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Maria Fedecka, the woman who helped others*

By Erna Podhorizer
 
   Today, on the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, we will consacrate a moment to the memory of those Poles who - during the Hitlerian occupation - opposed barbarity and offered their assistance to those who were persecuted and martyrised. I would like to evoke the memory of a particularly generous woman, who defended everything that was human and progressive; her name was Maria Fedecka+ and she was already known before the Second World War. Maria Fedecka - a Polish woman with a kind heart - was never indifferent upon witnessing an act of constraint, violence or injustice.

How well we remember the 1930s in Poland, the period when "patriotic" youth believed that Jews and non Jews should not sit on the same benches at university and even fought, armed with clubs, to impose their views; when this same youth helped to "purify" trade in Poland by demolishing boutiques run by Jews, attacked and beat up passers-by the shape of whose nose did not look "Aryan". Maria Fedecka always voiced her disagreement with such practices: for instance, she would enter demonstratively a Jewish bookshop by forcing a passage through people forming pickets, and asking the proprietor to put the bookshop's sticker on the school manuals which she had bought for her son ( the shop had a Jewish name** ).

All those who needed immediate assistance knew Maria Fedecka's address. When the art historian Josef Sandel was forced to leave Germany because of Hitlerian terror, he found in Wilno ( Vilnius in Lithuanian** ) shelter and devoted friends at the Fedeckis'.

Maria Fedecka's collaboration with progressive Polish activists who - in 1936 and 1937 - published in Wilno a review called "Po prostu" ("Quite simply") is a beautiful illustration of what she believed in. These young people who dreamed of a truly democratic Poland, found in her a true friend. In those years, to support such a review requied a great deal of courage. Maria Fedecka ( and her husband Stanislaw Fedecki** ) helped to edit this review without a moment's hesitation, for as long as it was still possible to do so.

And so it's not surprising that a person like Maria Fedecka also offered her assistance to the down-trodden and the persecuted during the years of Hitlerian terror. The former president of the Wilno Council, Jan Druto - as well as his family - owe their lives to Maria Fedecka. She brought food to Professor Jan Dembowski in prison ( arrested by Lithuanian Nazis for having taught Darwinian theory in high school**).

And how many Jews were saved thanks to Maria Fedecka! Hundreds of people were given refuge in her home - people she had "pulled out" of the Wilno ghetto. Not a single night went by when a Jew was not housed under the roof of Maria Fedecka and her husband. Maria Fedecka bribed an employee of the Passeports Office in order to provide threatened people with false "authentic documents". Numerous people both in Poland and throughout the world render an emotion-filled homage to Maria Fedecka.

Many families owe her their lives: Chwoles, mother and daughter (who now live in Belgium), Zalkind, Mrs Szabat with her daughters, Dr Szadowski with his family, the lawyer Mire Brand, Mrs Kaczerginska and many others. Maria Fedecka housed, during the entire german occupation, two Jewish children, the daughter of a Wilno lawyer, M. Smilg, and Krystyna Szylańska (who now lives in Italy).

Whoever lived through the nightmare of the occupation realises the danger involved in saving Jews. But Maria Fedecka did not hesitate a minute when parents confided their children to her in those terrible times.

A neighbour reported that Mr and Mrs Fedecki housed a Jewish child. It was the daughter of Mr and Mrs Smilg, a child with clearly Semitic features. When an agent of the Gestapo arrived, Maria Fedecka asked her daughter Basia to take the Jewish child outside, to the garden while she proceeded to discuss with the Gestapo agent. At the end of this long "conversation" she asked the agent if he would be capable of hugging his own child if his hands were soiled with the blood of other children. The German agent left and he never came back.

With her noble force of persuasion, Maria Fedecka succeeded in convincing a German by the name of Hempel not to participate in bloody crimes. Hempel deserted the Hitlerian army. Afterwards, he came to Mr and Mrs Fedecki's house in Lebioda ( currently in Belorussia** ). He spoke to them of the terrible executions which took place near their home in Wasiliszki. Maria Fedecka gave Hempel documents under the name of Burchardt, enabling him to leave for Switzerland.

After the years of the occupation, Maria Fedecka started - with all the energy she could muster - the organisation of aid to "repatriants", under the mandate of the Polish authorities. ( "Repatriants" was the term used to designate those in the Polish population who did not want to live in territories ceded to the Soviet Union by the Yalta Accords**) . The needy addressed themselves to her, confident that their requests would be granted.

On this day as we honour the memory of the insurgents of the Warsaw ghetto and of all combatants against fascism, let us also remember with gratitude and homage the noble and generous person of Maria Fedecka.

Erna Podhorizer-Sandel (1903-1984),
Researcher at the Jewish Historial Institute of Warsaw**.

  + pronounce Fedetska

  * This article was published in the Folks-Shtyme (a Yiddish-language newspaper edited in Warsaw), No.59 (1267) dated 16 April 1960. It features a photograph of Maria Fedecka, who is presented in the chapter entitled "The Biography".

  ** Translator's note

  Remark: In Polish, as in other Slavic languages (and also in Lithuanian) name endings often change according to gender. Thus, Maria Krzywiec when she married Stanislaw Fedec ki became Maria Fedec ka

  (Translated from French and Polish by Richard Wagman and Marta Balinska.)

 


A memory

by Raja Szlep-Fessel
( presented in Yad-Vashem )

In my memories I often recall Wilno ( Vilnius in Lithuanian*) before the war, the Jewish Wilno which still remains alive only in the minds of a small number of those who survived the annihilation. This small group is getting smaller as the years go by. Along with these memories we must of course include the memory of those Poles such as Maria Fedecka who - during the hardest years of humiliation and dehumanisation - conducted themselves as true human beings, not hesitating to put themselves and their loved ones in mortal danger by harbouring and aiding Jews who faced certain death. This includes people of various milieus and of different social classes: both simple peasants who did not have the benefit of an education and members of the intelligentsia, civil servants and teachers. Whatever their motivations - be they of an ethical, religious or other nature - these remarkable heros were linked by their readiness to grab from death's hand victims who were persecuted only because they belonged to another "race".

The Jews of Wilno who, before the war, made up one third of the city's population, lived in almost complete isolation and - aside from administrative and commercial contacts - their relations with the population did not go beyond the threshold of their homes. And so this heroic attitude commands even more admiration, coming from people like Maria Fedecka, who offered their help with such great devotion to persons of a "foreign" milieu who were so different from them. And as we know they were obliged to carefully hide their noble action not only from the Germans, but also from marginal elements and Anti-Semitic groups. They lived amongst a population which, in their majority, were passive, who did not want to expose themselves to danger due to a mere instinct of self-conservation, the importance of which should not be underestimated. Faced with extermination, not only those who did not live in a family circle but also certain fathers and mothers did not conduct themselves with honour comparable to such luminous figures as Janusz Korczak, Maria Fedecka and others. On this theme we can recall a passage of the moving story told by Ida Fink, entitled "Crazy":

"When the trucks drove into the square in front of the bathhouse, I squatted in a corner between two houses, and the broom hid me. No one, not the SS nor the "Ordnungsdienst", suspect there was anyone there, they only saw a broom. I was shaking so hard that the broom was swaying. I heard everything, because they locked them up in the bathhouse till they loaded them on the trucks. I was saying: O God, O God, O God. I didn't know myself what I wanted of God. Did I even know if there was a God?. How could I?
Someone was running, trying to escape, and he touched the broom with his hand. It fell down and now if someone had looked at that corner it would have been the end of me. I was afraid to pick it up, because they were already leading them to the trucks.
Doctor! My children were on the first truck, my three girls. I saw that the oldest understood, but the others were crying from plain fright. Suddenly they stopped crying and the youngest, the three-year-old, cried out, "Papa! Papa, come to us!"
They saw me. They were the only ones who saw me in that corner.
Doctor! So what did I do? Their father, I came out, ran over to them, and together we...right?
No. I put my finger to my lips and shook my head at them, they shouldn't cry out, they should be quiet. Sha!
The two youngest called to me again, but the one, my firstborn, she covered their mouths with her hand. Then they were quiet..."

Maria Fedecka hid many people in her home. Amongst others she provided shelter to a nine-month old Jewish child and kept him during the entire occupation. She could not hide everyone but the door of her house always remained open to victims of persecution. She never lacked either courage or strength of character to find - with super-human efforts - a hiding place for those in need. The entire Fedecki family participated in this exemplary action including two people who are with us here today, Barbara and Ziemowit, who were both children at that time.

After the war, I made acquaintances with a group of exceptional persons, some of those heros who saved Jews from extermination. Amongst them - aside from Maria Fedecka - there was the Mother Superior of the Ursulines Convent in Czarny Bor ( near Wilno*) Wiktoria and Stefan Grzmielewski, Professor Tadeusz Czezowski and his wife Antonina, Maryla and Feliks Wolski and Jozefa Tendziagolska. I have undoubtedly forgotten some names, but this list is unfortunately not very long.

Maria Fedecka, as these other Poles who - confronted with the genocide - conducted themselves in a particularliy dignified and human way - deserve our eternal gratitude. They also deserve particular distinction in the history of humanity.

 

Jerusalem, 29 February 1988

Dr. Rasza Szlep-Fessel (1913-1995)
Professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem

 

* Translator's note

(Translated from French and Polish by Richard Wagman and Maria Balinska)



 

Maria Fedecka

  Maria Fedecka (née Krzywiec) lived in Vilnius (Wilno in polish) with her husband Stanislaw and their children. In pre-war Wilno they were known to be actively opposed to antisemitic practices. Maria was active in helping the victims of such practices. These were not only people from Poland - she notably also helped a German Jew (Josef Sandel) who had escaped from Nazi Germany and found shelter and devoted friendship with the Fedeckis (8).

So it is not surprising that a person like Maria Fedecka began saving people who were under threat from the very beginning of the German occupation of Wilno. All her efforts were devoted to saving the lives of people who were heading to certain death, and to defeating people who had declared a sentence of death on part of humanity.

Maria always acted without the support of any organisation. As her son Ziemowit was to recall: "...During the occupation my mother waged war, a private one, against the Gestapo..."(2). She was helped by her husband Stanislaw and their children, occasionally by her sister Emilia Krzywiec-Pogorzelska (10) and by a few friends. The constant problem was to find funds for her actions to save Jews - Maria's daughter Barbara remembers how her mother used to sell things from their home on the market in Wilno.

Erna Podhoritzer wrote: "And how many Jews were saved thanks to Maria Fedecka! Hundreds of people were given refuge in her home (in Wilno) - people she had "pulled out" of the ghetto of Wilno. Not a single night went by when a Jew was not housed under the roof of Maria Fedecka and her husband. Maria Fedecka bribed an employee of the Passeports Office in order to provide threatened people with false "authentic" documents" (8, see also 4).

Maria's son Ziemowit was to recall decades later that: ... a Jew shot through the chest and a woman already covered with lime during a massacre of Jews in Ponary slept in my bed at night (2)

The Fedecki family owned an estate near the city of Lida about 150 km from Wilno, which was known as Lebioda. The estate also played an important role in the system Maria Fedecka set up for saving persecuted persons (1,4,10). She used Lebioda as a hiding-place for the people whom she succeded in bringing out of Wilno, even though at that time travelling was extremely dangerous. In fact, the Germans used to carry out frequent checks in trains and on the roads.

People helping Jews were liable to the death penalty, as were their families (e.g.7).

These persecuted people used to stay in Lebioda for some time until Maria managed to find houses in the area where the owners were willing to accept them, usually without knowing that the people involved were Jews. A few stayed on in Lebioda until the Soviet army recaptured the whole area in the summer of 1944.

 

Everything she succeeded to do for saving Jews is due to her extraordinary ingenuity in instantly finding the appropriate argument or solution for a given situation, her exceptional ability to convince the people she needed, of goal she was pursuing.

A friend of the Fedecki family, Rosa Chwoles (see Photographic Gallery), and her daughter Anna (a teenager at the time) were forced to live in the Wilno ghetto. Maria Fedecka planned to get Rosa out. She put on one of the few valuable things she had - a fox-stole - in order to have the appearance of a "grande bourgeoise", This way she managed to be received by the chief of the guard of the ghetto. She explained to him that her "dressmaker", who was just doing a dress for her, had taken Maria's material with her, "a thing so precious at war time", when they were taken to the ghetto. And so she ask the chief guard for permission to enter the ghetto so that she could find the Jewish "dressmaker" and recover her material. Permission was granted and Maria was able to meet Rosa and give her a forged pass, or szajn, which then allowed Rosa to leave the ghetto with a group of Jews who used to go to work in the "Aryan" part of the city.

Rosa and her daughter ('who was already on the "good side" of the city) were taken in by Fedeckis; later Stanislaw took them to Szejbakpol, an estate close to Lebioda, where they lived on forged documents until the arrival of the Soviet army (1).

 

Maria Fedecka's gift for ingenuity and persuasion was revealed in another, even more striking and dangerous, episode, the story of a little Jewish child called Dala (Adlena Smilg - see Photographic Gallery) who was hidden in Maria's house in Wilno during the entire German occupation (8).

Maria's daughter Barbara (a young teenager at that time - see photographic gallery) recalled that when Lituanian Gestapo agents came to their home following a denunciation, her mother immediately understood who the three men were who were approaching the house from across the garden. Her reaction was instantaneous. She told the young girl who lived in her flat take the child, who at that moment was sleeping on the veranda, to the next street and ask someone she knew there to keep the child temporarily. She herself hid in a neighbour's appartment (these neighbours were Austrians who worked for the "Bahnschutz"). Barbara was the only one left in the flat. The Gestapo agents searched the flat and interrogated Barbara who denied the existence of the child they were looking for. In order to account for the presence of toys and other "compromising" items, she kept obstinately repeating: "there is a little German girl, our neighbours' daughter, who often comes to see us and play in our flat". After a long interrogation the officials ordered that Maria be present the following day, and then left.

The lorry which had been waiting to convey the Fedecki family and the Jewish child to Ponary left empty.

The next day a single agent turned up to interrogate Maria Fedecka. She sent the family outside and faced him alone. Four hours later someone from the family could stand it no longer and went back inside, only to see "a miracle" with his own eyes. Maria and the young agent were saying their farewells and clasping each other in their arms.

The young Lithuanian agent had joined the Gestapo after a disappointment in love, He was very sensitive to Maria's story and her philosophical and moral discourse. Erna Podhoritzer was to write that >. she proceeded to discuss with the Gestapo agent. At the end of this long "conversation" she asked the agent whether he would be capable of embracing his own child if his hands were soiled with the blood of other children..."(8).

Maria had acknowledged the presence of a little girl in her home. In explanation of her semitic features Maria had told the agent that she was the illegitimate child of her husband and a Karaim woman.

And to crown it all the young Lithuanian promised Maria that he would leave the Gestapo! He kept his promise and a few days later also brought the names of people who were to be arrested, asking her to warn them. Gradually he became a friend of the family, if a slightly "cumbersome" one, since once again here was someone to be protected and if necessary, concealed. He later left the city.

Limitations of space prevent us from recounting other actions of Maria Fedecka in saving Jews which have been described either in print (e.g.5,6,11) or by word of mouth.

 

After the war Maria Fedecka refused to publicly testify to her actions. She would say: "I do not want to recount now what I did for the Jews during the occupation".

Elzbieta Grabska-Wallis wrote: "Maria Fedecka remains - in the memory of those who knew her in the different periods of her life - as a person of great courage and of great moral vigilance who was always able to perceive the injustice inflicted on her fellow man. Unconventional and non-conformist, belonging to no political party, she always acted according to her own principles. Where need be, she reacted by providing immediate and extremely efficient assistance.

...when she was asked if she was conscious of the danger that her actions posed to her own children during the occupation, her answer was entirely characteristic: "How could I do otherwise when alongside other children - Jewish children - were perishing?"" (3).

The name of Maria is honored in Yiddish poetry. Just after the war Abraham Sutzkever, the well-known poet and former partisan wrote a poem entitled "Maria Fedecka", about the rescue of a young jewish girl Dvoyrlen (9). This poem was recently revived and partially translated into Polish by Daniel Kac (6). He also recalled that Jews from Wilno used to call Maria Fedecka "The Jewish Virgin Mary".

In the 1980s Mala and Benek Lasman from Jerusalem took the initiative to present a dossier on Maria Fedecka to Yad Vashem.

 

  Barbara Fedecka-Bruner
Jan Bruner November 2006
92290-Châtenay-Malabry
France

 

 

Bibliography:

1) Englert Anne.-."Un adieu", pp.15-19, edited by Marc Englert, Bruxelles, 1988 (in French).

2) Fedecki Ziemowit "W cieniu "Doktora Zywago" ( In the shadow of Doctor Ziwago) , Przegląd no.46(203), November 16, 2003, Warsaw (in Polish).

3) Grabska-Wallis Elzbieta-< Biography of Maria Fedecka, In : www.mariafedecka.republika.pl

4) Grossman Vasili and Erenburg Ilya eds.- "Cernaya Kniga" (Black Book), p. 250. Ed:YAD, Vilnius 1993 ( in Russian).

5) Jędrychowska Anna - "Zygzakiem i po prostu" ( In zigzag and

straight on ), Czytelnik,1965 (in Polish).

6) Kac Daniel-"Wilno Jerozolimą było - rzecz o Abrahamie Sutzkeverze" (" When Wilno was Jerusalem - in praise of Abraham Sutzkever" ), pp.98-99 and 144-145. Fundacja Pogranicze, 16-500 - Sejny, 2003 (in Polish).

7) Lukas Richard C.-"Forgotten Holocaust, The Poles under German Occupation 1939-1944, Hippocrene Books, New York, 2005.

8) Podhoritzer Erna -"Maria Fedecka, the Woman who Offered

Help", Folks Shtyme no.59(1257) 1960, Warsaw (in Yiddish).

9) Sutzkever Avraham-< Maria Fedecka >. In : Poëtishe Werk, pp.522-524, Tel-Aviv,1963 (in Yiddish).

10) The Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations, Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, Poland, pp.212 and 626. Volume editors: Sara Bender and Shmuel Krakowski. Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 2004.

11) Wawer Pola - "Poza gettem i obozem" ( Outside the ghetto and the camp) , Wydawnictwo Myśl, Warszawa 1993, ISBN 83-85233-25-3 (in Polish).