By Barb Arland-Fye
DAVENPORT — On the back of each of Stanlee Stahl’s business cards is the name of someone who rescued Jews from the Nazis. Marianna Gajowniczek is one such rescuer. In 1943 in Warsaw, Poland, she and her parents risked their lives while successfully hiding Leon Weinstein and his sister-in-law Bronislawa Szafran in the family’s coal cellar.
Stahl, executive vice president of the New York-based Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, shared stories of other courageous rescuers during her Sept. 20 presentation at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. The university and Jewish Federation of the Quad Cities sponsored the event.
Students, faculty and others listened intently as Stahl described the terrifying tactics of the Nazis during World War II that resulted in the annihilation of 6 million Jews and deterred more Gentiles from saving them. Would-be rescuers, particularly in Eastern Europe, were executed and sometimes hung up for display in the town square. “It was not easy for a non-Jew to save a Jew,” Stahl told her audience.
The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, her life’s work for the past 18 years, was established in 1986 by Rabbi Harold Schulweis to fulfill the traditional Jewish commitment to “hakarat hatov,” the searching out and recognition of goodness. Many of the righteous non-Jews — who sought no reward then or now — are in financial need. The foundation provides financial assistance to them with money raised through donations and grants. While the number of rescuers is declining as they age and die, the Jewish Foundation supports more than 900 aged and needy rescuers in 23 countries, Stahl said. In addition, the foundation has a mission to educate all people about the Holocaust and the rescuers.
Catholics, other Christians and Muslims were among the estimated 50,000 to 250,000 rescuers. “They risked their lives and the lives of their families,” Stahl said during an interview with The Catholic Messenger. “We need to thank those non-Jews who said, ‘Not on my watch.’”
Stahl knows many of the rescuers by name, and they mean the world to her. She describes the late Irene Sendler as her “babcia,” the Polish word for grandmother. Sendler, whose story was told in a 2009 Hallmark Hall of Fame movie titled “The Courageous Heart of Irene Sendler,” helped save nearly 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw ghetto. She smuggled them out in potato sacks, coffins and through a Catholic church, Stahl said.
She shared the story of survivor Rozia Seifert Rothshild and rescuer Wiktoria Jaworska Sozanska in a documentary shown at the St. Ambrose presentation. Wiktoria’s family of the former Turka, Poland, saved four members of Rozia’s family by hiding them first in a barn and then in a forest. The Gestapo searched both the house and the barn where Rozia’s family was hiding, but did not find them. Wiktoria was arrested for having given her identification card to another Jewish girl who used it to pass herself off as Aryan. Wikotria later was released; she and her family never gave in to fear. The Catholic family and the Jewish family had become one. Of the 5,000 Jews of Turka, just 47 survived.
Following the war, Rozia and Wiktoria’s families were separated and thought they’d never see each other again. In 2008, Wiktoria and Rozia were reunited in New York. “I obviously look at her as my savior,” Rozia said as she and Wiktoria embraced. “We were one family,” Wiktoria said, her eyes glistening with tears.
“Goodness is a powerful mirror,” Stahl said. “We need to teach our children that indifference can kill.”
For more information or to donate, visit www.jfr.org.