Nun begged 'Stashek' to be Christian to save him


BORN in the Polish town of Plotzk in 1935, Israeli artist and illustrator Yaacov Guterman survived the Holocaust using a counterfeit birth certificate of a Catholic boy.

His father, Simcha, died fighting in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, but he was reunited with his mother near the end of the Second World War after thinking she had also been killed.

As the persecution of the Jews began, the Guterman family moved around to avoid capture.

Wherever possible, Simcha wrote of the horrendous events taking place around them.

His notations were penned in Yiddish on narrow strips of paper, compact Yiddish script covering both sides. When there was no longer any room left to write more, the strips were tightly rolled up, hidden in bottles and concealed in cellars and other temporary hiding places frequented by the Guterman family.

Originally published in Hebrew by Moreshet, the Mordechai Anielewicz Center for Research and Documentation at Givat Haviva, an English translation has recently been published of Leaves from Fire, a 300-page book based on some of Simcha's writings handed over to the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

Through a number of chance events, including a visit to the Institute in Warsaw by a close friend from America, some of his father's strips of history became known to him in Israel and, at a later stage, a documentary film made of him retracing his childhood journey and his failed attempt to uncover more of the hidden bottles.

A heart-rending 35-page introduction penned by Yaacov, now an 80-year-old member of Kibbutz Haogen in the Sharon Plains in central Israel, takes the reader back to his pre-Holocaust childhood which he describes as idyllic until everything turned into a nightmare.

Yaacov recently met with a group of mainly non-Jewish young people from all over the world participating in a two-day seminar of the International Department at Givat Haviva.

Some of them knew little of the Holocaust and were in awe of the strength of the narrator, particularly after hearing of how he eventually made aliya, settled on a kibbutz, lost his first wife to cancer at a very young age and how he was "both mother and father" to his first-born son Raz, killed in the 1982 Lebanon war when serving in a commando unit of the IDF, and of his becoming active in the Israeli-Palestinian organisation, Bereaved Parents Circle.

"In my town of Plotzk, one of the three oldest Jewish communities in Poland, the population was 30,000 of whom 10,000 were Jewish. In other words, every third person spoke Yiddish," explained Yaacov, who has illustrated more than 150 books for children and adults in Israel and abroad.

He has had his work exhibited in the National Library in Warsaw as well as in Tel Aviv.

"You know, even as long ago as 1237, an Archbishop wrote about this Jewish community existing in his midst," Yaacov told the group of first-time visitors to Israel.

"I had a happy childhood, albeit very short at just four years. I was a spoiled child, lots of toys and beautifully illustrated books and every day I went to spend a few hours in the fruit garden of my Aunt Malka. Really, a child does not need more.

"When the Germans invaded our city, life got harder by the day. One night there was a knock at the door and when mother opened it, she let out a strangled scream of terror as my father, covered in blood, staggered in to the room.

"I woke up to see my father half-naked, badly beaten and remember him trying to smile at me, to calm me because I was really shocked and very frightened.

"He and some other Jewish people had been stopped on the street by the Germans, who said they had infringed the curfew which wasn't true.

"They were taken to a police station, forced to take off their clothes and then wantonly beaten all over.

"I loved my father very much and the image of how I saw him that night has stayed with me vividly until this day."

He added that they were forced to leave their spacious home for the ghetto, ending up in a small dark airless room.

"Conditions in the ghetto were very bad, although admittedly not as bad as in Warsaw," Yaacov said. "Then on March 1, 1941, rifle butts on the door, noise, confusion and wrapped in a small blanket, ousted from the room by German soldiers yelling 'raus, raus, Juden' and into the snow-filled street where we became part of a herd of people being loaded on to military trucks and a terrifying journey to Soldau concentration camp.

"After a few days in this camp, we were loaded on to a train and deported to the south-east, to the vicinity of Kielce, in the zone of the General Government, beyond the territory of the Third Reich.

"The Jews of Plotzk were spread out to several Jewish communities in small towns and, with nothing to sustain them, some starved and many died from typhus."

A friendship with a Polish man, Stanislav Szczesniak, enabled the family to obtain a copy of the original birth certificate of a female relative of his and, after claiming she had lost her identity card, his mother was issued with a new one.

Later they were able to obtain Polish identity cards for Simcha and Yaacov, who now became known as Stanislaw Duda.

A pendant hung around his neck depicting the Virgin Mary with an infant Jesus in her arms.

He recalled: "I learned to cross myself correctly so as not to arouse suspicion and learned the Lord's Prayer off by heart, eventually reciting it every morning and every night like a good Catholic.

"Just a short time before the Germans rounded up all the Jews of Ostrowiec and transported them to death camps, the Guterman family, with their new identities, had moved to the outskirts of the town with a wide area of marshes between.

"We became the last surviving Jews of Ostrowiec," emphasised Yaacov.

"Just imagine, a strip of marshland was all that was between us and being sent to our certain deaths."

The Guterman family began an odyssey of long train journeys attempting to find safe haven.

"Over and over again showing our tickets and identity cards to conductors for inspection, dreading something would give us away, trying to hide who we were - constantly pretending to be someone else - living on the edge of fear with no let up," Yaacov said.

Eventually they arrived in a relatively remote Polish village. However, here Yaacov was attacked by three young Poles who knocked him to the ground and as he managed to get away heard them say if they found he was circumcised, they would hand him over to the Germans.

Yaacov recalled: "My father had a great urge to convey to future generations what had befallen the Jewish people and he took great risk in filling strip after strip of paper detailing all the horrendous events he encountered and heard from others."

Every time Simcha hid a bottle, he would urge Yaacov to remember where it was hidden - convinced that if any of them would survive it would be Yaacov aka Stanislav (later nicknamed Stashek).

Using false identities, the family made their way to Warsaw in 1944, but they were forced to take separate living quarters. Simcha was offered a job in a convent by Mariavitian nuns who had known him from before the war and were prepared to risk their lives in sheltering Jews.

"When one of the nuns told my father she was going to the countryside to visit relatives, he begged her to take me with her as Warsaw was getting more and more dangerous by the day," Yaacov said.

"I was nine-years-old and found myself travelling with a nun in a habit to the village of Vygoda near Lowich. There were little wooden houses, green fields, cows and horses - I was filled with joy.

"I did not know about the Warsaw uprising, with house-to-house combat, German tanks and aircraft shelling houses, but one evening the nun said she wanted to speak to me.

"She took me outside and explained about it all and said it was unlikely that my parents were alive and encouraged me to become a Christian.

"She said it would not hurt as it would be just some water and a prayer. I choked back tears, fear and confusion, thanked her for everything she was doing for me and told her that I was born a Jew and wanted to go on being one.

"The following day, she arranged for me to live with a family in the next village where a farmer was willing to take me in to work in the cowshed and I agreed.

"They were a good family who treated me like their own son, who was just a few years older than me. I went to church with them and fitted really well in to the family.

"One evening as she was talking to her neighbour, I heard her boast how the poor orphaned mite Stashek was such a pious Catholic - little did she know.

"I was out grazing the animals one day and when I came back towards the farm, I saw a lady with her back to me sitting on a rock.

"As I drew closer I recognised my mother and was so happy, but she explained that my father had been killed and that was devastating."

One of the last questions put to Yaacov by one of the kibbutz volunteers was what should be learned from his horrific experiences both in Europe and all the wars he had been through in Israel.

"I learned from the Holocaust to despise nationalism and racism," he replied. "I should say that I simply despise hatred."

© 2015 Jewish Telegraph