Oldest Righteous who saved over 50 Jews from the Holocaust dies aged 103
The world’s oldest recipient of the Righteous Among the Nations award for his actions in helping to save lives of 56 Jews, one of them a girl he fell in love with, has died in Warsaw at the age of 103.
Born in Częstochowa in 1919, but brought up in Warsaw, at the outbreak of war in 1939, Jόzef Walaszczyk was mobilised and directed to Brest-Litovsk.
But after an unsuccessful attempt to cross into Romania, he took up residence at his cousin’s estate in Rylsk and commuted to Warsaw by car for a year in a car loaned from a German (Poles were not allowed to own cars).
It was during one of these commutes that he stopped at a guest house, where at dinner, he became enamoured by a Jewish girl, Irena Front. The pair began to meet, but Font did not reveal her Jewish identity until the Gestapo unexpectedly turned up at the guest house when the pair were together.
Thinking on his feet, Walaszczyk locked Irena in a room and went out to face the Gestapo officers. Handing over his papers he then feigned stomach troubles and locked himself in a toilet.
In the meantime, the Gestapo asked the owner of the guest house to open Walaszczyk’s room, but she said she couldn’t because it was the room of the ‘sick man’.
After checking his papers once more, the Gestapo eventually left without checking Walaszczyk’s room where Front had been hiding.
After the close shave, Walaszczyk evacuated Font to his studio flat in Warsaw and left her to organise false non-Jewish identity papers. One of the conditions was that they needed to pretend they were married, which Walszczyk agreed to, despite the risk of death should he be found out.
Shortly after, Front was discovered and arrested by the Germans. Informed about her capture by a friend in the Polish Home Army, Walaszczyk set off to Warsaw to rescue her and found that she had been imprisoned alongside 20 other Jews.
Negotiating for the entire group’s release, Walaszczyk was told by the Gestapo that they would allow them to go free if he could bring a kilogram of gold in a few hours, because in the afternoon, they would have to inform their leadership about the group’s capture.
Miraculously managing to get the right quantity of gold, Walaszczyk was able to get the group released and took Front and two of her girlfriends to a newly bought flat on Warsaw’s Emilii Plater street where they stayed until the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising.
When the Uprising ended, they reunited with Walaszczyk and travelled with him to his family’s estate in Rylsk.
Walaszczyk not only helped to save the lives of Front and her friends, but also Jews unknown to him. Several times, he entered the territory of the Warsaw Ghetto and reported back to the Polish Home Army about the situation and conditions of those living there.
In 1941, he also helped to negotiate the employment of 30 Jews at a factory owned by his family in Rylsk, after a merchant known to him before the war approached him for help to save a group of Jews. Thanks to their employment at the factory, they managed to survive the Holocaust.
Though Walaszczyk and Front separated after the war, they remained on good terms and it was thanks to her that in 2002, Walaszczyk was recognised as Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Institute in Israel who awards the title to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust.
A modest hero, who shied away from being celebrated for his actions, in an interview with Polskie Radio 24 in 2019, on the occasion of his 100th birthday, Walaszczyk said: “I was brought up that way, that it was my duty. I rescued, whenever I could…What the Germans did elicited opposition.
“You had to be sensitive to pain, suffering and be able to empathise. I can say that I am happy with my life. I fulfilled my human task and I have a sense of inner peace.”