This is not the first surprise I found in the Yad Vashem database, rather the latest one.
I usually search the Holocaust Victims' Names Database to find specific details about people whom I know have perished. Usually, I find testimonial pages filled out by relatives. These are forms that at first glance seem bureaucratic and dry. However, like short stories of one paragraph, they represent in a few words the life and death of the victim and of the author (the person who had filled out the form).
This time I was searching the last name of my mother's family, in case there was any information I had missed. I found a record for my aunt (by marriage), Larisa. At first I was surprised: my aunt was with us until recently, that is why I never looked up her name. She did not perish in the Holocaust. Larisa did not tell me herself, but I knew that as a child during the war, she was hidden in a monastery in the Warsaw vicinity.
A lot has been said about the silence of that generation, but it seems that for my aunt the erasure of the past was a way of life: she did not talk about any of the difficulties that life had summoned for her (and she had her share of sorrows), nor about the beautiful moments - nostalgia was not her way. The only sign of past childhood trauma was her refusal to purchase products made in Germany.
Larisa, after the war
I continued to follow the links, looking for the source that earned my aunt the doubtful honor. They led to a Righteous Among the Nations named Kazimiera Bąkowska Sikora. I have never heard of her. My cousin, Irit, knew nothing about that Kazimiera. Even Larisa's younger sister, Pauline, who survived with her and was six years old at the end of the war, had never heard of her. A summary of the events on the Yad Vashem website was vaguely reminiscent of the details we knew from family stories.
I requested the materials related to this case from Yad Vashem archive and received a copy of handwritten testimonies in Polish and a few forms.
The request to recognize Ms. Sikora as “a Righteous Among the Nations” was submitted by Jagoda, Larisa and Pauline’s cousin, in 2000 (when she told friends the story of her survival, they brought up this option, something she had not thought of until then).
I tried to reconstruct the rescue events using the limited sources I found: the testimony of Jagoda, that was deposited at Yad Vashem and the few details known to the family. I have cross referenced these with the global historical events.
Well, things were (roughly) as follows:
Mania and Zygmunt Wojdyslawski arrived in Warsaw as refugees from Łódź with their twin daughters Wynja and Jagoda (born 1931), with Mania's sister, Renia (Riwka) Goldman, and her daughters Larisa (born 1936) and Pauline (born 1939). This was probably in the early 1940s, when the authorities began to concentrate the Jews of Łódź in an area of town that would later be the ghetto. (Łódź was part of the territories annexed to the Reich, while Warsaw belonged to the Generalgouvernement).
Upon arrival to Warsaw, they rented an apartment on Chlodna Street, the street that later separated the two parts of the ghetto: the "big ghetto" and the "small ghetto". It was during that time that they seemed to establish neighbourly relations with Kazimiera. However, in October 1940, an order was issued requiring all Jews to move inside the ghetto.
Their next address was on Sosnowa Street. Today, right next door, stands the luxury Intercontinental Hotel stands, However back then it was within the "little ghetto", where the conditions were relatively better. Relative to ghettos and not to five star hotels, that is. In one of the rooms, Jagoda testified, there was a "big hole" due to bombings (this was a common phenomenon in the ghetto).
When exactly began the rescue operation is unclear. There is a conflict between the sources I have. Keep in mind that the testimonies were given by young girls and the sense of time is always questionable in such hectic times, particularly when it comes to children. In Jagoda's testimony, or rather a summary of Yad Vashem based on her terminology, it was in 1943 before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Jagoda used the term "when the ghetto was liquidated", but mentioned no date). On the other hand, according to a form that Larisa had filled out, it took place much earlier, in November 1940, when the ghetto gates were closed. The second version makes more sense to me for two reasons. The first - it is hard to assume that in the later period such a rescue operation was possible. The second - the earlier option leaves time for the abundance of “adventures” that would take place pass until the end of the war.
Kazimiera planned everything, down to the smallest details. She rented an apartment and obtained forged papers. Then she came to pick up the mothers and daughters from the ghetto (Zygmunt was already on the Aryan side). Jagoda remembered the journey from the ghetto to the Aryan side of the city in a wagon/carriage, the German soldier asking "Are there any Jews?" And Kazimiera replying with a chuckle "No, no!". She and her sister, she described, were blonde, but the cousins “had a Jewish look, especially the little one.”
Larisa (Left) and Pauline
They arrived safely on the “right side” of Warsaw. In the hiding place Kazimiara taught them everything necessary to conduct themselves in the Aryan environment. The girls learned how to pray, behave in church and confess. The mothers were taught by Kazimiara to cook Bigos, a traditional Polish stew, probably basic knowledge without which one cannot be considered a real Pole.
They also changed their new names. Little Larisa, became Christina Bartos.
Kazimiera continued to be the address for every problem that arose: with her help, the two families moved from one hiding to another, whenever suspicion arose that the current place was unsafe.
One of the houses they hid in was Kazimiera's sister's house in Kobyłka, outside Warsaw. Her daughter (Kazimiera's niece) testified for Yad Vashem: during the war she did not know who the people staying at their home were, "Those are things that adults do not share with children". She told of warm relationships that were maintained long after the war. She did not have many details: when she tried to ask her aunt, years after the war had ended, Kazimiera was reluctant to recall those moments that were full of fear and continuous dangers, not only for her own life but for the lives of others.
The four girls spent the last two years of the war in monasteries near Warsaw: the twins and my aunt Larissa in a convent in Milanówek, the little sister, Pauline, in a convent in Wawer. They were instructed to hide the relations between them.
The mothers remained on the Aryan side, under a false identity and even managed to visit their daughters (these were discrete meetings, outside the convent).
The mothers and daughters survived the war.
Actually - as if the difficulties were not enough, Renia (the mother of Larisa and Pauline) passed away due to an illness immediately after the war, in 1945.
Zygmunt, the father of the twins, did not survive (how things turned out for him - I have no details).
Renia's husband, who fled to Russia as early as 1940 - returned at the end of the war.
The survivors migrated to Paris as refugees after the war and reconstructed their lives.
This is the flow of events. Or about how things happened - as mentioned, it is based on written testimony of those who were girls during terrifying times, and one should not expect historical accuracy. Trying to align with historical events is not always easy. Here is an example: the group arrived in Warsaw in early 1940 (or at the earliest in late 1939). In October 1940, the Jews were forced to enter the ghetto and in mid-November the gates closed. If so, there was a very narrow window of opportunity, less than a year, to develop a relationship between the rescuer and the survivors, connections so significant that she would risk her life for them over and over again. Maybe I was wrong in estimating the time of the events and maybe they were lucky to have met an exceptional woman in a fateful moment. She may have also helped others as well, Jagoda testified that Kazimiera was an active member of the Polish resistance movement.
In any case, the heart of the plot is clear - and that's enough.
Kazimiera Sikora was about twenty-seven when she met the two families she had rescued. The title was awarded to her after her death, in 2002, more than sixty years after the events took place. The first documents reached her family in Poland when she was on her deathbed. Apparently, she did not survive to find out that she would be awarded an honorary title.
It took another 20 years until we too were exposed to the woman, without whom my aunt would not have been.
Kazimiera Bąkowska Sikora in The Righteous Among the Nations Database.