THE POLISH SCHINDLER
Born in Czestochowa, Poland, his father was a journalist and his mother was a feldscher. This is an Eastern European senior health care professional – a little bit like a paramedic. He was an only child.
The family were fairly well-off, but his father died whilst he was on a visit to the USA in 1927. Very quickly the family’s finances worsened.
So his mother moved the family to Ryslek to live with a cousin, Ludwik Okecki, who owned a flour factory along with a large estate.
Jozef was left behind to continue with his education. He got his junior matriculation before going onto high school to study commerce. He was a brilliant student and was fluent in German. He lived in a studio flat and had a fairly opulent lifestyle, with many friends – lots of them Jewish.
Holidays were spent at the family estate, where he was being trained in how to run the business. He soon proved himself an efficient manager.
Jozef was initially a member of the National Party, but quit in 1938, appalled by their anti-Semitic stance.
He was called up for military service (with his cousin Ludwik) when the Nazis invaded Poland on the 1st of September 1939, and was sent to Brest-Litovsk, in the eastern part of the country. He was there when the USSR invaded the east of Poland on the 17th of September.
The cousins tried to escape into Romania but had no success. So, they decided to return to the family estate.
On the way home he was arrested by the Nazis but released after a couple of days.
Once they had managed to get home, Jozef took over the running of the estate. The flour factory on the estate employed over 200 people, some of them Jewish – but he (reluctantly) was forced to trade with the Nazis. He had to borrow a car from a friend to travel around Poland, making deals.
Then a friend, Mr Wengrow, asked him to take 40 Jews from the Rawa Mazowiecka ghetto. He agreed – but then had to bribe the Nazi head of the Labour Office (Arbeitsamt), named Miller, for permission. At the initial meeting, Miller drew a gun and pointed it at Jozef. “You want to bribe a German for Jews?” Jozef talked him round. He was allowed just 30 on the condition that he paid another bribe every fortnight.
Soon the permission was withdrawn, but Jozef kept his Jewish workers. He just made sure they had a safe place to hide when the Nazis searched the factory.
But one day he was summoned to the Arbeitsamt. Miller had been dismissed, and in revenge informed the Gestapo of the Jews working in Jozef’s factory. Whilst he was there the Nazis raided his factories. Two Jewish workers failed to hide in time and were taken away. It just made Jozef all the more determined to help.
Then Jozef met Irena Bartczak at a dinner party in Warsaw, and they started a relationship. But Bartczak was a made-up surname. She was really Irena Front and was Jewish, although Jozef did not realise that.
But he found out when the Nazis raided a guest house, the Grabowska Hotel, where they were staying the night. Initially he assumed they were looking for him until Irena told him she was Jewish. He hid her behind a wardrobe, locked the door to the room and pretended he had severe stomach problems, rushing to the bathroom every time the soldiers tried to question him, with Nazis screaming at him to open the door. Eventually the owner of the guest house joined in, saying he was a regular, trusted client, and the Nazis went away.
Jozef later boasted, “I don’t want to brag about it but I had nerves of steel.”
But he admitted he was furious with Irena for not telling him the truth, until she persuaded him of the seriousness of being Jewish under Nazi occupation.
He immediately moved Irena into a flat. He had a fake wedding with her, to portray her as non-Jewish.
But Irena got careless. She continued to move around the city as she had before – and in October 1941 was arrested with 20 other people after attending a Jewish Youth social meeting.
Jozef tried to get her released but was refused permission unless…he provided a kilogram of gold in 5 hours – and if he did that all 21 of the captives would be released. Jozef said he had only come for Irena, but she said she wouldn’t go without the others.
He managed to raise the required amount and when he took it to the police station the guards celebrated with copious amounts of vodka, saying they would let their prisoners go and would leave them alone in the future. As they celebrated, he spirited the 21 captives away quickly in case they changed their mind.
He and Irena closed their flat down in just 15 minutes and he sold it the very next day. He bought a new flat in Emilii Plater Street, a quieter area, and moved Irena in, along with her close friend Hanna Staszewska and a nurse, Helena Torbeczko. He visited the flat whenever he was in Warsaw. He also employed a housekeeper for the flat, to bring supplies in, but also to try to stop the women going out.
But Hanna had a boyfriend she kept seeing. She didn’t realise he was a Nazi agent, but he never reported her as he didn’t realise she was Jewish.
Meanwhile, Jozef was actively helping the Jewish Resistance. He provided food and medical supplies to the Warsaw Ghetto, often delivering them himself. Non-Jews were not allowed to set foot in the ghetto – but a tram ran through it. He bribed the tram drivers to slow down so he could jump off and make his deliveries – and then jump on the next one as it too slowed down.
But one day he was caught red-handed, carrying supply packages. Nazi soldiers beat him and kicked him. A machine gun was fired at his feet and then he was put in front of a firing squad. The officer counted numbers down as Jozef closed his eyes. But then there was a shout of “Halt!” The officer had changed his mind and decided to send him to Auschwitz.
But Jozef’s mother intervened and bribed an even more senior Nazi official to get him released.
He said he didn’t trust other Poles – there were too many collaborators. “There were many rescuers. There were also traitors: I know because some of my friends were killed because of traitors. We need to speak about both at the same time because the existence of each one of these groups helps us understand the significance of the actions of both.”
He then delivered secret reports to the Polish Army.
But in 1943 he caught typhus in the ghetto and had to recover in Irena’s flat for a few weeks.
Then, in 1944, came the Warsaw Uprising. He managed to get the three women out of the city and into a Red Cross camp. And he had to flee the city as the Soviets captured it, to avoid being arrested as a ‘kulak’ (a wealthy peasant).
In January 1945 he came back to Warsaw with Irena. They found their flat was still intact, so they moved back into it.
Once the war was over, they moved to Krakow and Jozef started a new business in passenger traffic.
But shortly after that Irena and Jozef split up. They were to remain good friends. She married one of his friends who had been in exile in Britain during the war.
Of the other two women in the flat, Hanna married her boyfriend and Helena emigrated to the USA and eventually lost contact with Jozef.
Then he started being persecuted by the communist authorities. He was ‘persuaded’ to leave Krakow due to his friendship with the French Consul.
He set up a new wool and cotton factory in 1949 in Warsaw with his cousin Ludwik, but as soon as it was up and running the authorities ‘nationalised’ it i.e. seized it (and shut it down in 1952).
Meanwhile Jozef married Alicija Strzebska in 1950 and the following year they had a son, Ryszard.
He began a sewing organisation in Warsaw with his Jewish friends but were forced to pay such high taxes that they had to shut it.
His next project was a co-operative in Grodzisk Mazowiecki, which was so successful that it moved to larger premises in Rembertow.
Finally, he was given permission by the Polish authorities to work on his own. He became a Master of Leatherwork and set up his own shop in Warsaw, which he continued to run until he was a very old man.
Jozef and Alicija divorced in 1970.
He did get married again, this time to Barbara and he had another son, Slawomir.
In 2002 he was inducted into the Yad Vashem ‘Righteous Amongst Nations’ for the non-Jews who had helped Jews during the Holocaust. He had been nominated by Irena Front.
In 2009 he was part of a trip for the Polish ‘Righteous Amongst Nations’ members, to visit the USA. There he met and chatted to President Barack Obama.
His autobiography ‘Restoring Memory’ was published in 2010.
On his 100th birthday he received an unexpected visit from the President of Poland, Andrzej Duda.
It is estimated Jozef saved the lives of 53 Jews.
In 2021, during an interview on Poland Radio he said, “I am satisfied with my life. I have fulfilled my human task.”
Asked why he had risked his life to help others, he said, “I was brought up in such a way that it was my duty. I saved as many as I could…I have a sense of inner peace.” But he hated being called a hero. “I probably took on too many risks but helping people in real need has always been something I couldn’t resist.”
He was the oldest known surviving Jewish rescuer.
He died in Warsaw.
Jozef is remembered with a chapter in the Righteous Amongst Nations book ‘And We Opened the Door’.
RIP – Rescues Involving Poles