The Last Jew of Mielec – The Story of Edzia Rosenblatt

The Last Jew of Mielec – The Story of Edzia Rosenblatt

Author: Włodzimierz (Włodek) Gąsiewski

First published in Polish in 2021. All rights reserved. Re-printed here in English with permission by the author.

Edward Rosenblatt at the ceremony of unveiling the matzevah dedicated to his father Abraham, photo by Vincent Rosenblatt. From the right, the same matzeva, as of 2020 photo by W. Gąsiewski

Preface

Some stories of Poles saving Jews are sometimes known only in narrow family or neighborhood circles of local communities. With time, however, the memory of them fades and only sometimes by accident it comes back, and then it becomes forgotten again. This is what I learned about this story during my routine journalistic work at the Czermin Commune Office around 2015, when at the local parish cemetery on the grave of one of the inhabitants of this commune, a Jew he saved funded and placed a marble plaque thanking him for saving. Jan Ziobroń from Radomyśl Wielki, a researcher and documentalist of the history of the Jews of Radomyśl and their ordeal, wrote earlier about this history. In turn, in the Christmas Magazine of “Gazeta Wyborcza” on December 24, 2018, a comprehensive article by Monika Góra entitled “Edouard Rosenblatt returns to Dulcza Mała. I was born in a stable like Jesus”. In addition, in the archives of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, there is a manuscript of the Polish translation of the memoirs of Chaja Rosenblatt née Garn, now Heli Lewi, which previously appeared in the American Jewish newspaper “Tog”. The translation was written in Paris on October 12, 1986. The historical material is therefore exceptionally extensive and multi-layered. We will mainly deal with the story of saving a small Jewish child. It is quite possible, however, that readers will also add new and completely unknown information to it.

Extermination of Jews in ‘Groys-Radomishle’

Chaja Gern – later known as Hela Levi – was the youngest daughter of Chaim Leib Gern, who like his father was a merchant of cotton goods in Radomyśl Wielki in the district of Mielec, where they had a tenement house and a fabric shop. Chaja (Hela) went to school there and, as she recalls, she was the best in the class, in addition to Jewish she also had Polish friends. At the outbreak of the war, Chaja was 18 years old. When the Germans occupied Radomyśl Wielki in early September 1939, the persecution of Jews began immediately. It was then decided to marry off Hela so that she could take care of herself, and a handsome chemist engineer from a cosmetics factory in nearby Tarnów – Abraham Rosenblatt – was chosen as as a husband. Their religious wedding took place soon after at their home. This is how they survived two occupation years until July 19, 1942, when the Germans began deporting Jews from Radomyśl, and about 700 of them were shot in the city cemetery.

Two days earlier, Chaja, her husband and parents hid in the attic of Thomas Szczurek’s house in nearby Dulcza Wielki. A week earlier, they entrusted him with their goods, including trivial goods, which they managed to hide from the store. Meanwhile, in the Radomyśl cemetery there was the execution of about 700 Jews from Radomyśl, witnessed by Stanisława Pielachowa, wife of the police chief in Radomyśl Wielki. Apparently, when her child fainted at the sight of the crime, the commander encouraged them to watch this “wonderful” view. This is how the Jewish woman Berta Lichtig testified after the war. Two years later, the same Pielachowa became the godmother of a Jewish boy who is the hero of our story. However, they did not stay in the Szczurek family for a long time, as on the same July 19, the terrified housewife, fearing for the life of her family, ordered them to leave the house. They stayed there only until the evening, and then for one night they had to reach Dąbrowa Tarnowska, 40 kilometers away, by side roads. It was all the more difficult because Chaja’s 65-year-old father had a double hernia, he fainted on the way and the young had to carry him on his hands clasped like a chair. When they got there, they were found by a German manhunt engaged in killing and deporting Jews from Dąbrowa Górnicza. Chaja managed to call a friend of a clerk in Mielec from the mayor of Dąbrowa’s shop, to put his family there in the “Baum and Losch” labor camp. Everything was agreed and on the second day a pickup truck would arrive for them, but the mayor warned that the Jews of Dąbrowa would be deported the next day.

In the Tarnów ghetto with good and bad peasants

A group of Jews at the ceremony of unveiling the Holocaust monument in Radomyśl Wielki on 23 August 1987. From the left: Abraham Ladner from Tarnów, Samuel Roth from Dąbrowa Tarnowska, Szymon Ejbowicz from Israel, Isaac Baruch from Israel, Dr. Edward Rosenblatt from Paris, Rafael Aloni Eisig from Israel, Israel Goldberg from Dębica, Joseph Mechlowicz from Gdańsk, Isaac Chaja from Israel, Barbara Klein (sisters) from Israel and Isaac Leibowitz from Israel (photo archive).

Therefore, on the evening of the same day, a Polish guide took them to the ghetto in Tarnów, where the family of Abraham’s husband was already there. There, a young married woman sewed uniforms for the SS, and her husband was unloading cement from wagons in Mościce, 10 km away. They lived with Abraham’s parents, where a hiding place under the floor was dug for the elderly Jews. The calm, however, did not last long. First, when the young people were at work, their parents were taken from this hiding place, and then Abraham gave a camera to his friend, a Polish engineer from Most, as a form of gratitude. The German secretary who issued them noticed this. The engineer was transferred to another job, and Abraham was sentenced to death by an informal death sentence and was already searched by the Jewish police. Then Hela and Abraham hid in the basement of a block of flats with a friend from Radomyśl, Szymon Feder, who looked after them for some time. In the meantime, the Jewish policemen arrested Abraham’s sisters and by beating them, they wanted to force them to reveal their brother’s hiding place. They, however, did not reveal him and were placed in prison. Chaja and Abraham changed their hiding place, and then, with the help of Jankiel Eisig, they also crossed the walls of the Tarnów ghetto from Radomyśl and at night they went to Dulcza Mała, 50 km away.

In Dulcza Mała was a farmer who was already hiding other Jews: Zalman Storch, a carriage driver from Radomyśl. According to Chaia, they were not good people, but rather dangerous informers. The hosts who kept them were also concerned mainly with material benefits and were even ready to kill them in order to get the money they had in their clothes. Under these circumstances, in January 1943 their host ordered them to leave the hideout. It was then frost and snow, and they were without shoes and coats and practically did not know the area or the people living here. Then, on the outskirts of Dulcza Mała, opposite a small forest, they came across an old cottage, from which the poor hostess let them in and, without demanding payment, put them in the hay in the attic. During the night, Chaja had thoughts of suicide, but the next day the hostess let them stay, saying that she knew Chaia’s mother and father well and bought goods from their store in Radomyśl. One Sunday, however, when the hosts were in the church, they were noticed by a neighbor living across the street from the window. So they had to leave the house quickly, and as they later found out, this neighbor turned in the Polish farmers who had a police search the next day.

The Jewish cemetery in Radomyśl Wielki at the Holocaust monument on August 27, 1987, meeting of Edward Rosenblatt from Paris (standing in the center) with the Balczertiuk family. Second from the left is Balczeniuk’s second wife, who raised little Edzia for several years (photo: J. Ziobroń, History of the Jewish Community in Radomyśl Wielki. Radomyśl Wielki 2009, p. 129).

Chaja and Abraham wandered around the village knocking on houses where nobody opened them until finally Adam Kokoszka accepted them and hid them in the attic. Young Jews felt very well and safe with him, and although they did not have much money, they paid him 50 dollars a month for hiding and supporting him. They felt happy here, but the situation repeated again, one Sunday, when the hosts were in the church, their neighbor did not specifically go to mass and knocking on the door of Kokoszków, shouting that she knew about the Jews hiding here and demanded money, otherwise she would give them away to the police. When the Kokoszek family returned from the church, the neighbor came again demanding money. The Jews gave her the requested amount, but to be sure, they had to leave the house anyway.

In a German forest labor camp behind barbed wire

Then they decided to go to the German labor camp “Baum end Lósch” in the forests near Mielec, where many of their Jewish friends lived and worked. During the day, Adam Kokoszka led them along a very dangerous route, including Mielec. They paid the required sum in the camp in dollars and a German engineer legalized their stay there. The compatriots from Radomyśl received them hospitably. There was their relative Taffel and his children, Pani Szmajowa with two daughters and others. They had good conditions there, lived in barracks and went to work in the forest or on the construction of the road to Kolbuszowa. After a few weeks, however, the Gestapo from Mielec came and Abraham was called over the loudspeaker. Then the couple fled, injuring themselves on the barbed wire of the fence. They spent the night in the forest, and in the morning they found out from the workers in the camp that the Gestapo was looking for them, and 13 Jews, who were also called over the loudspeaker, were shot on the spot. Among them was Shalom Nerda, a ritual butcher from Radomyśl.

It was the middle of July 1943. Hela and Abraham, having no other choice, decided to dig a dugout in the forest and hide there. They got the tools from the chest of a German company located in the forest and after a few days they dug the hideout. In the first days, a friend of Hela, a dentist from Radomyśl named Aschheim, helped them, bringing, among other things, some bread from the camp. It kept them alive. With time, however, because of the risk, this help was less and less frequent, and due to the damp and cold, the young Jewish woman became ill and feverish. Meanwhile, the rain flooded their makeshift apartment, so they had to leave it and started their journey through the forest again. When they reached a village and knocked on a house, the frightened farmer agreed to sell them bread and butter and let them come the next week. The young Jews were afraid of various bandits prowling in the forest and robbing people they met. Hela grew more feverish and lost her strength. When Abraham found out in a village that the Italians had surrendered, which might end the war, they decided to return to Dulcza Mała to host Adam Kokoszka. The guide agreed to be the farmer who sold them food, and thus they returned to their previous saviors of the marriage, Adam and Ludwika Kokoszek, in a small house on the edge of the village.

September 5, 2018 Cemetery in Czermin, the tomb of Józef Balczeniuk and his wife Victoria with a thanksgiving board placed by Dr. Edward Rosenblatt (photo: W Gąsiewski)

Birth of a little Jew in the stable on the eve of the Epiphany

There it turned out that Hela’s ailments resulted from the fact that she was pregnant. The hostess, who has already had six births, stated that it is the sixth month of pregnancy. Since helping the Jews was punishable by death, they were hidden in the attic, and when Chaja went into labor, she was in the stable where the conditions were better there, it was warm, and no one could see or hear any screams. It was a cold, snowy evening on January 4, 1944. Chaja was lying on the straw-lined ground, without bedding and no cover. Two cows were resting next to her and a horse in another corner. Above her head there were several poles on which domestic fowl sat, polluting the ground from time to time. The cows were digging sometimes and the stable was small and dirty because the hosts were very poor. Hela could not scream for fear of the Germans, and she lost consciousness due to the pain. The delivery lasted 8 hours and took place around midnight, the housekeeper picked up the baby, and Abraham watched next to him. The umbilical cord was cut off with the old scissors, and ten hours later the placenta emerged from the womb. Chaja developed a fever again and her condition worsened day by day. In this way, sick, with a fever and immobile, she remained in the Kokoszek’s attic for six weeks.

After the birth of a healthy boy, Abraham and the host stated that it was not possible to raise a Jewish child in the home, it is known what the risk was, they decided to give the child to the wealthy farmer Józef Balczeniuk, called a Frenchman, because he had once been in France and three months earlier his little son died. The same night after birth, they wrapped the child in a large pillow and took a roundabout route to Balczeniuk, placed under the window on the so-called insulating (insulation of the house from the outside with couch grass, wood, etc.). The hosts at home heard quiet whimpering at night, at first they thought it was a kitten, and after carrying the bundle home, a little healthy boy turned out to be. It was on Sunday, January 5, 1944. They had to report the fact that the child had been dropped to the Police in Radomyśl, four policemen from Radomyśl with the village mayor, Stanisław Jarosz, appeared in the Balczeniuk house. After questioning and convincing him that he was a child of some maid who did not want to admit, the hosts agreed willingly that they would accept him and raise him, but the German Police. Kokoszka decided that his son would not go there. Of course, this had consequences on the part of the Germans.

In the Jewish pits, the death of Abraham and the camp ordeal of Chaia Garn

Thus, the hiding Jews had to leave the house of their benefactors. Kokoszka took them in a cart to a small forest hut covered with snow. Chaja still had a fever, the host from that hut allowed them to come inside and wait for the Jews who were hiding in the forest, who were to come to him for bread. They came around 3 am, took the bread and the two Jews. About 20 people were hiding in forest pits, including Itsze [Isaac] Singer with three children, Esther Knobler, daughter of Teymtszi Knobler. There were also two daughters of Naftali Bernkopf, Anshel Birnbaum – Sara Horowitz and Ryfka Schenker, daughter of Moses Schenker. There were also Chaja’s cousins from Krakow with their family as well as Hirschel Grün and his eight-year-old son.

Chaja and her husband Abraham hid in the Dulecki forest from January 1944, right after giving birth to November 1944. In August this year, the front approached the area, the Russians took Mielec and Radomyśl Wielki but they stopped in the middle of the village of Dulcza Mała. The part where Balczeniuk lived and the Jews were hiding were still in German hands. The latter were blocked there, although they had only half a kilometer to the Russians, but it was impossible to break through due to the minefields where many people had already died. On November 11, 1944, the Germans organized a manhunt, traces in the snow led them to the hideout of the Jews. The Germans found them, but surprisingly they did not shoot them on the spot. Only Chaja’s husband died, who started to run away. The remaining half-naked and barefoot soldiers were taken from Dulcza Mała to Dąbrowa Tarnowska, where they imprisoned them for three days, and then they were taken by train to Tarnów. There, in the Gestapo headquarters on Urszulańska Street, they wanted to force them through torture to release the hiding places of the partisans. After three weeks in Tarnów, they were taken to Kraków to the prison on Montelupich Street, where after six days they were sent to a labor camp in Płaszów near Kraków. There, in December 1944, Chaja Gern avoided a mass execution, in which, among others, Hershel Grün and his eight-year-old son, Idel Amsterdam, Schmuz and his grandson from Mielec, one of her cousins ​​from Krakow (daughter of Salomon) with her daughter and grandson, a couple named Spatz from Dulcza Wielka. In turn, Chaja, the wife of a ritual butcher from Radomyśl, and Ryfka Szenker, a 23-year-old girl, remained alive in the camp. They stayed there until January 18, when the Soviet troops entered Krakow and on that day at 5 pm they started the terrible death march, on foot to Germany via Oświęcim, Bielsko and Silesia to the terrible camp Bergen-Belsen. It was about 600 km, 50 km every day, where only about 40% of the prisoners arrived exhausted but alive. There, in terrible conditions, Chaja survived until May 1945, when the English were taking them away. She was sick, had typhus and fought for many more days. There, the English took her to a hospital in Bergen, and then to convalescence in Sweden.

Front displacement and liberation

Meanwhile, in Dulcza Mała in August 1944, German troops entered the village by surprise. Józef Baleczeniuk lived with his wife and daughter Wanda on the edge of the village, so in the first place they were with him in the yard. However, they did not notice that a tiny child, then about 8 months old, was sleeping in the room. Unnoticed, Józef quickly entered the room, took the child and hid it in the thermal insulation of the house (the insulation was previously made of leaves). The Balczeniuks were displaced to Wadowice. At night, Józef, risking his life, sneaked into his old home to see what was happening to the child. The little boy was where he had left him. He did not cry because he had a very high temperature. He picked up the baby and slowly crawled into the sewer that was just beyond the fence. He reached Wadowice with the child, where they lived in the forest in dugouts. There, together with his daughter, he saved the child. Years later, he said that only a miracle made the boy survive. During the deportation in Dulcza Mała, the Germans demolished the Balczeniuk house. They wandered around with the baby for six months. In November 1944, Balczeniuk’s wife died and he had to sell one of these two cows for a coffin. The latter was milked by Wanda, who became a foster mother at the age of 15. After the war, the Balczeniuk family was forced to flee to Bydgoszcz. They looked after the baby all the time. At the end of 1945, they returned to their town. They asked what happened to the parents of the little boy, but no one knew where they were taken.

A father who lost his son a second time

Time passed, and little Edzio, because that was what they called the boy, lived with them, he hid well and did not get sick. Meanwhile, when Chaja recovered, she started her efforts to retrieve her child. Balczeniuk got used to the boy very much and fell in love with him, at first he did not want to agree. In response to the letter, he even offered to marry Hela because he had lost his wife during the war. However, she did not want to marry a Polish peasant. She contacted the office of the Chief Rabbi of the Polish Army, David Kohen, whose mission was to recover children saved from extermination. On his order, the captain of the Polish Army, Jeshayahu Drucker, visited families who hid Jewish children during the war and negotiated with them the terms of their recovery. According to Wanda’s daughter, Balczeniuk cried at the thought of giving away the child. The Jewish rabbi believed that financial compensation should be paid for the effort of raising the saved children. It was agreed that the amount would be $2,000. During this time, Hela left for the US, gave an interview to the New York newspaper “Tog” and asked for help in raising money to get her son back. American Jews donated money.

In December 1946, Captain Drucker arrived in Radomyśl Wielki to the local police station in a uniform and cap similar to the officers of the Security Office. There he put a package of $2,500 from the New York fundraiser on the table. With this money, Balczeniuk can buy a farm from a rescued Jew from Mielec, who was already waiting to complete the transaction. Brought to the police station, Balczeniuk did not want to give the boy back, but in the end, intimidated by the commandant, he took the money which he immediately gave to the Jew for the farm. Little Edzio was then less than three years old, but he allowed Drucker to take him away only after he put his watch on his wrist. They got in the car and, via Kraków, they went to a Jewish orphanage in Zabrze, where Edzio stayed for two months. From there he left with the transport of children to Palestine. According to the author of the article in Gazeta Wyborcza mentioned at the beginning: “…The illegal transport was financed by the money of Jews from Great Britain and the American Joint Distribution Committee. In this way, about 10,000 Jewish children left Poland by 1949”.[1]

Little Edzio – Edouard in Paris

However, Edzio did not reach Palestine, but after two weeks he reached the Paris Gare de L’Est station. However, his mother Hela did not pick him up there and the boy was taken to a Jewish orphanage near Paris. Hela’s sister Ella took him from there, and from her Edzio lived with his 2nd aunt, Fanny, for a year. At that time, Hela was the secretary of a Jewish newspaper in Paris. She was afraid to go to Poland to fetch her son, because that newspaper told her that Jews were still being killed in Poland. In July 1946, she married a Polish Jew, Ilya Levi, who lived in France before the war, and Edzio lived with them when he was four years old, so in 1948, and reportedly remembered his adoptive family from Poland, including how he said that she wanted a “blonde mom”.

Meanwhile, Józef Balczeniuk missed his foster son, felt aggrieved by this turn of events, including financially, and sent letters to Hela. In one of them he wrote:

Written letter 20 November 1947

Mrs. Hala and Edziu

I would like to inform you that I have already given my son back a year and now I have a letter and I have no answer when Edziu is alive I got a field Fijt left he did not pay everything and now I had to pay 30,000 zlotys for it to the tax office and so I had to sell my horse which I kept hiding all the way And so I made some money in this field, when you were in Sweden, she wrote that bende I belonged to your family and when I gave Edzia, nobody knows me now this is your good heart for me, so I was so worried with the child for the whole 3 years I think you will think about my concern and write me back a letter and photos of Edzia as he looks like now...

Little Edzio attended a French school in Paris. He went to the synagogue with his parents every Saturday. His mother did not tell him about the real father, Abraham. He found out about his Jewish father by accident when he was 12 years old. In his adult life, Edward began studying medicine in Paris, majoring in psychiatry and working in a psychiatric hospital, after many years he took up psychoanalysis and abandoned psychiatry. During his studies on a ship to Israel, he met Sonia Gross – the daughter of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust, they got married in 1967, the marriage lasted 7 years, a son Vincent was born, then a recognized photographer. Edward wanted to know something about his father, his mother did not mention it, only Israel Klein in Israel told him about him, when he was 38 years old.

Returns to Poland for the graves of the fathers

In 1983 Edouard came to Poland for the first time and was surprised by a pleasant reception. In 1990, he came again and placed a matzevah (cenotaph) on the Jewish cemetery, commemorating his father’s death.

On this monument is an inscription written in Hebrew, French, and Polish that says the following [in English]:

NOT FAR FROM HERE, IN THE DULCZA FOREST

ON A DARK DAY OF NOVEMBER 11, 1944,

KILLED AND BURIED HERE

ABRAHAM ROSENBLATT SON OF MOSES

BORN IN OŚWIĘCIM ON THE 25TH OF JULY 1914

LET HIS NAME NOT BE FORGOTTEN

HIS SON EDWARD STANISŁAW 1990

There was then a small ceremony attended by the Balczeniuk families, the local Fr. parish priest and residents. During it, Stanisław Rosenblatt read the prepared speech in Polish:

Family Balczeniuk, Pastor, and Priests,

I came back to Poland for the first time nearly 30 years ago. I only had two names to follow. Balczeniuk - the name of the one who I knew raised me and Dulcza Mała, my place of birth. First, I came to Dulcza to a chicken farm where Katarzyna Ptak and her two sons Józef and Jan lived. The men hugged me, telling me that when we were little we used to play together. You know that Stefan Ptak was the brother-in-law of Józef Balczeniuk and that these two couples lived in the house where my father left me at the window on the night of my birth on January 5, '44. Katarzyna told me that Balczeniuk is still alive. With my friends from Krakow who accompanied me, we went to Czermin. At the entrance to the house (at that time it was a beautiful wooden house) I saw a beautiful marble plaque on the grass with the name of Józef Balczeniuk on it. The date of his death indicated last year. It was strange to me. I was told that the death of her brother-in-law (suffering from heart disease) was hidden from Katarzyna. I was comforted by telling me that at the end of his days he mentioned me a lot and announced that I would be back. The day when I found you all became one of the most beautiful days of my life. Our joint photo is a testimony of this. The following year I came back to introduce you to my wife and my children. Today I could introduce my first granddaughter born in December last year. Isaac son of Liana. Later, my friend Jan Ziobroń managed to erect a monument in memory of those five hundred citizens of Jewish origin from Radomyśl Wielki who were murdered by the Nazis and buried in the Jewish cemetery in a common grave. After that, I was able to erect a monument in memory of my father Abraham Rosenblatt, who was shot in the Dulcza forest, where he was hiding on November 11, '44 (Wanda's mother also died that month). You all came to these two celebrations. Today we are gathered here in the Catholic cemetery for the third ceremony around the beautiful tomb that you erected for Józef and Victoria Balczeniuk. Other family members also rest not far from here. I would like to thank you for allowing us to put up such a board. This simple and evident act was a consequence of the feelings provoked by the death of Victoria, whom I was fortunate enough to meet last year. Why I couldn't do this thirty years ago is a question that must have to do with my complicated story. Today I feel free to express my gratitude to Józef Balczeniuk and the women of the family who looked after me so well. Thank you.

We also have a short letter dated on 10/09/2012 about this subject:

Dear Wanda,

The news of your return to your home in better health made us very happy. I, Edzio, was very touched when I once again listened to your memories describing the deep relationship that we had as children. As we promised, I am sending you a diary with a description of the history of my mother and grandma Leila during the war and a few photos taken during the filming. Leila is coming to Poland again (between the 21st the 26th) and she will certainly visit you.

 We kiss you tight.

 Edward and Leila

In this letter, Edward probably refers to the documentary entitled Cenotaphe (Monument) as was then filmed with his participation, directed by Leila Ferault-Levy.

The author realizes that the presented story may not be complete, therefore he asks the dear readers for any supplements and comments.

Endnotes

[1] M. Góra, Edouard Rosenblatt wraca do Didczy Małej. Urodziłem się w stajni jak Jezus, „Gazeta Wyborcza” z 24 grudnia 2018 r., s. 33.

Sources

  • A. Bielak. French-Polish Documentary Cenotaphe in Production (03-12-2012). In: https://www.filmneweurope.com/news/poland-news/item/104476-production-french-polish-documentary-cenotaphe-in-production [March 10, 2021]
  • Chaja Rosenblatt née Gern, now Levi. Memories from Radomyśl Wielki and the surrounding area. Polish translation of October 12, 1986 Paris, manuscript and typescript. The Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw, reference number 302/318
  • W. Gąsiewski, Examples of saving Jews in the Czermin commune during the German occupation in 1939-1944. In: “Nadwislocze”, No. 46-47 / 2015-2016, pp. 72-75
  • Written report from 2016 in the collection aut .
  • M. Góra, Edouard Rosenblatt returns to Dulcza Mała. I was born in a stable like Jesus, “Gazeta Wyborcza” of December 24-24, 2018, pp. 32-34
  • J. Ziobroń. The history of the Jewish Community in Radomyśl Wielki. Radomyśl Wielki 2009
  • R. Ziobroń, The Jewish Community in Radomyśl Wielki. Radomyśl Wielki 1997