Monday, April 9, 2007

STEFANIA PODGORSKA, age 17

STEFANIA: At the time we come to the quote below, for about 16 months 17 year old Stefania and her 7 year old sister Helena have, starting with just 1, found and provided housing that so far has saved the life of 13 Jews in Poland during the height of Nazi power and control. They have fed, clothed, cleaned, carried waste, protected, hidden, for all that time. Stefania had also discouraged a young suitor she dearly loved for fear a relationship would endanger her 13 Jews.

"In the concluding months of the war, as the Russians advanced from the east inflicting heavy casualties on the German side, an empty building across the street from Sefania's cottage (where they all 15 lived) was converted into a field hospital. The formerly deserted street was suddenly swarming with Nazi soldiers, ambulances, wounded, doctors and nurses. Many of the hospital personnel lived on the grounds - which had been a college campus - and Stefania realized that her situation was now much more precarious.

"One afternoon, two SS soldiers knocked on her door. "You have been ordered to vacate the premises within two hours." They read to her from an official-looking sheet of paper. "This residence has been commandeered by the Third Reich. The penalty for noncompliance is death."

"Two hours! How will I find a place for my sister and me (and 13 hidden Jews) in just two hours?" she cried, but they merely repeated the orders and left.

"For the next hour and a half Stefania ran through every street in town - but she could find nothing that would shelter all fifteen of them. After three years of looting and deprivation, the buildings were in worse shape than ever. There were doorways but no doors; houses without ceilings; rooms filled with the rubble of loose masonry and roofing material.

[In a 1990's interview Stefania recalls] "Just ruins, nothing more. Almost two hours had gone already. So I came home. I started to cry. I said, "How can I leave thirteen people to certain death? I can run out, but these people will be dead. … There was nothing available, nothing. Only twenty minutes left. I came home. I said nothing. All my thirteen came down to me, with the three children. The pressed against me, so tightly, they looked at me. My decision. Will I leave? My decision. Will I leave them or not?

"All thirteen of them said to me, "Run away. You don't have to die with us. We have to, but you don't have to die with us. You cannot help us anymore. Save your life and your little sister and run away, because you still have 10 minutes." Joseph pushed me. They said, "Run away. Don't die with us. You cannot help us anymore. What you could do you did, but not now. Save your life and Helena. Go. Run away."

"And all these people watched me, the children pressed so close I could hear their breathing, my sister too. So I really, I didn't know what to do. I said to them, "Well, first of all, come on. We will pray. We will ask God." You see, I had a picture which I bought as a little girl, of Jesus and his mother, and it always hung on my wall. And I said, "Come on - we will pray. We will ask God."

"First I knelt, then my sister and all the thirteen after, behind me. And I prayed, and I turned to look. All thirteen were in deep, deep prayer. And I asked God not to let us be killed. Help, somehow. I cannot leave this apartment. I cannot leave thirteen people for certain death. I will be alive if I go, but thirteen lives will be finished - children too, and young people. I asked God, "Help, somehow."

"And again I heard a voice, a woman's voice. It was so beautiful, so nice, so quiet. She said to me, "Don't worry. Everything will be all right. You will not leave your apartment. You will stay here, and they will take only one room. Everything will be all right. I am with you." And she told me, "Be quiet. I'll tell you what to do." She said, "Send your people to the bunker. Open the door. Open the windows. Clean your apartment and sing."

"I was like hypnotized. My head was bent down, and I was listening, I was listening and the voice said again, "Everything will be all right." Then it disappeared. I listened a few minutes more, but nothing more came.

"So I got up and said to my people, "Go the attic," exactly like the lady told me. I said, "I will not move from my apartment. I will stay here, so go to the attic and be quiet, very quiet."

"And you see, I was completely different. My people looked at me, all my thirteen, and they thought something was wrong with my mind. But I said, "Okay now, go out, go to the bunker. Everything will be all right if you stay quiet over there."

"And I opened the window and the doors, and I cleaned. I started to sing. I don't know how I became so happy. And all the neighbors came, and they said, "Miss Podgorska, what happened? Why haven't you moved? The Gestapo, the SS will come. They will kill you. This is war, this is the military. They have no mercy for the enemy - and they are our enemy. Go out. We don't want to see you killed. You're too nice, too young to be dead."

"I said, "I have no place to go." They said, "Don't you have a friend? Go stay with her." I said, "No, I will not leave my apartment." And they also thought something was wrong with me.

"The janitor's husband came, and he said, "Miss Padgorska, I will throw you out. Go out, I don't want to see you be killed - I have no place to bury you." And he was serious. … I said, "No, I am sorry, I will not move from my apartment." And he said, "Something is wrong with you," but he left.

"I kept singing and cleaning my apartment, and exactly ten minutes past the two hours an SS man came. He was so friendly. He was laughing to me from a few yards away. He came closer to the window and he said - he spoke a little Polish, very broken but he spoke - and he said it was good that I hadn't moved from my apartment because they would take only one room. This last room, they would take. He said, "Very well, you can stay."

"THIRTEEN JEWISH PEOPLE HAD BEEN SAVED ONCE AGAIN BY STEFANIA'S INNER VOICE."

"…Thirteen people, and their children and grandchildren, are alive today because a teenager ignored the fact that she would be killed for harboring Jews; thirteen men, women and children are alive today because a teenager believed in miracles."

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