A conversation with Józef Walaszczyk, one of the Righteous Among the Nations who met with Pope Francis at Auschwitz
Józef Walaszczyk, born in 1919, called the second Schindler. During the Second World War he saved the lives of 53 Jews and in recognition of this was in 2002 awarded with the title of the Righteous Among the Nations. This interview was conducted in anticipation of Walaszczyk’s (and other Righteous) meeting Pope Francis during his sojourn to Auschwitz.
Why did you put your life on the line saving other people’s lives?
This was something I grew up with and my personal attitude. We were the first generation born after the First World War, we were patriots and Christians. When Hitler invaded Poland, we naturally put up resistance. This was also a matter of national solidarity – Jews were different from us, Poles, but they were one of us.
In a way you saved Irena Front because of her beauty.
I met a marvelous girls and we became friends. I learned that she was Jewish only when the Gestapo appeared suddenly in the hotel we were staying at. Then Irena told me that her name was not Bartczak but Front and that she was Jewish.
What was your first reaction?
On the one hand I was angry that she had not bothered to tell me about it earlier. On the other hand I never panic but try to come up with a way out of a toughest bind.
You quickly hid Irena behind a wardrobe and pretended to the Gestapo officers that you have a stomach upset.
I do not want to brag too much, but I had nerves of steel. After all, I was arrested a few times and had to run for my life.
You were nearly executed, too.
At a station in Nowe Miasto the Germans surrounded the train I was on, transporting documents for the clandestine Home Army (AK). The Germans started to search the passengers. Fortunately, my comrades in arms from the Home Army were watchful and my luggage miraculously disappeared somehow.
A passenger without luggage seemed suspicious for the Germans.
They started to interrogate me, beating and kicking. They had me jump and one soldier was shooting a round of ammunition under my legs and the other one shot above my head. Then they resolved to execute me.
I was standing in front of a firing squad and the only two words I was waiting for were the words: … drei, Feuer! I closed my eyes not to see the fire of the rifle and at this moment I heard: Halt! I could not believe I was alive.
It turned out this was a case of “out of the frying pan and into the fire.”
True. Commandant Hoffman said that this would be too lenient punishment for me. He said: “I will take you to the police precinct and there we can talk.” I wished he had shot me down as I was not sure if I would survive the interrogation.
There Germans arrested as many as 300 people. They arranged us in a couple of rows and had us go to a military police station. When we were on our way, a motorcycle drove up to Hoffman and a military policeman handed him an envelope. This was a letter from the Gestapo that I was to be released with immediate effect as I was “instrumental for the operation of the factory.”
This was a factory of potato flour you were the manager of.
Right, I was saved by a German who knew me, Mr. Albrecht. If the Nazis had shot me down, the document would have been received by a dead man.
You employed some 200 staff in your factory, including 30 Jews.
When the Germans were to close down the ghetto in Rawa Mazowiecka, my Jewish friend Mr. Wengrow came to me and asked me to employ a 40-strong group of Jewish young people, including his children. I wanted to help him as he had done me a favor before.