The chance finding of a WWII German labour camp document issued to one of its Jewish slave workers has revealed the astonishing story of how four separate groups of Holocaust rescuers helped a family of Polish Jews during the war and allowed three of them avoid annihilation.
The document that was the first piece in the jigsaw that led to the discovery of the family’s wartime trails was discovered twenty five years ago in an old piece of furniture that was sent to be refurbished by a carpenter in his workshop in Łańcut in the Podkarpackie region.
Not realising its importance, he put it away and forgot about it. Now retired, the carpenter came across it again when he was sorting through old papers during the summer and decided to hand it over to the nearby Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II in Markowa.
The yellowing paper is a demand for payment of 15 Reichsmark as a subscription to the Jewish Council in the German labour camp in Będzin issued to Hersz Telner in 1940.
With just these few details, Kamil Kopera, who is a research and documentation specialist at the museum, started to search all the databases and lists from the era.
The first astonishing discovery was to find not just Hersz but also his wife Frajdla and his daughters Sura and Rywka on the famous Ładoś list.
The list contains the names of Jews who received help from the Ładoś Group, a circle of Polish diplomats in Switzerland, headed by Aleksander Ładoś, which arranged thousands of Latin-American passports to save Jews from the Holocaust.
Although all four members of the family had been granted Paraguayan passports, they did not receive them as Germany’s plans for the Jews swept the family away in different directions.
Kopera’s further research managed to establish that the younger daughter Rywka, born in 1938, was not just still alive but currently lives in Gdańsk and now uses the name Renata.
Over the telephone, she told Kopera that she has very foggy memories of the episode. “My father was trying to arrange some papers, but they never reached us,” she told him.
Through talking to Renata, Kopera discovered details of the next stage of help the Telner family received.
While still in Będzin, Hersz was a successful businessman who had warehouses and interests in the textile trade. When Jews began to have their businesses taken away from them by the Germans, many tried to protect their property from being robbed by using pre-war acquaintances.
Telner handed over his company to a German manager, Alfred Rossner, who then employed the family in one of his workshops.
Jews employed in Rossner’s workshops were entitled to a special pass, or Sonderausweis. The Rossner pass was a much-coveted possession, as it provided a measure of insurance against deportation.
The workshop where the Telner’s worked was mainly involved in sewing and repairing military uniforms and was ‘essential for the war economy’.
Each worker with such a pass was allowed to protect two members of their family. The problem Hersz faced was that he had three people he needed to protect.
Rossner was not the typical profiteering German industrialist exploiting Jewish labour. He stood out from other Germans by virtue of the kindness and humane treatment that he exhibited toward the Jews under his command.
“He contributed to saving many people and postponing their deportation to death camps, for which he was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations,” Koper said. Rossner was given the title Righteous Among the Nations in 1995.
Perhaps aware that the Germans were planning to deport all the Jews from the Będzin ghetto to Auschwitz, he advised Hersz that he should place his younger daughter Rywka with a non-Jewish family.
Telner used his extensive contacts and managed to find Hildegarda and Józef Gawlik from Piekary Śląskie.
In August 1943, a few days before the liquidation of the Jewish community in Będzin, Hersz informed Gawlik of his plight and asked him for help. After conferring with his wife Hildegarda, Józef agreed, despite the danger, to look after Rywka without asking for anything in return.
Rywka was smuggled out of the ghetto, and taken to the Gawliks, who passed her off as a relative. They looked after her well and saw to all her needs. Even when the region was liberated in January 1945, Rywka stayed with the Gawliks for about half a year, until her mother came to reclaim her.
According to information on Israel’s Yad Vashem website, after the war, Rywka stayed in Poland, where she married, becoming Renata Kołodziejska, and remained friendly with the Gawliks’ daughter.
In 1996, Yad Vashem recognized Hildegarda and Józef Gawlik as Righteous Among the Nations.
While most the Jews from the Będzin ghetto were exterminated upon arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Hersz, his wife Frajdla and daughter Sura all avoided this fate.
Kopera found out where Hersz ended up by looking in the Arolsen archive, which contains records of victims of the Holocaust.
“Among the 20 million records, we came across information that he was sent to one of the Dachau sub-camps,” he said.
Another search, this time in the archives of Yad Vashem, showed that he died of typhus in 1945 just days before the end of the war. His elder daughter Sura remained a prisoner in Auschwitz-Birkenau until the end of the war according to her sister Rywka.
Frajdla meanwhile was rescued from Ravensbrück by the famous White Buses of Count Folke Bernadotte.
The White Buses was an operation undertaken by the Swedish Red Cross in the spring of 1945 to rescue concentration camp inmates in areas under German control and transport them to Sweden, a neutral country.
Folke Bernadotte, Count of Wisborg, a Swedish nobleman and diplomat who was then vice-president of the Swedish Red Cross, negotiated the release of about 31,000 prisoners from German concentration camps.
Bernadotte was assassinated by Jewish militants from the Stern Gang as they believed he posed a threat to the emergence of the State of Israel due to his UN peace role.
He has not been acclaimed as Righteous Among the Nations as the awarding council in Israel claim that by negotiating with the Germans he did not fulfil one of the criteria for the title, which is that someone so honoured should have risked their own life to save Jews.
At the end of the war, Frajdla travelled back to Będzin and found her two daughters. They lived together until 1968, when Frajdla and Sura left Poland to live in Sweden.
Rywka remained and still lives in Gdańsk. Alongside former Polish foreign minister Adam Rotfeld, she is the only known living person in Poland from the Ładoś list.
Historian Kopera told TFN: “Many Jewish families received help from others during the war, but to receive help from four separate groups at different times is incredible.”