Trapdoor to a Tale of Nazi -Era Sacrifice Jul 10, 2015 15:21:17 GMT -5
Post by shira on Jul 10, 2015 15:21:17 GMT -5
A Trapdoor to a Tale of Nazi-Era Sacrifice
July 9, 2015 6:47 p.m. ET
On Dec. 6, 1942, 10 German soldiers marched into Rekówka, a Polish village 90 miles south of Warsaw. They’d received a tip from some locals that two families, the Skoczylas and Kosioróws, were sheltering Jews. When the Germans apprehended the families in their shared house, all but four of its inhabitants were at home. The soldiers spotted a trapdoor in the kitchen, which opened to a small, but empty, hiding place. They demanded that the families reveal the whereabouts of the stowaways, but nobody would talk. The soldiers took them to the barn behind the house, locked them inside and burned them alive. When two of the boys tried to escape, they were shot in the back.
Almost 72 years later, in August 2014, a cultural investigator named Jonny Daniels lifted that trapdoor for the first time since the surviving family members sealed it off years ago. He lowered himself down a ladder into a dark, damp space, with no light source and a floor covered with straw. He didn’t know it at the time, but he had uncovered the only known World War II hiding place for Jews that has remained intact and undisturbed since the end of the war.
On Thursday, after a year of negotiations and research, the space became an official heritage site in Poland, the only one of its kind. The hope is that by featuring the haven, shadows cast over Poland in the wake of the war will be lightened by the humanity of families like the Skoczylas and Kosioróws.
Jonny Daniels, founder of the NGO ‘From The Depths,’ emerges from an underground hiding place that once sheltered Jews during World War II. This site was just added to the list of Polish national heritage sites. June 30, 2015 in Rekówka, Poland. Elan Kawesch
A great-grandson of Holocaust survivors, Mr. Daniels is the founder of “From the Depths,” a nonprofit organization that locates tombstones poached from Jewish cemeteries to pave roads or construct walls, in an effort to weave back together the torn tapestry of Eastern European Jewish life. Mr. Daniels and his team were working in the town of Zwoleń in 2014 when they heard rumors about a Polish family in a nearby village whose members had sacrificed themselves for the Jews they hid.
Mr. Daniels looked into the site’s history. The entire Kosiorów family burned in the barn, but the descendants of the surviving Skoczylas sons live on the farm today. Martin Skoczylas, the 33-year-old grandson of one of the survivors, showed Mr. Daniels the spot, and recounted that all 10 Jews hiding in the basement were miraculously absent for the raid—they would leave on occasion to look for food in the woods. After that day in 1942, no one knows what became of them. Mr. Skoczylas and his family later assumed they had seen the barn fire and fled.
“It is my dream,” Mr. Skoczylas said, “that we will be able to find and meet descendants of the Jews that they saved.” An unlikely scenario, given the three years they would have had to survive before the war ended, but the family is still hopeful. “My family helped Jews, but did not expect anything in return,” said Mr. Skoczylas. “They did not think about the danger involved or the possible consequences.”
Such an act of self-sacrifice might seem stunning today, but others did the same. Sir Nicholas Winton saved 669 children by sending them by train from Prague to London before the borders closed in 1939, but his story came to light only when a family friend leaked it to the BBC in 1988. Later that year, he was featured on an episode of BBC’s “That’s Life!” When the show’s host asked the studio audience, “Is there anyone here who owes their life to Nicholas Winton?” everyone rose. He died earlier this month at age 106, and there are a reported 6,000 descendants of the children he saved.
Rafał Nadolny, the conservator of monuments in Poland’s Mazovia province, hurried along the paperwork. “I think that this kind of place, which is a material trace of the events surrounding the Second World War, deserves special protection and . . . future generations will be able to personally touch such a site.” (In 1999, a similar space was unearthed behind a cupboard in a Warsaw flat and registered with the conservation office, but tenants destroyed it in 2013 and faced up to 10 years in prison.)
Mr. Skoczylas is as eager to share his family’s story as he is overwhelmed by its emotional repercussions. When Mr. Daniels invited Mr. Skoczylas into the crawl space last year, he was met with hesitation and then a no. “It was too heavy for them,” Mr. Daniels remembers. “Martin came down a few steps but then went right back up, his face was white.”
The tension felt by the Skoczylas family, Mr. Daniels explained, bubbled over in 2012 when President Obama referred to a “Polish death camp” during a ceremony at the White House honoring the late Jan Karski, a hero of Polish resistance to the Nazis. Mr. Skoczylas bristled at the statement: “Doesn’t he know so many people were killed here because they helped the Jews?”
Ms. Kasmer-Jacobs is an assistant books editor at the Journal.