Teresa Lisiewska, born in 1942
My Grandmother Teresa
Written by Karolina Sadowska
On September 1, 1939, the war broke out, and the time of the persecution of Poles, Jews, and other national minorities, such as Roma, began. From that moment on, Jews had to wear armbands with a yellow Star of David on their sleeves. They were forbidden to walk on sidewalks, they could only move along the road (which didn’t always end well for them, they often suffered accidents and were hit by vehicles). The first ghettos were formed. Jews were deported from them to, among other places, Auschwitz and Birkenau. Initially, there was no hunger in the ghettos. People were (still) moving with their belongings, but the crowds caused the food to be scarce and there was famine.
famine—it was not the crowds that were the main reason for hunger in the ghettos. The occupier introduced food stamps, which allocated starvation rations. Food was available on the “black market” but it was very expensive.
After that, children began to be smuggled out of the ghetto in a number of ways. Various organizations helped with this, including Żegota and the Social Care, whose active members were, for example, Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, who had been one of the representatives of the National Democratic Party before the war, as well as Irena Sendlerowa and Wiktor Janecki. Most often, the children who left the ghetto found a place in orphanages and with families in nearby villages, and even in monasteries. The children had their first and last names changed, new baptismal certificates with new places of birth were created, and their entire identity was changed.
In 1942 my grandmother was born in the Warsaw ghetto (it’s unclear when exactly but surely in the first half of 1942). After being carried out of the ghetto, she received the surname of Wiktor Janecki, who saved her and her brother on June 28, 1942. Grandma was originally named Sara, which was changed to Teresa, while her brother Moses was named Wiktor. This was Grandma’s last name until November 1944.
Between 1942-1943, they stayed at the Father Baudouin Orphanage in Warsaw. About one thousand Jewish children who “passed through” this building were marked in various ways, e.g. their baptism date in their family records was just penciled in—that was a sign that this was a Jewish child.
The Baudouin House was run by the Sisters of Charity, who initially baptized Jewish children in St. Barbara’s Church, which was just outside the wall, but when the children kept arriving, they stopped doing it. To protect the children with a dark complexion, their heads were shaved and wrapped with a bandage as if they had wounds. In the summer of 1942 the sisters were not coping, because the House was located in the city center, opposite the occupier’s quarters. The caregivers came up with the idea to fake an outbreak of typhus in the home (for the sake of the children). For some time the children were safe, as no one wanted to be in the building where there was an epidemic (the Germans were terrified of disease).
The Baudouin Hous—Father Baudouin Children’s Home (for foundlings) was established in 1732 and was maintained by the municipal authorities. Children were cared for by the nuns.
The Orphanage was managed by a pediatrician, Dr. Maria Wierz- bowska, who was posthumously awarded the Yad Vashem medal (the medal for the Righteous Among the Nations). She and the staff hid the children by running the so-called double medical records (the date of birth and basic data about the child were changed here). On paper, a Jewish child became seriously ill and was transferred to another ward, where it was actually healthy. The child stayed in a different ward but with a changed, softened name, e.g. from Teresa to Terenia, etc.
Grandma recalls: At one point, I had to leave the Fr. Baudouin Orphanage for a month, that was in November 1943. After the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Germans searched all the orphanages. I was taken to Okęcie and then to Sochaczew. Katarzyna Janecka (later, my mother) and Jadwiga Brych took care of it. From Sochaczew, Jadwiga Brych went to her hometown, while my mother and I went to Krośniewice near Kutno.
I remember that on the way from Warsaw I got some bread with butter. I hadn’t known the taste of butter. I nibbled on the bread and wanted to eat the butter for dessert but it melted in my little hands. For me, it was the second tragedy after the loss of my Jewish parents in the ghetto. Somewhere along the way, I got a bowl of bean soup, it’s still my favorite soup today. We reached my mother’s family in Krośniewice. Since it was winter, they made me a red coat from pillow ticking. We stayed there until the summer of 1945.
Aunt Gienia, my Polish mother’s sister, returned from the concentration camp. We went with her to Bielawa in Lower Silesia. Here I attended a Jewish kindergarten. We lived in a district which was an agglomeration of Jews who had come from Russia and almost all of Europe. Children, regardless of their faith, “celebrated” the holidays together. For example, Polish children spent Hanukkah, which lasted eight days, in Jewish families, where they got candies and sweets. We also spent Christmas together (there was a Christmas tree, small gifts, such as crayons and sweets). The last of the string of holidays were those held in the homes of our Orthodox friends.
While playing, the children developed their own language. It was mostly comprised of Polish, Yiddish and French words, and after 1948, also Greek. After finishing primary school, I wanted to become a teacher. I was accepted at the Pedagogical Secondary School in Świdnica. After months of studying, my Polish teacher had had enough and wanted to talk to my mother because of my “back-yard accent”. I participated in this conversation up to a point. The teacher said: “Please understand, there are Pedagogical Secondary Schools in Wałbrzych educating teachers for Greek, German and Jewish schools.”
Then my mother told me to leave and they talked for a long time. After this visit, I had nothing but trouble. Each Polish lesson was torture but after two years the professor reached her goal and erased my “wonderful accent”. After I finished school, I started working as a teacher. Later I met a man who came from Łowicz. I married him in Bielawa. This is also where my four children were born, the fifth one after we moved to Łowicz. We came to Głowno in 1971. It was here that I encountered a certain curiosity, meaning: a Gypsy—no, because she is a teacher, a Jew—no, because they’re gone. Before that, I hadn’t encountered overt antisemitism, even 1968 treated me kindly.
Grandma is still searching for her brother Moses/Wiktor: I would like
to know more about my Jewish family, but I don’t think it’s realistic. I was looking in the State Archives, and recently I came across the Mormons in Warsaw, where the archivist asked me if there was a Salomon in my family—there is an annotation about his death in the USA in 1985. She promised me more information but the search takes time. It’s late but I’m not giving up hope. I’m a member of the Jewish Community in Warsaw. This is where I was born, where I survived the war and my life was saved. This is also where I’m looking for my roots.
The home of my post-war mother was extraordinary. Here you could meet interesting people who taught history, e.g. Dr. Wierzbowska, Dr. Opatowska, Fr. Ludwik Mucha—the chaplain of Major “Hubal” Dobrzański, who always told us children: “No matter what your faith or nationality is, you should live so that no one will cry because of you.” Every day,
I keep trying to live according to this principle I heard a long time ago.
I apply it but it doesn’t always work out.
Life is hard. I thank the people who saved us despite their views and the threat to their own lives. There are approximately three thousand members of the Children of the Holocaust Association worldwide, and seven hundred in Poland alone. Almost everyone knows each other, this is my Jewish family.
This factual story is food for thought. It concerns me and my family but it seems to me that there are many such people and families. I would like it to be a warning for all young people, a lesson for the future, so they are more tolerant of people of other faiths in Poland and beyond.
We learn tolerance everywhere. These are direct and indirect encounters with history. Our school, home, family, and people with whom we spend time are all short life lessons. Something big can come out of small elements if we want it to. Therefore, I think it’s wise to learn tolerance everywhere. After all, the person who helped my grandmother, Mr. Janecki, risking his life, thought about saving a human life, thought about the future, about Poland; he thought about me, and us. I would also like the person who reads my grandmother’s story to learn about the past, look into the future, and try to prevent such a great tragedy as World War II, concentration camps, the Holocaust and the death of millions of innocent people. We all have memory, only there can we store bits of history. They
need to be collected and remembered so we can create new history.
It doesn’t matter that sometimes we have a different skin color, we are of a different religion; life is a precious gift that people should care for and allow others to discover.
For a long time, my grandma didn’t know who she really was. She was brought up by a woman who consciously gave up her entire life for her. I don’t think it was an easy decision, but how meaningful it was for the future. Her Polish mother gave her a home and care— by extension, life, not only to my grandmother but to her five grandchildren. Thanks to the wonderful “Polish mother”, I am who I am.
The first time Jews were mentioned in our home was when I was nine. I experienced my first Sabbath at the age of ten—it was something completely new for me. I started meeting people who amazed me and fascinated me with their otherness. I started to be around Hebrew- and English-speaking people. I liked this otherness, and over time I began to understand what it was all about.
I became interested in Judaism. I met wonderful people, including the family of Rabbi Jona Bookstein, whose grandfather owned large estates in Głowno (the place where I live now). Thanks to him, I learned that a large group of Jews had lived in Głowno before the war. He showed us where the synagogue used to be (now it’s the city hall) or the mikveh (now a sports club). It was nice to meet the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, with whom my family and I have spent many a beautiful Sabbath. I’m very happy that I inherited my origin from Grandma, thanks to which I’ve met interesting people who are now my Jewish friends, and I’ve experienced wonderful moments that are indescriba-ble. Thanks to the time spent with them, I was able to learn a lot about Jews from all over the world. They are my friends but also teachers, important people who gradually introduced me to the real world of Judaism.
I will end my story with the words of the Hebrew song “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem” (“Peace be with you”).
From the editor: the author Karolina Sadowska, the granddaughter of the heroine of this account, studied abroad in Canada. Her knowledge of the Polish language and historical realities is not always correct. The editors did not make any linguistic corrections to her text.