Advertisement

Archive for Sunday, August 3, 2008

Holocaust survivor, rescuer live like sisters

Janina Pietrasiak, right, brings out papers documenting the tragic fate of her family, alongside a woman she considers her sister, Maria Lopuszanska, in Warsaw, Poland. Pietrasiak was the daughter of Polish Jews who died during the war, and Lopuszanska was the daughter of Polish Catholics who rescued her.

Janina Pietrasiak, right, brings out papers documenting the tragic fate of her family, alongside a woman she considers her sister, Maria Lopuszanska, in Warsaw, Poland. Pietrasiak was the daughter of Polish Jews who died during the war, and Lopuszanska was the daughter of Polish Catholics who rescued her.

August 3, 2008

Advertisement

— They are two silver-haired ladies with a special bond forged in the Holocaust. One is the daughter of Jews who perished under the Nazis, the other her Roman Catholic rescuer.

Today Janina Pietrasiak, 74, and Maria Lopuszanska, 79, live like sisters just around the corner from each other in a Warsaw neighborhood shaded by chestnut trees.

They see each other every day, tend to each other's needs, even finish each other's sentences.

Their story is a testament to how devotion born of deep adversity can endure for a lifetime and how the Holocaust survivors' exhortation "never forget" can find resonance as much in acts of great generosity as in those of unspeakable depravity.

During several hours with The Associated Press, the women relived the events that merged their lives while sitting side-by-side in Maria's tiny room in a nursing home, a five-minute walk from the modest apartment where Janina lives alone.

Nazi underground

Maria was the teenage daughter of members of the Polish anti-Nazi underground who gave shelter in their Warsaw apartment in 1942 to Janina and her mother, Roza Feldman.

Feldman soon died of tuberculosis, her strength depleted by the cold and hunger she had endured before escaping from the Krakow Ghetto.

After that, Janina, not yet 8 when she joined the Catholic home, clung desperately to her new family and was baptized to fit in with them and increase her chances of survival under the Nazis.

After the war, she gave up the chance to live with an uncle in the United States - sealing a fate lived out for decades behind the Iron Curtain as Poland came under communist rule.

"I was very afraid to leave their family because I was happy I had a family, and I kept holding on to them all the time, trying not to lose them," she said.

"It was the family that raised me, that rescued me. I also didn't want to leave Poland - I thought it was the country that let me live."

Warsaw Uprising

The bond deepened during the ill-fated Warsaw Uprising of 1944, when the girls had to fend for themselves because Maria's father was ill and her mother had taken up arms against the Nazis in the streets of the capital.

They saw bombs exploding, corpses and body parts strewn on the streets, narrowly escaping death themselves more than once. Both recalled how the younger Janina would bury herself in the older girl's skirt as the bombs exploded.

"She was like a mother," Janina said, reaching over and grasping the hem of Maria's skirt as she remembered.

"She thought I wasn't scared of anything," Maria added. "But I was 15 years old. I was incredibly scared of the bombs. I was no hero."

Janina lost the most. Her father died in Auschwitz. Her only sibling, Ewa, survived the war but later committed suicide by inhaling gas. And the death of her beloved mother fills her with pain to this day.

Through the years, Janina suffered bouts of depression so severe that she was forced to retire early at age 59 from her work as a translator, and went on medication.

"I think of my mother often because she was the dearest person in my life. It stays with you all the time, what you go through. You can't throw it out of your memory," she said.

Comments

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.