Descendant of Holocaust survivors tracks down saviors in Poland after Righteous Among Nations nomination
A Polish couple who saved a Jewish family from the Holocaust by sheltering them for 22 months in a farmhouse as well as a Catholic priest who saved the rescuers from being denounced have received the title Righteous among the Nations from Yad Vashem.
The title is set to be conferred on Rozalia and Michał Kopacz and Father Zygmunt Dziedziak, who rescued the Nadel family during the Holocaust.
The nomination was made by Tully Nadel, who was just eight years old when after escaping with his parents and sister from a German labour camp in Trzcieniec, now in Ukraine, just before all the inmates were to be deported to Bełżec for extermination, he turned up at the door of the Kopacz family.
News of the award was revealed to TFN by Jeffrey Cymbler, Tully’s nephew and the son of Tully’s sister Sala, who was sheltered with him by the Kopacz family.
Mr Cymbler, an activist-descendent from New York, is a keen researcher of his family’s history in Poland and is also involved in projects to restore and maintain Jewish cemeteries in Poland.
“The Kopacz's were not just righteous, they were angels," Mr Cymbler said.
When World War II began, Tully lived with his parents and sister in Kruhel Pełkińskie, just outside of Jarosław in the Podkarpackie region.
The town was close to the Soviet-occupied part of Poland, so the family decided to cross the border between the German and Soviet zones to the Soviet side.
When they got across the river, they went to live with Tully’s grandfather in the village of Trzcieniec, not far from what is now the Medyka border crossing.
They were relatively safe until the Germans captured the area on June 25, 1941, and the family was sent to a German labour camp that had been set up on the grounds of a manor house in Trzcieniec.
Tully’s father worked as a blacksmith and often illegally made horseshoes for local Poles.
“He would throw them over the fence into the bushes and the Poles would leave food in the bushes for the family,” Mr Cymbler said.
One evening in autumn 1942, the wife of a local Volksdeutsch who Tully’s father was friendly with came to the edge of the camp and sang a song the lyrics of which were “jutro zabierają lala” [tomorrow they are taking away the dolls.]
It was a clear warning that the Germans were planning to liquidate the camp and send the Jews to be exterminated in Bełżec.
That night, Tully’s father gave the camp guard some alcohol which he had received from Poles in exchange for horseshoes.
The guard passed out and went sound to sleep. Tully’s father broke open the lock on the barbed wire fence door and everyone in the camp escaped.
Tully’s memory of what happened next is murky. “I do not recall the exact date that this happened. I believe that it was sometime in October 1942.
“I recall that it was cold, and we wore several layers of clothing. We ran into the woods. The trees were tall white birch trees, and the leaves were already falling off,” he wrote in his testimony to Yad Vashem.
Eventually, they made their way to the farmhouse of Rozalia (Różka) and Michał Kopacz in the neighbouring village of Łacka Wola (today, Volytsya in Ukraine).”
The families were close. “My mother and Różka were childhood school friends. Różka came from a very poor home. Quite often, my mother would give Różka half of her own lunch sandwich. Before the war, Michał worked for a long time for my grandfather. Michał even learned Yiddish from my grandfather,” Tully wrote.
In the farmhouse, there was a small storage room where the family would hide for 22 months. They also sometimes hid in the Kopacz’s attic where there was a bit more room to stretch out.
Though German soldiers visited the farm regularly to take food and alcohol, dangers lurked inside the home.
Rozalia’s mother was fervently opposed to having Jews sheltering under her roof. When another Jewish couple came seeking shelter it was too much for her and she threatened to tell the Germans, thereby threatening not just the Jews but her own family as well.
Mr Cymbler said: “My family knew Father Dziedziak from before the war and my grandmother was sure that he would help so she asked Różka to take her mother to see him.”
In confession, she told Father Dziedziak that she had sinned because Jews were sheltering in her home.
"When Father Dziedziak found out who was being sheltered, he told Różka’s mother that if she saved my family, she would be guaranteed a place in Heaven. Różka’s mother was an extremely religious woman and therefore kept the secret," Mr Cymbler said.
Tully is in no doubt about how much Father Dziedziak risked and how important he was in saving his family.
“If Father Dziedziak did not tell Różka’s mother to save us, we would have been betrayed by her. If the Germans had found out that Father Dziedziak knew that we were hiding in the Kopacz home and if the Germans found out that Father Dziedziak encouraged Różka’s mother-in-law to save us, the Germans would certainly have killed him. This priest risked his life for us.”
More dangers existed inside the home. The Kopacz’s had four sons. One of the sons, Wojciech, was still not able to speak even when he was three and a half years old.
Sometime in 1944, he began to speak and one day Tully’s mother overheard Wojciech tell a visitor that there were dolls in the house.
“My mother told Różka about the incident. They became scared that Wojciech might accidentally reveal our presence in the house to someone. To keep Wojciech from saying anything about us, Różka took Wojciech to the barn. She took a chicken and an axe and chopped off its head in front of her young son. She then threatened Wojciech that if he would tell anybody about us, his head would likewise be chopped off,” Tully wrote.
Mt Cymbler is keen to stress that the Kopacz family did not take any payment for looking after his ancestors.
“They were very poor, but they did everything they could to care for them”
The Kopacz’s cooked meals for them, provided water from a water well, made tea from leaves and washed their clothes.
“Since we could not go outside, we had a pail in the room for human waste. The Kopacz’s took the pail on a regular basis at night and emptied the contents in an area outside the house where they put the cow manure so as not to draw any suspicions from anyone,” Tully described.
“Mostly what we survived on was potato soup. At Christmas time, I remember we ate some bread. The Kopacz family was very poor. Nevertheless, they provided us with shelter in their home until the day of liberation.”
That liberation came at the end of July 1944 when the Red Army approached.
After the war, Tully and his family emigrated to the United States; however, they remained in touch with the Kopacz family.
Mr Cymbler said: “My uncle bought vouchers for coal so that the Kopacz family could take the coal and sell it. That's how he helped them financially. Another thing, the family could not accept new clothes, because they would have to pay customs duty on such gifts, so my grandmother sent fabric instead.”
Yad Vashem said in its letter to Mr Cymbler that it would not be possible to hold a ceremony to hand over the award as no relatives of the Kopacz family could be traced.
However, in the meantime, Mr Cymbler has made contact with the Kopacz’s son Wojciech, who now lives Kędzierzyn-Koźle, as well as with one of the Kopacz’s grandchildren, Bogusław, who lives in Przemyśł.
Mr Cymbler visited Wojciech in Kędzierzyn-Koźle, where he presented him with two dolls in reference to the story from when Wojciech was 4 years old.
He has also just come back from a trip to Trzcieniec and Lacka Wola with Bogusław, where he discovered more details about Father Dziedziak’s life, including the time he saved over a hundred Poles in Lacka Wola from being shot by the Germans in 1939.
Mr Cymbler is tracing the family of Father Dziedziak and hopes that Yad Vashem will allow his award to be given to the church in Nozdrzec, Podkarpackie, which was his last parish.
While Yad Vashem has honoured 7,177 Poles for rescuing Jews during the Holocaust, Mr Cymbler believes the real figure is much higher, but it will never be known.
He said: “How many Poles gave a bed for a night or offered some food? Probably hundreds of thousands, but they will never be known.”
Thanks to the Kopacz family and Father Dziedziak, by saving seven Jews, today there are 33 living descendants of Tully’s parents.