Anyone who has seen the 2002 romantic comedy Love Actually will recall its opening and closing sequences—the movie begins and ends with a montage of random embraces in airports. These feature people of all ages, all shapes, all sizes, all colours, moving into one another’s arms like happy and often clumsy dancers. As they reach out to one other, their spontaneity is both grateful and deeply kind. Every day, in airports all over the planet, from Kazakhstan to Kalamazoo, everyday people are simply glad to be alive, glad to hold someone, glad to be held and we cannot refute this. We are left with a surprising revelation: human beings might actually deserve to be on this planet.
Picture, if you will, one such deserving human—a Polish Catholic man waiting at the Kraków airport on June 8, 1983. He is 62 years old and his name is Jerzy Bielecki. He is the director of a school for teaching bus and car mechanics. In his arms he holds an over-sized bouquet of 39 roses. They are likely red but it is the number that counts.
A woman is walking towards him. She is 63 and noticeably well-dressed. She has flown to Europe from New York City. She has been a widow for seven years. Her name was Cyla Cybulska when she last saw him, It is not difficult to imagine she was a knockout. There is a huge smile on her face as she approaches. She was born in eastern Poland as a Jew.
Jerzy tries to maintain his composure. They have spoken on several long distance phone calls in advance of this reunion. Therefore, Cyla knows he is still married; Jerzy knows she is not. Each had thought the other must be dead. At long last they are embracing again, living in the moment. There are tears in four eyes and they don’t know how or when to let go. Maybe never?
Jerzy tells his “little Cyla” there is one rose for each of the 39 years they have been apart; every year they had assumed the other must be dead; every they felt obliged to somehow forsake a great love in exchange for survival on a godforsaken planet where Auschwitz has haunted their dreams. And for these exquisite moments in the Kraków airport on June 8, 1983, animosity doesn’t rule the universe; instead it just seems that way too much of the time.
With so many people rushing by, with everyone distracted by their own viewpoints and anxieties, this older couple is forgettable, almost invisible. To passersby, there is nothing remarkable about them except that over-sized bouquet. But they know they are special. They know it was the brave Jerzy Bielecki who enabled the beautiful Cyla Cybulska to become only the sixth Jew to ever escape from Auschwitz-Birkenau. There is love, actually.
Born in Slaboszow, Poland, in the Kielce region, on March 28, 1921, that mechanics instructor was arrested for no reason at age 19 on June 13, 1940. It was a beautiful day in Tarnow, Poland. “Jurek” and some friends had been preparing to cross the border into Hungary, hoping to join a Polish army unit, then ultimately join some of the Polish armed forces in France.
The Nazis suspected Jerzy Bielecki of being a member or the Polish resistance. He was not. But that hardly mattered. The Germans had invaded his homeland on September 2, 1939 when he was eighteen, having just completed his education at Bartlomiej Nowodworski High School in Kraków.
First apprehended in the town of Nowy Sącz in southern Poland, Jurek had been brought 60 kilometres north to the city of Tarnów for his formalized processing.
When he and dozens of other men were marched through the streets under police escort, towards the train station, he felt like they were all cattle being escorted to the slaughterhouse.
He would never outlive that memory. The faces of those watching the cavalcade, peering through their windows, looked stunned. Some of the local women tried to provide food to the convoy of young men. At one point someone dared to toss some red roses into the street, as a way of saying farewell. One of the Nazi gendarmes trampled on the roses in a matter of seconds.
None of these arrested Poles had any idea that various SS commissions had examined a swampy area near Oświęcim, (pronounced Os-VEE-en-chim) in western Poland, as a potential site for a concentration camp. Specifically, the Nazis had investigated an adjunct called Zasole, within Oświęcim county where there was an abandoned Polish army camp. Most important, this area, with its relatively easy access to Kraków, could offer excellent railway connections.
In keeping with a Nazi plan made in April of 1940, the director of the existing Sachsenhausen camp (opened in 1936), would be appointed commandant of this new facility. His name was Rudolf Hoess. By June, SS Gruppenfuhrer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski and SS Gruppenfuhrer Wiegandt had therefore deemed it necessary to gather a labour force to help construct an encampment soon to be known as Auschwitz—the German pronunciation for Oświęcim.
The life of tall, skinny and handsome Jerzy Bielecki would be forever changed as a result. Previously, there had been nothing remarkable about him. Now he was playing a pivotal role in history. As part of the inaugural transport of Poles from Silesia to Konzentrationslager Auschwitz on June 14, 1940, at age 19, Bielecki was a historical figure: he was participating in the onset of the most vile mass murder site in human history with the arrival of 728 Polish alleged “political prisoners” who arrived at Auschwitz at 3 p.m.
Millions of others would be forced onto trains heading in that same destination for several years to come, but he represented the vanguard of an event in history that could be considered as remarkable as a trip to the moon. It was one step for man; one giant step backward for mankind.
Only those who were destined to live more than a few hours would be accorded numbers on their striped uniforms. Jerzy’s Auschwitz prison number was 243. If anyone with numbers from 1 to 242 ever outlived him, it would be hard to say, but the odds are they did not. The words of a German officer during their first roll call were seared into his memory: “You dogs! Remember, that this is a German camp, not a sanatorium. You will work here for the rest of your life…” This speech was likely delivered by Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch (deputy commander of the SS in KL Auschwitz).
Bielecki’s fanciful memory of his introduction cannot be entirely trusted. He has claimed the German officer continued to say “…I give priests and Jews three weeks… Never forget that there is only one way out of here—through the chimney. And if someone doesn’t like it, they can go straight to the [electrified] wires.”
The first crematorium at Auschwitz had been built but it would not be operational until August 15, 1940 and its three furnaces could only incinerate 340 corpses every 24 hours until it ceased operations in July of 1943. Poisonous gas was not used for mass murder at KL Auschwitz until September 3, 1941, initially in the cellars of Block 11. Hence, Bielecki’s recollection of a Nazi threat in June of 1940 about there being “only one way out—the chimney” must be disregarded as poetic license.
First, barracks needed to be built; foundations had to be dug. Houses belonging to resident Poles must be demolished. The crude living conditions and Nazi sadism were far more lethal than unbuilt chimneys. The early death rate in Auschwitz, prior to the implementation of crematoria at Birkenau, can be deduced by camp commandant Rudolf Höss’ own report on February 2, 1941. After more than 10,000 prisoner numbers had been issued, the prisoner population in Auschwitz was about 6,000.
These figures fail to take into account the lethal effects of transport for Poles brought to Auschwitz as a labourers. According to Auschwitz Museum-related researchers, “no one survived from the transport of 20 prisoners brought from Tarnów on December 27, 1940; of the 26 prisoners on the transport from Kraków, only 2 survived; of the 81 prisoners brought on February 26, 1941, from Tarnów, only 7 prisoners survived…. The archival record indicates that the total percentage of deaths among the 140,000 Poles deported to KL Auschwitz was around 50 percent.”
Bielecki’s modest command of the German language was enhanced over eighteen months to the point where it became an asset. Near the outset of 1942, Bielecki was able to join the Landwirtschaftskommando (the farming or agricultural brigade) where the labour was less debilitating.
At first, Bielecki worked at the mill in the sub-camp of Babice, some 36 kilometres west of Kraków. The dietary benefits and indoor working conditions greatly improved his outlook and he regained some strength It began to dawn on him there could be a slim possibility he could survive. But his hopes were dashed after one of the prison workers at the mill escaped and all his co-workers were demoted to harder labour. As a member of the roving “reapers commando” Bielecki was constantly working outdoors, reaping crops or cutting grass. It wasn’t until midway through 1942, while he was doing gardening chores near a crematorium, that he saw his first stack of naked bodies, thousands of them, in a gigantic pile.
Agricultural labour was seasonal so next he was sent to serve as an apprentice mechanic for the Landwirschaftkommando, working mainly indoors, repairing farming machinery as well as motorcycles, bikes and trucks. Spare parts from the warehouse could sometimes be bartered for food. Next, in September of 1943, he was transferred to work in the large grain warehouse, not far from the ramp. Here, in this large Birkenau facility, his ever-expanding aptitude for speaking German gained him a position as a Vorarbeiter (foreman).
Grain in the warehouse was stored and put into sacks. Everything was weighed, strictly accounted for. Some grain was sent to the Reich; some grain sent to the mill at Babice for either flour or cattle feed. Other grain disappeared without a trace. It was such a large operation that the SS themselves were involved in trading grain for other foodstuffs. As a foreman, he was able to barter grain for produce from the nearby farms at Budy, Harmeze (Harmense) and Babice (Babitz). As well, there was a fish farm at Plawy.
The grain warehouse was staffed from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. There was a separate room where ten Polish women worked repairing bags to store the grain. Each day the SS escorted these women to and from the warehouse. When groups of female prisoners were marched past male prisoners, all male prisoners were supposed to look away, but indoors, in such facilities as the Canada warehouse or the grain warehouse, such regulations were not so strictly enforced.
Elsewhere, it was forbidden in Birkenau for male and female prisoners to converse, but the warehouse crew was so familiar with the SS men that they could easily be bribed to turn a blind eye. So it was that one day Jerzy glimpsed the mending crew of ten Polish women, all brunettes, arriving at the warehouse wearing white aprons, clean blouses and scarves in their hair. He was stupefied. Never had anyone, as far as he knew, ever witnessed such a cavalcade of beauty in Auschwitz Birkenau.
“I backtracked when I saw them,” he recalled. “Women?… It seemed to me that one of them, a pretty, dark-haired one, smiled and winked at me. I blushed like a kid. It was Cyla, who had been assigned to repair grain sacks. From the first moment, I fell in love with her femininity, her smile, her face. Paradoxically, I lived the best of my life while death was all around me… I was crazy about her, and I saw that she was not insensitive to my advances. We were like teens on a park bench stealing kisses as death rumbled
Cyla Cybulksa was born on December 24, 1920 in Łomża, a city in north-eastern Poland, located approximately 150 kilometers to the north-east of Warsaw. In her late teens, her hometown shrank; she found herself limited to the Łomża Ghetto.
With her mother Fela [or Faye] , her father Mordechai, her older brother Jakub [or Yaacov], her younger brother Natan and a ten-year-old sister Rebecca, she resolved to remain hopeful. As their gated community was increasingly swollen by the influx of Jews from the surrounding countryside, it became impossible not to imagine that a rumoured “re-settlement” somewhere to the south might be a preferable option.
The Jews of the Łomża Ghetto—including Jews from the surrounding towns of Czyzew, Jedwabne, Kobylin, Kupiski, Kołaków, Śniadów and Wysokie Mazowiecki—were all eventually transported to a former army barracks in Zambrów. Their numbers have been estimated as anywhere from thirteen-to-twenty thousand prisoners. Conditions were horrid due to disease, hunger and beatings. Hard labour and executions awaited anyone who objected.
In Zambrów, the Germans killed about eight hundred people. A captive named Abraham Berl Sokół reported: “Mortality in the camp reached a hundred people a day, mainly children and the elderly. The camp was divided into seven blocks, the cramped conditions were terrible, fourteen people slept on bunks for six people, mothers killed their own children out of a sense of hopelessness” (source: AŻIH, report no. 301/2249).
Witness Icchak Stupnik’s left memoirs: “The Jews from the Zambrów camp were assigned three types of death. First: starvation to death. Due to the abnormal diet, the Jews suffered from dysentery and spotted typhus. (…) The number of small, innocent souls that hungered like flies was monstrous. Secondly, the Jews were tormented with cold. When it was very cold, all the Jews were lined up in the camp square and kept for several hours, in this way they frostbitten their hands, legs and other body parts. Thirdly, they were harassed for the smallest thing.” (source: AŻIH, report no. 301/1258).
Zambrów was so foul that the Germans chose to liquidate the camp in mid-January of 1943. All the remaining prisoners, mainly Jews, were loaded onto horse carts and taken to the railway station in Czyżewo where Germans packed the deportees onto cattle cars. Crowded, without food or drink, in unheated wagons despite the bitter cold, the prisoners set off on their way to Auschwitz. During transport, more Jews would be murdered or die as a result of exhaustion and hypothermia.
When the train stopped in Oświęcim, the SS men used truncheons for the unloading process. It was important that nobody had much time to think. The selection process occurred immediately. Two words were spoken repeatedly: rechts, links [right, left].
Regardless of age, any woman with a child was sent to the group to be murdered. Cyla (or Cylka) recalled, “My mother and my ten-year-old sister were included in the group of those who were sent left for the gas chambers. I was directed to the right side. I was deemed fit to work.” Her brothers and father would soon perish, as well, so, by September, at age 22, she would be the lone family member left alive. Again, her reportage is succinct: “All civilian items were taken from us, we were shaved and the number 29558 was tattooed on my forearm on my left hand.”
The surviving women were driven to the Birkenau labour camp where they were assigned to barracks BIa and beaten often by a Czech Jewess block leader in Barracks #9. Initially she was required to assist in the demolition of farm buildings and homes that belonged to displaced Poles in villages the included Brzezinka, Babice, Rajsko, Pławy, Harmęże and Budy.
Soon enough, after several weeks—almost assuredly because of her looks—she was picked for work in the grain harvest compound. She and other attractive, younger women were accorded separate lodgings, nearer to the grain silo, in a Stabsgebaude [headquarters/administration] building. German personnel were not ill-disposed to having fifty, attractive, young women all sleeping in the warm basement of their headquarters. This relatively small coterie of women were allowed to let their hair grow and had access to better, stylish clothing from the Canada compound.
Cyla recalled: “It was incredible luck. We slept in a relatively dry cellar on straw mattresses. We had to wash in the morning and in the evening. It was required for our work mending the flour bags. We received far better food. It was supposedly the kind of food that the German overseers received.” [Cyla’s experiences in the grain warehouse have been recounted in Chapter 14 of Auschwitz The Nazi Civilization: Twenty-Three Women Prisoners’ Accounts (University Press of America 1992), compiled and edited by Lore Shelley.]
In the survivalist hell of Birkenau, one could use unprocessed grain as a form of currency, but the granary compound was hardly akin to the Canada compound wherein vigilance of the workers was extreme. Grain was not comparable to diamonds; therefore, the level of surveillance in the grain storage facility was far less severe. That is how and why a furtive and flirtatious intimacy soon evolved between Jerzy and Cyla. During the next eight months, not unlike Ovid’s and Shakespeare’s ill-fated lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe, they were able to talk to one another through a hole in a board.
Each brief encounter was like oxygen. There was little opportunity to consummate their love, barely time for an elicit kiss, so the couple preferred to reminisce about happier times, recalling family, friends and childhood. He was Catholic. She was Jewish. But their religious differences were irrelevant. Surely God had abandoned Auschwitz and everyone in it.
Two of Jerzy’s co-workers named Marian Wudniak and Kazek Jankowski were also uplifted by the luxury of female company and formed romantic liaisons with two of Cyla’s friends, Regina and Lonia Szwarc (from Pomerania) among the nine other women who were darning the granary bags.
The smoke from cremated bodies and the stench of corpses stacked high were hardly an elixir for romance, and yet this death-defying aura of near-bliss evidently sustained these chaste couples for almost a year. The status quo only became unviable when Cyla witnessed the murder of a close female friend. A Nazi aimed his revolver at her neck, at close range, and calmly pulled the trigger. After Cyla had witnessed the murder, she became severely agitated and Jerzy ached to calm her.
So it was, purportedly on Christmas Eve in 1943, that Jerzy Bielecki vaingloriously pledged to figure out some way for them to escape. “I’ll get you out of this hell,” he promised. Or so the story goes. Bielecki came up with a scheme that required the theft of an SS uniform in order to escort Cyla out the gates, a copy-cat plan that was likely inspired by an escape made by non-Jews in June of 1942.
“It was like something clicked,” Bielecki would recall. “I would not have had the courage to do it for myself. I knew how [most of] the escape attempts ended. But for Cyla and for our love, I was ready to do anything, even the impossible.”
Bielecki paints himself as a romantic hero so it’s easy to look somewhat askance, but by their actions ye shall know them. This was Auschwitz, after all. Anyone who choses to be skeptical about this tale of true love might want to stop and remember that only six Jews ever succeeded in escaping from Auschwitz and never were caught—and it was entirely through Bielecki’s efforts that Cyla Cybulska became one of them.
The details of how Cyla Cybulska became the only female—out of more than one million Jews—to escape from Auschwitz have much to do with two men who were regarded in the camp vernacular as “old numbers.” A vital element of the escape plan was Jerzy’s friendship with Tadeusz Srogi, a veteran survivor of the camp whose tattoo number was 178. Srogi was therefore a Pole who had also been brought to Auschwitz on the same train as Jerzy. Camp veterans who could boast about being “old numbers” earned grudging respect from the Nazis. In the case of Srogi, he had been an Auschwitz veteran for so long that he had been accorded the job of looking after Nazi uniforms.
Srogi was himself a remarkable character. Born in Sanok on January 10, 1919, he was apprehended by Germans on May 6, 1940 and incarcerated in the Sanok prison until June 13, 1940, at which time he was transferred for processing at Tarnów, where he would have met Jerzy among the 758 Poles who were sent to Auschwitz for that initial transport on June 14. As prisoner #178, he was tattooed only a few minutes before Jerzy.
Having survived a stint of punishment in Block 11 for five days in February of 1943, he was assigned to a penal command (Strafkommando) in May of 1943 but somehow remained in touch with his Jewish sweetheart in Auschwitz named Regina. It is not known how he was transferred to work in the SS warehouse where uniforms were kept. Regardless, it was he managed to gradually assembled the various pieces of attire that Jerzy would need in order to pose as a Nazi officer.
Initially, the two Poles planned to escape as a foursome. Srogi’s intended escape mate would be “Regina,” presumably a love interest, but it’s unclear whether this was the same woman who worked alongside Cyla in the granary or not. When Srogi nixed this plan as too risky, he nonetheless persisted in helping his friend with even more than the acquisition of an SS officer’s uniform along with a Rottenfuhrer’s insignia.
As well, and equally crucially, Srogi provided a blank pass that one of the SS men had left in a uniform. These passes to enable officers to pass in and out of the camp were issued in varying colours, for security reasons, so that only passes of a particular colour would only be valid on particular days. The pass Srogi gave to Jerzy was green and it was pre-signed by an SS man named Helmut Stehler. Clearly, guards at the gate might quickly discern that Bielecki was not Stehler (if they happened to know Stehler). Emboldened rather than deterred, Srogi decide he would forge the signature to make it appear as Steiner instead of Stehler. Reverence for rank in the Nazi army was such a lesser-ranked soldier would not risk repercussions if he dared question the credibility of a more senior office named Steiner even if they did not recognize him.
Next, a friend of Bielecki’s who worked in the camp printing house agreed to create six forgeries in different colours, because Bielecki knew that the SS used a different pass colours intermittently in no discernible order.
Most of the time Bielecki could only communicate with his escape partner Cyla in a sentence or two at a time. He managed to say to her, “Listen, soon, around three in the afternoon, an SS man will come for you and take you to the Politische Abteilung (Political Department) for interrogation… Remember and wait.”
Later that same day, Bielecki learned that the basement dormitory for Cyla and her co-workers had been emptied. Cyla and the others had been transferred but he had no idea where, or why. Suddenly, she did not appear at the granary. He had no idea if she was alive or dead.
Days or months later [versions of the story don’t agree], he received a note saying “Jurek [diminutive for Jerzy in Polish], darling, I work in the laundry. Try to find me.” Or possibly, “I work at Stabsgebaude C.” (Headquarters C). Either way, via intermediaries, they learned they were still working very close to one another.
Through intermediaries, they were able to set a prospective date of July 21, 1944 for their delayed escape attempt. Bielecki had the uniform hidden; the main hurdle now was the colour of the forged pass. It was agreed he would appear on the balcony of the warehouse at two-hour intervals and Cyla would appear in the window of her nearby building at two-hour intervals, on even hours; noon, 2 or 4, etc. He would raise his hand as a signal to verify that their escape attempt should proceed.
Good fortune was upon them later that day when two horses pulled a platform to the entrance of the warehouse. His friend named Staszek Zygula appeared to be escorting a new arrival and presenting him to the manager of the warehouse. The nature of the exchange was unclear to him but his heart beat faster. He could clearly see the colour of the pass that was being presented for signature to verify whatever transaction was occurring was green.
As soon as Zygula had confirmed the colour during a brief conversation, Bielecki hurried to the attic where he had stored the forged passes. He completed the green form. It was simple enough. Prisoner’s name. SS controller’s name. Rank. Destination. Time. Date. Next he went to the balcony and waved to the nearby Stabsgebäude C (Headquarters) building where Cyla now worked in the laundry. They had agreed to depart on a odd-numbered hour; 1 or 3 or 5, etc. As he waved across to her it was 2 p.m. There was now about forty-five minutes to make the other necessary preparations.
For her part, Cyla was petrified. A friend named Sonia Rothschild convinced her that even a week of freedom might be sufficient to tell the world what was happening in Auschwitz. In other words, she owed it to everyone else in the camp to try. It didn’t need to be stated that remaining within Auschwitz could likely be a death sentence anyway.
Bielecki hastened to ask Rottenfuhrer Titze for permission to leave the warehouse for a pre-arranged pick-up of some sausage at the slaughterhouse, with an assurance that he would share the bartered goods with Titze. He knew Titze well enough to know this ruse would be accepted. He left the grain warehouse by the main entrance but circled around to a rear staircase. He bound up that stairway to the attic.
In a haversack he had already packed shoes and a rubber cape for Cyla. The difficult part was retaining enough equilibrium to don the complicated SS uniform, making sure it was exactly right. Everything must be impeccable, including the way he put canvas clips on the cuffs of his trousers. He had to fasten the belt correctly. He did not have a pistol for his holster but it would be weighted properly with a piece of metal under his jacket.
He donned glasses to further disguise himself, then he re-entered the world as a Nazi. As soon as he descended the back stairs, prisoners at work avoided eye contact. After he saluted a well-known SS officer in passing, without a hitch, his confidence soared. It was easier to be a brute than he had imagined.
By the time he had reached the neighbouring Stabsgebäude C building, Cyla was anxiously waiting in the laundry, having already been wished a fond farewell by Sonia who allegedly said, “May God guide you.” That sounds more like a Polish Catholic speaking than a Jew.
As the story has been told, or possibly embellished, a corpulent woman in an Aufseherinnen (warden) uniform met SS officer Steiner at the entrance. Having been ordered to deliver a prisoner for interrogation, or else to work in a nearby farm (again, accounts differ), he supposedly consulted his own paperwork for validation, reading it aloud as if for the first time, saying “Haftlingsnummer (inmate number) 29558. Cybulska-Stawiska.” This, too, could well be an embellishment.
The warden then summoned a kapo. “Ruf mal die Schwarze von Bügelstube.” (Get the black-haired one from the ironing room). In due course, Cyla appeared and he directed her to proceed with him out of the building, without further comment. It helped that her fear was genuine.
It was impossible to remain calm as they proceeded along a stretch of gravel towards the Raisko sub-camp. There destination was a side-exit just beyond a large guard chain and sentry post. With tattoos on their arms, capture meant certain death. As an SS officer came towards them, walking in the opposite direction, Cyla was astonished to hear Bielecki say, “Heil Hitler.”
He had practiced it. The procedure at the gate went without incident. At the control box he silently presented his paperwork to the non-commissioned officer on duty who didn’t dare question a higher ranking official. “Heil Hitler, Unterschfurher,” Bielecki said, in a cordial fashion, to speed things along. The lone guard said only, “Weiter Machen.” You can go.
Bielecki clicked his heals. He would never forget what happened next—nothing. His fear of being gunned down from behind generated a physical sensation. “I felt pain in my backbone, where I was expecting to be shot.”
THE PERILS OF FREEDOM
New problems began immediately. An SS man they both knew appeared on the same road but he failed to recognize either of them. It was difficult to walk as briskly as possible without appearing to run. Gradually the glow of Auschwitz receded as they proceeded past the Buna Werke industrial zone under construction. When dawn approached, they nestled in a field of grain and slept, exhausted.
Cyla was not prepared for marching through fields and woods at night, being exhausted and hungry all the time. “Far from any settlements,” she recalled, “we had to cross rivers. When water was high, Jurek carried me to the other side.”
At the same time two lovers had the bliss of one another’s company, the balm of one another’s arms. It was an agonizing blend of bliss and blisters, comfort and you, hunger and dread. He refused to consider leaving her behind. “We fled together and we will walk on together,” he kept saying. The fugitives could never rest easy because all the surrounding countryside had been re-settled with Nazi loyalists who were glad to take over Polish farmhouses. Near Zator one night, they were shot at by some of these usurpers.
Eventually, they reached the village of Bachowice, near Spytkowice, where they were sympathetically sheltered by the family of the local organist, Stanislaw Kosowski, who arranged for a guide to travel with them. This likely saved their lives. He led them safely to the village of Brzeznica. Finally, near Czernichow, they were able to board a small ferry to cross the Vistula River. In Bieleki’s book, He Who Saves One Life…, Cyla is quoted as saying she eventually became too tired to proceed any further and asked to be left behind. The story goes that Bieleki refused to be defeated and insisted she must never give up.
In one of the towns they passed through, he was reunited, by chance, with his brother, Leszek, who was active in a Polish underground resistance movement. There was hope for a future again. Kraków was now almost in range. Bieleki began to recognize the terrain. After nine nights of walking, they eventually reached their destination, the home of Bieleki’s uncle, Jan Marusa, in Muniakowice, where his mother was also living. As much as she was deeply relieved to see her son alive, she was steadfastly determined not to allow him to marry a Jew. “How will you live?” she scolded him. “How will you raise your children?”
It was not safe for everyone if the two runaways remained in the Marusa household in Muniakowice for more than a few days of recovery. Arrangements were therefore made to have Cyla take refuge with a poor Polish family on an isolated farm, far from the frequent Nazi patrols. Cyla, as a lone female Jew, seemingly had precious little power to decide her own fate within the Catholic household. So it was that Cyla would be required to remain hidden in the tiny village of Przemeany-Gruszow, with the Czernik family, friends of Bieleki’s uncle, for the duration of World War II. Some accounts suggest Bieleki went into hiding in Kraków; others suggest he intended to fight with his brother’s comrades in the Polish resistance, fighting with the so-called Home Army. Legend has it the star-crossed were saying goodbye all night, under a pear tree.
Freedom and peace were declared in the Gruszow area on January 3, 1945. As the Nazis retreated, Cyla went hopefully to the nearest road, waiting for hours every day for her lover’s return. She gradually began to lose hope. Then she received news that he had been killed in combat during Operation Tempest, a series of local uprisings against the Nazis. Who might have told her this news is not clear. One can assume it could have been Bieleki’s mother.
Bieleki had remained been in hiding in the Kraków area. The Soviet tanks did not roll into Kraków until January 18, 1945. Hence, Bieleki was unable to return to Cyla when she was expecting him to arrive. By the time Bieleki was able to make the 40-kilometre walk on snow-covered roads to find her at the Czernik’s farmhouse, he arrived four days too late. Cyla never realized, or else she was never told, that the countryside where she had been living has been liberated 15 days before Kraków. She also did know that is where Bieleki was in hiding.
Eventually, Cyla decided to take a train to Warsaw. On this train she met David Zacharowitz and his older brother. She and David soon married and gained admission to Sweden. During their five years in Sweden, she sent numerous parcels to the Czernik family, as a way of thanking them for their protection. In each accompanying letter, she would ask if there was any news of Bieleki. She was never told he was still alive. Possibly, each parcel sent via Bieleki’s relatives was never received by the Czerniks. This might explain why she never received an honest answer to her persistent queries.
She and her husband, David, immigrated to the United States where, with the help of her uncle, they eventually operated a jewelry business in New York City. They had one child, a daughter, Fay. Every year on November 11th, in her apartment in New York City, Cyla always lit lamps for him and cried.
In post-war Poland, Bieleki began teaching at a school for auto mechanics and married a year-and-a-half after the war. Some of his relatives eventually told him that Cyla had died in a hospital in Stockholm, just prior to her leaving for America. One can only assume they were anti-semitic and believed Catholics should not marry Jews. “I was very much in love with Cyla, very much,” he later said. “Sometimes I cried after the war, that she was not with me. I dreamed of her at night and woke up crying.”
Meanwhile, Bieleki and his wife had two daughters and a son. After he graduated from Cracow University of Technology, he became director of the Mechanical School Complex in Nowy Targ.
David Zacharowitz died in 1975.
In 1983, when Cyla Zacharowitz was a widow in New York, one day she invited her Polish cleaning lady to stay for a coffee. As they had both grown up in Poland, and it was pleasing to slip into Polish again. She soon found herself telling the cleaning lady her story, her love story, a story that quite possibly even her late husband had never heard. She soon found herself getting carried away, recalling how she had met Jerzy, how they had escaped, how they had been separated by the war.
Her listener was stunned. “I know the story,” she finally said. “I don’t think he’s dead.”
Cyla was stunned.
“I saw a man telling this story on Polish TV. I heard him describing how he had led his Jewish girlfriend out of Auschwitz.”
The cleaning lady was fairly certain she could remember his name. Jerzy. And he was the headmaster of some school. Overcome with both shock and excitement, Cyla immediately commenced her detective work, tracking down the television program, confirming that it really was her beloved Jerzy Bieleki, then learning he still living in Nowy Targ. She looked it up in an old-fashioned atlas she had. There it was. Nowy Tag. A town only 85 kilometres from Auschwitz.
She found his telephone number. It was around dawn in Poland.
“Jurek, it’s me, you’re little Cyla!”
As soon as he heard her voice, he knew it could only be true.
This was the first of several extended phone conversations. After a few months, Cyla had bought herself a plane ticket to Europe. She arrived at the Kraków Airport in May of 1983 and received the 39 roses. It’s not known if Bielecki took her home to visit his wife or not. It is known they visited the farm family that had sheltered her. They visited Auschwitz. They stayed together in hotels.
“The love started to come back,” he said.
Cyla tried to persuade him to leave his wife and children in Poland and come back to America with her to live. Bieleki told Cyla that he could not go with her to America and leave his wife and children. “She cried a lot when I told her, ‘Look, I have such fine children, I have a son. How could I do that?’”
Accounts vary. Some reports suggest she left Poland in huff, after only one visit, vowing never return, feeling rebuffed. Stanlee Stahl, vice-president of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, disagrees. “He and Cyla saw each other about another 15 times. They were good friends for life.”
The Jewish Foundation assists non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews. Stahl knew Jerzy Bieleki because in 1985 the heroic mechanic was accorded the distinction of Righteous Among the Nations, the award accorded by Yad Vashem to righteous gentiles who had saved a Jewish life. Bieleki, who had founded the Christian Association of Auschwitz Families, was made an Honorary Citizen of the State of Israel.
When Cyla Zacharowitz died on February 5, 2005 in Fort Lauderdale. Soon afterward, Cyla and David Zacharowitz’ only child, Fay Roseman of Coral Springs, Florida, went to visit Bielecki in Poland after her mother’s death. “I felt closer to my mother,” she told the Sun-Sentinel. “He said that he felt that my mother was watching us, which I believe. And I hope to go back.” She also told Madeline Baró Diaz of the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Coral Gables that she felt less kindly towards her mother. “I want to be able to talk to her and say, ‘Wait, why didn’t you tell me all of these things? Why didn’t she share that? Why didn’t I know?’” Roseman described Bieleki as “a gentle soul” and her mother’s “saviour.”
In 2011, a German feature film was released, Remembrance, directed Anna Justice. It takes liberties to fictionalize the story for greater impact. Cyla becomes Hannah, pregnant in Auschwitz. Jerzy is Tomasz, a member of the Polish resistance who takes photos inside the concentration camp. He doesn’t know she is pregnant. Tomasz dresses in an SS uniform and demands Hannah must follow him to the gate. An SS guard at the gate wants to rape her… Tomasz’ mother hates her; Hannah miscarries as Tomasz must take his Auschwitz photos to Warsaw. The mother tries to hand over Hannah to the Nazis. She trudges off into the winter snow but is saved by a passing Red Cross van…Tomasz’s mother eventually tells her son that Hannah has died. After an impasse, the couple re-connects in 1976 (instead of 1983, so they can be a little bit younger). By this time, Tomasz is divorced…A happy ending is imminent.
Jerzy died in 2011, at age 90, so he likely never saw the film adaptation. As his health was failing, his daughter Alicia Januchowski, herself a New Yorker, returned to Nowy Targ to be at his bedside. She assured the Associated Press that he had died peacefully. “He did not think he was a hero,” said Stanlee Stahl, “but he was. He will be missed.”
Jerzy Bieleki had made his own peace with his tragic love affair. “It’s fate that decided things this way,” he once said. “But if I could do it again, I would not change anything.”
Here is an interview with Jerzy Bieleki in Polish from 1998.
Next: MALKA’S ESCAPE