Incredible true story of WWII teenager who risked everything to save the lives of 13 Jews retold in ‘harrowing’ new novel
The extraordinary story of a young Polish girl who saved 13 Jews from the Germans during the Holocaust, including her future husband, is the subject of a new novel.
The Light in Hidden Places, by American novelist Sharon Cameron, tells the true story of Holocaust heroine Stefania Podgórska.
As a child in occupied-Poland, she not only had to fend for herself and her younger sister Helena, but also agreed to hide a group of Jews, saving them from certain death in the town of Przemyśl, now in eastern Poland.
The highly praised book is the latest retelling of one of the most extraordinary stories of Poles saving Jews during the Holocaust.
What makes Stefania’s story so incredible is that she and her sister were totally alone without money or help when the war started.
Yet, she found the bravery and resourcefulness to defy the German’s policy of annihilation of the Jews, all the time facing the threat of execution and exposing her younger sister to the same fate.
Known as Fusia to her friends, she brazenly marched Jewish children out of the Przemyśl ghetto under the noses of the Germans, organised food and accommodation for fifteen people, and cheated death on several occasions by outwitting the Germans.
She went on to marry one of the boys, Maks, with whom she spent the rest of her life.
Her heroic efforts were recognised in 1979 when she and her sister were awarded the medal Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Institute.
When the Germans and Soviets invaded Poland in 1939, Stefania was just 14 years old and working in a grocery store owned by the Diamants, a Jewish family.
Her father had died in 1938 after an illness. Soon after the Germans occupied the town, they took her mother and brother to Germany for forced labour.
At the outbreak of the war, Stefania and her sister found shelter with the Diamant family. When less than two weeks later the Soviet army entered the right bank of Przemyśl, the Diamants reopened their grocery store.
However, on 22 June 1941, the German army attacked the Soviet Union. After a few days of fighting the whole of Przemyśl was again in German hands.
Stefania and her sister were now completely alone. To support them both, Stefania took a job as a lathe operator in a factory.
Regardless of the danger, she stayed in contact with the Diamant family.
She provided them with food, which was extremely difficult at the time. Most of the food was rationed and the food on the black market was very expensive. Stefania had to support herself and her sister too.
More than 22,000 people were crowded into the ghetto. Every day, there was news of people being shot or hanged.
In 1942, transports had started to Bełżec and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
One night at home, Stephania heard a knock on the door. “It’s me, Maks Diamant. Fusia, please let me in,” she recalled years later.
His clothes were torn and his face was scratched. He told her that he had been put on a transport out of the ghetto and that by some miracle he had managed to jump out of the wagon carrying thousands of Jews to the Bełżec death camp.
Stefania and her sister were terrified, but she let Maks hide in the attic. She remembered what her mother had told her: ‘We are all children of the same God”.
He contacted his family in the ghetto, and asked Stefania to let them hide as well. In total, thirteen Jews found shelter with Stefania and her sister.
Stefania led some of the children directly out of the ghetto under the noses of the Germans to get them to safety.
Although she was a child, she knew what the Germans were doing to those who were hiding Jews. In September 1943, the Germans carried out a show trial and execution of Michał Kruk for helping Jews in the Przemyśl ghetto.
In order to accommodate the fugitives, Stefania rented a small house in the centre of the town with two rooms, a kitchen and an attic.
To make the hiding place in the attic, Stefania needed lots of wood and bricks. Helena, who was nine at the time, brought the bricks four of five at a time.
During the occupation, it was hard enough to get enough food for oneself. It was almost impossible to get food for fifteen people.
Stefania knitted sweaters and used the money from their sale to buy food. She visited different shops at different times of the day to avoid arousing the suspicion.
Life in the attic for the group of thirteen was a mixture of boredom and fear. One of the group Janek Zimmermann also wrote about everyday life in hiding: “We didn't talk to each other at all in the attic. The tin roof was hot during the day and it was cold at night.
“During the day, we stayed in a hiding place or went downstairs. Any attempt to go outside could end in denunciation.
“From time to time, they would go out into the garden in the evenings to get some air and stretch our sore limbs a little.”
A moment of terror came when two German soldiers appeared and gave her two hours to vacate the whole building.
Stefania in a panic started looking for any kind of accommodation. But the town was half in ruins and it was impossible to find a house to hide thirteen people in.
She recalled their despair – “Max urged me: Run away! Don't die with us. There's nothing more you can do for us. Save yourself and Helena. Go away!”
Looking at the children hugging each other in fear, Stefania could not leave her charges.
All fifteen people gathered together and, in spite of their religious beliefs, prayed to the same God.
After a while the German soldiers returned and told Stefania that she was lucky because they didn't need the whole house, but only one room.
Danger, however, was still ever present. Soon after, two German nurses moved in, increasing dramatically the chances of discovery.
One day the nurses brought home armed soldiers. One of them suddenly wanted to enter the attic. Fortunately at the last moment he gave up.
At the end of June 1944, the front was approaching Przemyśl. The Germans decided to evacuate the hospital in the town.
Before leaving Przemyśl, the nurses offered Stefania the chance to leave with them, as the Soviet army was approaching the city.
She agreed in order not to arouse suspicion, but at the last moment, just before they left, she told the nurses that she wasn’t going.
The Germans eventually left the town in July 1944. After a year in hiding the group of Jews could come down from the attic for the first time in over a year.
They were free thanks to the courage, faith and determination of Stefania and Helena.
A year later, Maks, who later changed his name to Józef Burzmiński, proposed to Stefania and they married.
In 1957, Stefania and her husband emigrated to Israel, where Józef worked as a dentist in Tel Aviv. Three years later, they emigrated to the United States. Stefania died in Los Angeles in 2018.
Her younger sister Helena also left, but she returned to Poland and completed her medical studies in Wrocław.
In 1979, both sisters were awarded the medal Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Institute.