Israeli photographer’s book tells a story of the Polish Righteous

July 1, 2019

The National Library of Israel hosted on June 16th an event celebrating the publication of the Hebrew edition of the book “Alter Szpilman – the photographer from Węgrów”.
Szpilman was the town photographer in Węgrów between the two World Wars and took many photographs of the town, its environs and its inhabitants. He was married to Rachel and had one daughter Bina born on November 1st 1926. Under the German occupation of Poland he had false documents and used the name Stanisław Wojciechowski.

The most of his life he lived and worked in Węgrów, 70 km from Warsaw. Thanks to false documents and help of Polish inhabitants Szpilman’s family as one of very few survived the period of WWII and the Holocaust.

The Municipal Library in Węgrów published the Polish version of the book in 2013. Szpilman’s daughter Dr Bina Hacohen-Szpilman, who lives in Jerusalem, was responsible for the Hebrew translation and edition.

The book mentioned the fact that Alter’s wife Rachel and their daughter Bina were saved by the Poles during WWII. It was Jadwiga Waszczuk who gave Bina and Rachel temporary shelter and helped them obtain false “Aryan“ papers which helped ensure their survival.

It is worth reminding this story.

On September 3rd 1939, just two days after the outbreak of WWII, the Germans bombed the town, and one week later, it was captured. Soon after, the Jewish residents were sent to forced labour, where they endured abusive treatment by the German guards.

In December 1940, the Jews of Węgrów were moved into a single neighbourhood meant to serve as a ghetto. Initially, the ghetto was open and its residents were free to leave to purchase food. In the summer of 1942, the Germans sealed the ghetto, with 8,300 Jews inside. There was tremendous overcrowding, and hundreds died from hunger and disease.

On 22 September 1942, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Germans surrounded the ghetto. The Jews were assembled and forced to march to the train station in Sokołów, a distance of 17 km. There they were loaded onto cattle cars and brought to Treblinka.

Jadwiga Waszczuk, picture by Alter Szpilman

Rachel and Bina were returning from Yom Kippur services at the synagogue when they were targeted in a roundup by the Germans. The two sought shelter at the homes of their Christian neighbours, but were refused entry by their terrified owners. Finally, Rachel and Bina came to Jadwiga Waszczuk’s home, at the end of their street. The Szpilmans and the Waszczuks were not especially close, but their daughters, Bina Szpilman and Danuta Waszczuk, were classmates. A devout Christian, Jadwiga Waszczuk was a Polish widow living with her five children. She unhesitatingly agreed to hide Rachel and Bina in her home, stating I will not let you leave. Christ is with us. Whatever becomes of you, will become also of me”. She arranged forged documents for Rachel and Bina, listing them as Polish. Waszczuk managed to get a message to Alter Szpilman, who was hiding elsewhere with his mother, regarding their whereabouts and intentions, so that the family could be reunited.

In the picture: Jadwiga Waszczuk in the middle. Alina Waszczuk Wierzbicka on the right.

Rachel and Bina Szpilman survived the war under false identities as Polish forced labour workers in Auschwitz, and they were later reunited with their father and grandmother. After the war they all immigrated to Israel. Rachel and Alter passed away. Bina is 92, has a son Moshe who is a judge and 3 grandchildren – Lotem, Achinoam and Eldar.

On July 10, 2010, the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem decided to award Jadwiga Waszczuk the title of Righteous Among the Nations. On Tuesday, October 11, 2011, Yad Vashem held a ceremony posthumously honoring Jadwiga Waszczuk. Her daughter, Alina Wierzbicka, accepted the medal and certificate of honour on her late mother’s behalf. She was accompanied by her daughter Maria and 2 grandchildren – Caroline and George. The event took place in the presence of Deputy Ambassador of Poland to Israel Wiesław Kuceł, the survivor, Bina Hacohen, son of the survivor The Honorable Moshe Hacohen of the Jerusalem District Court, family and friends. The events took place in Polish and Hebrew.

9 years later the touching ceremony at the Jerusalem Library was attended by the Polish Consul General in Jerusalem architect Zeev Baran, Holocaust survivors, friends and many guest. The whole family of the survivor Bina Hacohen-Szpilman was there and her son Moshe Hacohen had a touching speech reminding both Alter Szpilman and Jadwiga Waszczuk.

Poles constitute the largest national group within the Righteous Among the Nations recognised by Yad Vashem. 26.793 people has been recognised so far. More than 25% of which were Polish. More can be read at the official Yad Vashem website. We need to remember that throughout the German occupation of Poland, many Poles risked their own lives – and the lives of their families – to rescue Jews from the Germans. To date, 6,863 Christian Poles have been awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel, more than those of any other nation (to compare Germany just 616). Considering the harsh punishment that threatened rescuers, this is a most impressive number. Polish citizens were hampered by the most extreme conditions in all of German-occupied Europe. Occupied Poland was the only territory where the Germans decreed that any kind of help for Jews was punishable by death for the helper and their entire family. At least 50.000 Poles were executed by the Germans solely as a penalty for saving Jews.

Families of Szpilman and Waszczuk are still close friends, now in the 4th generation. They are still in touch, meet every couple of years. They call each other “spiritul family”. This dramatic story from terrible war time created a special bond which brings faith in humanity.


Author: Moshe Hacohen, Yad Vashem and Maria Byczynski

Pictures: Alter Szpilman, Moshe Hacohen, British Poles




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