CASE STUDIES: FLEEING FROM WARTHEGAU TO SÜDOSTPREUSSEN
BY JAN GRABOWSKI
Published in "Bnai Gombin" • ISSUE 14, JUNE 2003
Two and a half years of forced seclusion had further exacerbated the already uneasy relationships between the Jewish and the Polish communities. When, in the spring of 1942, the Germans began closing down the ghettos and sending their population to the death camps, the Jews who escaped had to face a changed, often unknown, and most often hostile, world. Fleeing one ghetto in order to move to another one, considered safer, was one of the most common strategies for survival among the Jews of northern Mazovia. Early in the morning on April 21, 1942, the Gestapo office in Płock (Schrottersburg) received a telephone call from an informer (Vertraunes-Mann or VMann) that a Mrs. Lehman had rented a truck with a driver and requested a ride from Gąbin to Strzegowo (Mława county). Since the same Mrs. Lehman had rented a truck in March from Peters Shipping firm, and was said to have illegally transported Jews, the Gestapo had reason to believe that the present trip involved smuggling Jews as well.1) On orders of Regierungsrat (government adviser)2) Hinze, the truck was followed by a Gestapo car and intercepted on the southern outskirts of Płock. During the search of the vehicle the Gestapo officers discovered six Jews (5 adults and one child) hidden in the back of the truck, while Mrs. Lehmann sat in the front, in the cabin, next to the driver. By 10pm, the whole group was incarcerated in the Gestapo headquarters in Płock, awaiting interrogation.
It did not take much time to establish that Mrs. Lehman’s real name was Ewa Stuczynska. The arrested woman claimed to be Russian, Greek-catholic expatriate living in Poland since the nineteen twenties. Fortunately for the suspect, the Gestapo did not probe any further. In fact Ewa Stuczynska was not Russian but Jewish, and had, for quite some time, been involved in smuggling Jews out of the ghettos. According to the accused woman, her interest in helping the Jews was based upon purely financial calculation, since the refugees agreed to pay hefty sums for bringing them to the relative safety of the Strzegowo ghetto.
Over the next nine months between her capture and her transfer to KL Auschwitz on January 12, 1943, Ewa Stuczynska displayed extraordinary courage, resilience and wits that enabled her to save her own life, as well as the lives of her five underage children. Despite repeated beatings and brutal interrogations she stubbornly clung to her legend of ‘Aryan-Russian’ origin3). She claimed to have resettled to Poland from the post-revolutionary Russia and to have later married a Polish Jew, Stuczynski, who agreed to take care of her and her equally Aryan children. Nevertheless, the Gestapo officers had doubts, all the more since other people arrested in the April raid indicated that Stuczynska was, in fact, Jewish.4)
At this point we might want to turn to the testimony of Lucja Stuczynska, the oldest daughter of Ewa.5) Shortly after the liberation in 1945 this 19-year old woman gave an account of her war-time experiences to the Central Committee of Jews in Poland (CKZP). Her deposition has been preserved in the files of the Jewish Historical Institute, in Warsaw.
In May 1941 someone denounced my uncle Leon Stuczynski and his whole group to the Germans. They were all caught in a village, accused of smuggling food to the ghetto. My mother escaped and went into hiding in Gąbin; the others were dispatched to Włocławek, and hanged. No one was left to supply the ghetto in food...
In the winter of 1942 some two weeks before the action (akcja) [liquidation of the ghetto] we left Gąbin and moved to Strzegowo, where we established ourselves as aryans. Our family included five children aged 4 to 16 and our mother. Father, because of his accent, had to be placed in the ghetto.6) The action in Strzegowo started eight months later. One wanted to gain time... In the very beginning of our stay in Strzegowo Mother was caught transporting Jews from Gąbin and Gostynin to Strzegowo and to Mława, and placed in a Gestapo prison in Płock. She was sold out by Kazimierz Banasiak, a truck driver from Płock, working for the Gestapo. During the investigation I visited Płock three times. They took me to the ghetto, to see whether some Jews would recognize me. They learned nothing. To the very end they thought we were Aryan.
The 16-year old Lucja was released by the Gestapo in order to take care of her younger siblings, while her mother underwent further beatings and interrogations. In the eyes of the Germans, “an Aryan who helps the Jews can never be pardoned.”7) Ewa Stuczynska’s victory came when the Gestapo finally concluded that “from the police point of view she should be treated as a Pole.”8)
That decision, made in December 1942, paved way for Stuczynska’s later transfer to KL Auschwitz. It may seem as a grotesque form of victory, but in practical terms it meant that the woman was shipped not to a death camp (as she would have been, if found Jewish) but to a concentration camp where the odds of survival were significantly better. The official recognition of her ‘Aryanness’ was a guarantee of survival for her children, as well.9)
In her postwar deposition Lucja claimed to have visited her mother in Płock Gestapo jail. Indeed, going back to the dossiers of the Ciechanów Gestapo, I was surprised to find her statement corroborated by letters, addressed to the German authorities written in neat schoolchild’s handwriting. On August 4, 1942 the 16 year old “Tola Lucie Studow”
wrote to Płock Gestapo office:
"My mother Ewa Stuczynski is being held, since April 20, in Płock prison. She has left behind five children aged 5 to 16. The children have no means to survive. We are in an extremely difficult situation and we hope to see our mother back at home. We hope that this sincere plea of desperate children shall be heard. Yours deeply respectful, eldest daughter Tola Luzie Studow".10)
As one can deduce from Lucie’s testimony, her plea was successful and she was able to see her incarcerated mother -- a rare feat in the off-limits dungeons of the Płock Gestapo. One year later, after her mother had been transferred to the concentration camp, the energetic girl wrote a letter to Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz with the same request. This time, however, she was unable to break through the Nazi bureaucracy. On June 26, 1942 Auschwitz denied her request to “visit prisoner no. 19953.”11)
Between the visits to her jailed mother and the struggle to feed the four younger siblings, Lucja Stuczynska kept in touch with her father, who lived in the closed-off Strzegowo ghetto: “It is difficult to have your mother in prison, father in the ghetto, yourself to pretend to be a gentile and to support four younger siblings, including a boy.”12) She intervened twice on behalf of her father, but in the end he decided to stay with other Jews in the ghetto:
"He told me that he prefers to die together with all the others, than to live and to carry a death sentence in his pocket. Imagine my surprise when I read in a letter from my mother [from Auschwitz] that she conveys warm regards from my father. I refused to believe, I was certain that she wanted to raise my spirits, but I found out that the entire transport from Strzegów went straight to the oven. They had left just a few men to work; among them - my father. My parents met one another while working close to the latrines and they kept seeing each other nearly every day. Life is strange. (Later on) Father was taken in transport and never came back. My mother was able to escape from the transport and, owing to the speedy arrival of the Russians -- she survived.”
The saga of the Stuczynski family is further corroborated by another report filed shortly after the end of the war. A Feliks Kisielewski escaped from the Strzegowo ghetto in early 1942, but kept in touch with Lucja Stuczynska “who lived there with Aryan papers... and who often jumped the fence to get to the ghetto, where she had a father, whom she provided for.”13)
The Stuczynski family owed their survival to a combination of courage, resourcefulness and - to a certain degreeto a fair number of miracles, without which a Jew stood no chance of surviving in the occupied Poland. The other Jews caught at the gates of Płock during the April 21 night ambush were, however, not as fortunate as the Stuczynskis.
The flight from small ghettos of northwestern Poland was directly linked to the early phase of the planned extermination of the Jewish population of the territories incorporated into the Reich. Gąbin, from where the Jews tried to escape, lay in the so-called Warthegau, a part of Poland incorporated directly into the Reich and governed by Gauleiter Arthur Karl Grieser, one of the most brutal administrators appointed by Hitler in the conquered Polish territories.14) Strzegowo, on the other hand, found itself in the neighboring province of Sudostpreussen. While Erich Koch, the Gauleiter of this province, in terms of brutal treatment of the Jews took second seat to none, the ‘Evacuation’ of the ghettos in the Warthegau commenced in late Fall of 1941, earlier than in other areas. As early as July 16, 1941 the German authorities decided to ship the Jewish population of the province to the central Lodz ghetto. On January 2, 1942 Greiser had signed a secret order requesting that ‘racial cleansing’ of the area under his jurisdiction begin.15)
In early Spring of 1942 the warnings about the feared ‘deportations to the East’ reached the Jews of Sudostpreussen and every Jewish community in the province was aware of the impending danger. Certain ghettos were considered safer than others. The Warsaw ghetto, for instance, with its 400,000 Jews, was seen as a safe haven because: “nothing could happen to such a large population.”16) The smaller ghettos, however, were painfully aware of the precariousness of their own situation. Strzegowo was apparently perceived as a better bet than the small ghettos in the Warthegau. In principle, the Germans preferred to locate the ghettos close to the railway tracks -- which clearly indicated their temporary character and the eventual resettlement of their inhabitants. In this respect the remotely located Strzegowo ghetto was an exception to the rule. The local Jewish community was able to bribe the German bureaucrats into leaving the local Jews in place. As the victims were to learn soon the ‘security’ offered by the ghetto did not extend beyond November 1942, when most of Strzegowo Jews were placed on peasant horse-carts and driven to the Mława railway station, from where they were sent to the gas chambers of Treblinka. The remaining inhabitants of the Strzegowo ghetto were herded to the trains at the end of November and sent to Oswiecim.17)
Moses Wand, the chief of the Gąbin Jewish council (Judenrat) and one of six Jews intercepted by the Gestapo on the road to Płock, seized the imminent threat on Friday, April 17, 1942 when he had seen “a grouping of political leaders, SA people and policemen. This, in turn, indicated that the Jews were to be resettled. I have to add,” continued Wand, “that I have heard some time ago that in other counties [Kreisen] the Jews were being resettled.”18) Drawing on his acquaintance with the German mayor of Gąbin, Wand was able to gain some time and escaped together with his wife, Chaja, and his seven-year old son Natek. On their way out, they stumbled upon three other people, with whom they had shared the house. They fled together, towards the woods, hoping to reach the house of Maciejewski, the Polish forest ranger.19) Maciejewski and his family have been involved for some time, as it seems, in helping the Jews. After three days spent in ranger’s barn, Moses Wand and the other hidden Jews were relieved to see the long-awaited arrival of the truck with Ewa Stuczynska. Their relief was short-lived, however, because Jerzy, the eldest son of the ranger spotted a civilian car parked in the woods, close to the house. Assuming (quite correctly) the worst, Maciejewski ordered the Jews out, and the whole group embarked upon the ill-fated trip to Płock.
After a brief period of interrogations, the five adult Jews were sentenced to death by hanging “in a public execution in the Strzegowo ghetto.” On orders of Regierungsrat Hinze the seven year old Natek was ordered back to Gąbin, into the custody of the Jewish council. The Judenrat, however, together with all other Gąbin Jews had in the meantime already been ‘Evacuated’. Nevertheless, Gąbin’s mayor promised to deliver the child into the hands of the ‘Evacuation commando’ the very next day.20)
What happened to the Gestapo agent who denounced Stuczynska? Truck driver Kazimierz Banasiak, mentioned by Lucja Stuczynski as the V-Mann, was called in for questioning on May 26, 1942.21) Having asserted his innocence, he was sent back home the same day. The secret police wanted to make certain that the driver accepted no money from the condemned Jews before and during their trip from Gąbin to Płock.
1 Ibidem, “Verdacht steht, sich als Deutsche ausgegeben zu haben. Sie hat ausserdem Juden aus dem Gau Wartheland in den Reg.-Bezirk Zichenau eingeschmuggelt.”
2 There were several civilian ranks in the German secret police, starting with the Kriminalassistent, to Kriminalrat (criminal police commissar), to Regierungsrat (government adviser) and to Oberregierungsrat. Regierungsrat’s equivalent in the SS was a Sturbannfuehrer and Oberregierungsrat’s - an Obersturmbannfuehrer. (A. Eichmann’s testimony: T/37, p. 250).
3 During interrogations Ewa Stuczynska was beaten with an iron rod. One of the Gestapo officers told her that she should understand that “Jews had no rights” (ja, wir verstehen, aber Juden haben kein Recht). ZIH, Relacje , 301/303.
4 The explanations given by the arrested woman grew increasingly complex. In order to justify her own escape from Gąbin, Stuczynska recalled the hostility of German mayor of the town, whom she claimed to have accused of too much sympathy toward the Jews!. The mayor threatened her with reprisals. Numerous passages of interrogation protocols have been underlined in red ink by the Gestapo officers, with word “Jude?” added on the margin.
5 Zydowski Instytut Historyczny (Jewish Historical Institute, - hereafter ZIH) Relacje (Narratives) No. 303, collection 301.
6 The Jewish upper classes, and the intelligentsia in particular, often spoke fluent Polish and could blend more easily with the “gentile” society. The working class of the ghetto, however, spoke Yiddish and their Polish (if any) had a heavy accent, known as “zydlaczenie“; a dead giveaway.
7 ZIH, 303/301, p. 2. 8 IP, GZ, 148/6123, ...in staatpolizeilicher Hinsicht als Polin behandelt wurde.
9 In the case of Ewa Stuczynski, the Gestapo attempted to establish her Jewishness conducting interviews in the Strzegowo and Gąbin ghettos. In other cases, they sent pictures of the suspects to more distant areas, hoping for a positive identification. See the dossier of Helene Noak (Melcarz), IPN, Warszawa, GZ , 148/4065. Noak was arrested in April 1943 in Lublin, in the eastern part of Generalgouvernement. Her photographs have been sent and circulated among Poles living in Krasnosielsk and Makow Mazowiecki, not far from Warsaw.
10 IPN, GZ, 148/6123, fol 126. “Gesuch! Seit von 20 April 1942 befindet sich meine Mutter Ewa Stuczynski in dem Strafanstaldt Schrottersburg. Sie verliess zu Hause fuenf umvolljaehrige Kinder im Alter von 5 bis 16 Jahre ohne Mittel zum Leben. Da wir befinden sich in sehr schwerer lage bitten wir sehr hoeflich um die Entlassung unserer Mutter nach Hause. Wir hoffen, dass die herzliche Bitte der armen Kinder wird beruecksichtig. Hochachtungsvoll die Aelteste Tochter Tola Luzie Studow“.
11 IPN, GZ, 148\6123, fol. 132-133., Letter dated May 19, 1943, 12 ZIH, 303/301 p. 2. Hiding Jewish boys was, for obvious reasons, considered the most dangerous task of all. 13ZIH, Relacje, Coll. 301/ 310 relation of Feliks Kisielewski, born June 17, 1919.
14 Greiser’s office in Poznan was responsible for the first plans of mass extermination of the Jews. These projects included “swift methods of execution that would be a more humanitarian way of solving the Jewish question than (the anticipated) starvation.” See: S. Datner, J. Gumkowski and K. Leszczynski, “Zaglada Zydow w Obozach na Ziemiach Polskich” (The Annihilation of Jews in Camps on Polish Territories), in: Biuletyn Glównej Komisji Badania Zbrodni Hitlerowskich w Polsce (GKBZHwP), XIII (1960), p. 63.
15 Madajczyk, Czeslaw, Polityka III Rzeszy w Okupowanej Polsce (The Policy of the III Reich in the Occupied Poland), vol. 2, Warszawa, 1970, p. 308-309.
16 Ringelblum archive XX.
17 Michal Grynberg: Zydzi w Rejencji Ciechanowskiej, 1939-1942, (Jews in the Ciechanow District, 1939-1942) PWN 1984, p. 73.
18 IPN (Warszawa), Gestapo Zichenau (Ciechanow), 148/6123, fol 16, interrogation of Moses Wand, April 22, 1942.Wand, Chaja and Moses Wand, both interrogated on April 23. Interrogation of Frajda Zolna, April 21, 1942.
19 IPN, GZ, 148/6123 and 5399, interrogations of Hinda Rudnik, April 21, 1942.
20 Natek has been delivered to Gąbin on April 23, 1942.
21 IPN Warszawa, 148/6123 fol 43-45. Interrogation of
Kazimierz B. May 26, 1942.
Last updated December 29th, 2006