cost him his life, and hers, too. The Nazis would have killed her for helping a Jew.

What she did not know back then: She was a Jew herself.

Magdalena Grodzka-Guzkowska’s journey of self-discovery is pieced together from interviews with her and people close to her, emails made available to The Associated Press, information provided by Yad Vashem, her memoir “Lucky Woman,” and documentary footage.

Decades after she helped save the rabbi and about a dozen others, mostly children, by teaching them Christian customs, Grodzka-Guzkowska discovered documents in an old suitcase showing that her father and other close family members were Jews. Growing up she knew vaguely that one of her great grandmothers was Jewish but nothing more about those roots.

Shared humanity, not ancestry, impelled her to heroism.

“I remember running with children through the city. It was horrible,” the now frail Grodzka-Guzkowska told The Associated Press, her hand trembling as she sat in a wheelchair.

“And I felt I had to help.”

Grodzka-Guzkowska knew Catholic prayers and customs so well that the anti-Nazi resistance tasked her with teaching them to Jews. Today, at age 86, she’s living out her last years waiting to be buried in a white shroud according to the ancient customs of her ancestors.

The discovery of Jewish roots is a growing phenomenon in Poland, where increasing numbers of Catholic or secular Poles in recent years have learned, often from deathbed confessions of loved ones or from chance discoveries of documents, that they are of Jewish descent.

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3 responses to “A Polish Catholic woman discovers her Jewish identity”

  1. About ten km north of the downtown bridges of Warsaw in Poland is a well known orphanage run by an order of Catholic sisters. That orphanage complex pre-dates World War II and during the German occupation, it hid Jewish children until the Russian Army swept in from the east. I suspect that story can be repeated in any other such facility anywhere in Poland. There are retired sisters there whose memories of those WWII day are still very sharp. Someone needs to record their oral histories.

  2. My Jewish grandmother was born in Krokow and came to the US in the early 20th century. Many of these Polish people are probably my relatives.

  3. She has a proud background—and most certainly contributed to saving many during that horrible time, without then knowing she was Jewish herself. What a wonderful woman.

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