Krystyna’s Gift—A Memoir
I have no clear or systematic recollection of the dates or the order of events from this chapter of my life some 60 years ago. My memory is fragmentary, and I can summon up only isolated moments and situations, like single beads on an invisible thread of time. Yet some are inexplicably vivid and clear, and I feel a strange certainty about the accuracy of my recall. What I remember best is the emotional tone. Is this not what bearing witness is about?
My twin sister and I were born in 1921, in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, just one year after it was captured by the Poles. Our given names were Meena and Liah; we would much later change them to Monica and Lydia, the names under which we had lived during the Nazi occupation.
Vilnius—or Vilna, to use the name by which Jews knew it—remained part of the Polish state only until 1939, when, following a secret agreement between the USSR and Germany, it became the capital of the Lithuanian republic of the Soviet Union. In its long history, the city had changed hands several times; but its elites and most of its population had always been Polish, and from the 15th century on it was an important center of Polish culture and learning.
Jews were a huge, culturally non-integrated minority. In the 1930’s, they made up over 25 percent of Vilna’s overall population and more than half of its doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. The city, renowned as a center of Torah study, was home as well to an array of secular Jewish cultural institutions, a system of Hebrew and Yiddish schools, and any number of socialist and Zionist organizations.
We grew up in somewhat unusual circumstances: a middle-class, secular family with no interest in Jewish tradition. My father, who had changed his first name from Solomon to Severin, was one of the few Vilna Jews identifying themselves as “Poles of the Mosaic faith,” in the futile hope of becoming integrated into Polish society. Our mother, Liuba, was a certified but non-practicing surgical nurse. The only time I remember being in a Jewish religious setting was on national holidays, when Jewish pupils in the public schools were marched to synagogue for an official service while Christian girls and boys celebrated a special mass in church.
My parents seemed uninterested in their ancestry, though I know that my mother’s family came from Dwinsk (Dinaburg) in Latvia, my father’s from Slonim in Belorussia. My mother’s father had been a wealthy merchant, trading in building materials. In my earliest memories he was already retired; although we dutifully visited these grandparents from time to time, there was no warmth or intimacy in our relations. As for my paternal grandfather, he worked for the Jewish community as manager of the Vilna Jewish cemetery. We liked him, but our favorite was Grandmother, a short, round, warm-natured woman and a veritable treasure house of Yiddish folklore and wisdom. After Grandfather’s death, she came to stay with us, habitually siding with us girls in confrontations with our stern and puritan parents.
My father managed a plywood and cardboard factory in the tiny settlement of Waka Murowana, which lay in a timber-rich region about 25 miles west of Vilna. Aside from the industrial compound and a bridge over a dam harnessing the waters of the Waka river, the settlement consisted of only one real house. This was the manager’s residence, where we lived: a sprawling wooden building on a hill surrounded by an orchard. A smaller structure in the courtyard housed the servants and a store of equipment. We also kept an apartment in town, where during the school year we and our mother often stayed on weekdays. But Waka was our real home.
Though my parents accused tradition-minded Jews of remaining voluntarily segregated in 20th-century Vilna, their own company consisted almost exclusively of Jews, members like themselves of the small Polish-Jewish intelligentsia who were only partly assimilated to Polish culture and society. Educated in Russian schools, our mother and father spoke Polish to us at home and Russian occasionally between themselves. They made a great effort to cultivate the right connections in order to get the two of us into the city’s most prestigious government-run secondary school for girls, itself an important step toward admission to the university with its numerus clausus for Jews.
Father tried to instill in us a haughty disdain for bourgeois norms, conventions, and prejudices. Monica and I were also discouraged from having anything to do with Jewish community life or Zionist activities. One of our friends was the daughter of the editor of an influential conservative and anti-Semitic daily. The father of another Gentile friend was a pastor, the leader of the Vilna Protestant community. He was the only person I ever met before coming to Israel who knew Hebrew, and he sometimes talked to us about the prophets and other biblical figures.
Our comfortable existence began to unravel with the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, which led to the occupation of Vilna by the Red Army. Although my parents were distrustful of the Soviets, many of Vilna’s Jews saw them as saviors both from the Nazis and from Polish anti-Semitism—until, that is, they began to outlaw Jewish religious and cultural institutions and to deport thousands of families to camps in Siberia and Kazakhstan. At that point, Father’s employer offered to help us escape to Sweden, but my parents, fearful of becoming refugees, declined.
The Nazi takeover of Vilna in June 1941 caught Monica and me in the city with our mother. Several weeks later, trying to reach Father in Waka, the three of us were apprehended by Lithuanian police at the outskirts of town and sent straight to the ghetto, a maze of winding narrow lanes in the old Jewish quarter. We seemed to be among the last to enter. I can still hear the ominous sound of a hammer driving nails into the makeshift wooden gate, closing off the ghetto from the main road.
The street was full of confused, frightened people, completely at a loss as they pulled along their crying children and their hastily tied and disintegrating bundles. Propelled by the throng, we found ourselves in a crowded room, amid a mass of Jews of a type my family had never associated with. Lying down to sleep, I was jostled awake every time someone moved or turned, starting a wave of motion through the tightly packed bodies on the floor. There was no water, and after a few hours the stench from the apartment’s only toilet became unbearable. I was filled with shock and disbelief: it must all be a preposterous mistake, we should just talk to someone and explain that we were not from here, we did not belong here; not us!
The next morning I saw a body hanging from a street lamp in front of the house and thought I recognized the man’s face. A day later, the public-address system announced a general recruiting for labor squads. I decided instantly to volunteer; my mother and sister held back. Exiting the ghetto in company with other young people, I was brought under guard to an army barracks and instructed to peel potatoes and then, when finished, to scrub the stairs. Somewhere between the second and the third floors, a young German officer appeared before me, introducing himself as a chaplain and offering to help. I did not respond. The next day, he repeated the offer, and on the third day I decided to accept. What did I have to lose?
I gave the officer a note for a friend of ours, Danuta Janowiczowna, asking her to bring her own identity card and that of her young stepmother to the fence outside the barracks, where there was a steady flow of curious onlookers. That night, back in the ghetto, I persuaded Monica to join me on the work detail, and the next day Danuta appeared at the fence with the cards, wrapped in brown paper, which she threw to the officer.
Having informed the guards that Monica and I would be staying behind in the barracks to clean his rooms, our officer took us at dusk to a small house within the compound where a noisy party was going on. We spent the rest of the night in a storeroom until he came for us and we were able to walk off the base arm-in-arm like three friends. As we took our leave of him, he gave me a small snapshot of himself: a blond young man on skis, laughing, his long scarf fluttering in the wind. He wished us luck. Years later, the photograph lost, I tried to remember his name and realized he had never given it to me.
Our father’s secretary, Mr. Zielonkowski, lived in a nearby suburb with his old mother, and we made our way to his house. Though very devoted to Father, he panicked at the sight of us and refused to let us in. A day earlier, a neighbor had been executed on the spot after she was reported talking to a man who looked Jewish. But he accompanied us to the city limits and arranged a rendezvous with our father, who was being kept hostage at the factory to instruct German engineers in the production process.
We met Father in a clearing in the woods near Waka; a heavy sadness enveloped the three of us, and we did not speak much. The thought of our poor mother, left alone in the ghetto, brought home the full weight of our terrible situation. It was clear that Father apprehended—correctly—that he would never see us again.
Two hours later, a young Gypsy woman ferried us across a wide river in her boat. She regarded us with pity, humming a little song, a ballad perhaps, with the refrain, “You so young and pretty, your fate so ugly.” Unsure of her intentions, we departed as quickly as we could. Our destination was Ignalino, a farm some 20 miles from Vilna that belonged to Krystyna Adolph, who had been our head teacher for eight years at the gymnasium.
A devout Catholic and a liberal-minded conservative, Krystyna was universally respected for her integrity. But her uncompromising honesty, high moral principles, and demanding requirements of her students could also arouse resentment. Although she was generous in appreciating a good mind and hard work, she was intolerant of dishonesty and low standards.
But she was also human. Days before we were locked up in the ghetto, she had managed—God knows how—to send us a message, saying that if things came to the worst, we should just make our way to Ignalino. To be discovered sheltering Jews would have meant summary execution. Would she, we now wondered, really endanger her own life, and that of her three-year-old daughter, to help us? Was it reasonable—or fair—to expect her to? And what would we do if she refused?
When we arrived, Krystyna was not at home. We sat there waiting, oblivious to the possibility that we might be seen and too exhausted to think or plan. Then we spied her, with her daughter Hania, walking up the path toward the house. She saw us, too, and without a moment’s hesitation dropped the little girl’s hand and started running, her arms outstretched in welcome. In an instant she was hugging us.
Recently widowed, Krystyna was then about forty. She was a tall, handsome, wholesome-looking woman, her brown hair drawn back in an austere bun, her appearance and manner projecting authority and a no-nonsense personality. Though, as I say, she was highly respected at school, she was also rightly considered a maverick. She did not seem to share either the narrow nationalism that dominated the Polish political scene at the time—although hostile to the Germans, Polish society approved, tacitly or openly, of getting rid of the Jews—or the rabid anti-Semitism of the official Polish Catholic Church. A true Polish patriot, she detested both the Germans and the Russians. But I do not think that her hatred of the Germans was an important factor in her decision to help us. She would have tried to save us, I believe, from Poles as well.
Krystyna was a practicing Catholic, but her piety was not of an institutional or communal type. Her commitment to Christian morality was so strong that it seemed to overrule every conventional norm. She was aware, no doubt, of the extreme danger to which our presence on the farm exposed both herself and Hania, but the obligation to protect her only child seemed secondary in her mind to the absolute, divine imperative to save the lives of those who, without her intervention, were certain to perish. She was a practicing Catholic not in the sense of observing rituals but in the sense that her religious commitments were intrinsic to her decisions and motivations. She did what she believed God wanted her to do and was prepared to bear the consequences—all of them.
Krystyna was hardly the only rescuer of Jews in the Holocaust; but what made our case unusual was that she not only initiated our rescue but thereafter assumed full and unquestioned responsibility for our fate. Only rarely did this happen: except in the case of rescued children, the role of rescuer was normally limited to providing a hiding place and food or sometimes false papers. No less remarkable was that we lived for over three years not in a hole under the floor or in a chicken coop or attic but sharing our hostess’s house, her food, her books, and her daily routines. She, in turn, shared our destiny.
Ignalino was a small farm, bought before the war by the Adolph family so that Krystyna’s late husband, a university lecturer ill with tuberculosis, could pursue his work in entomology. The farmhouse was on top of a hill, overlooking the surrounding villages, the nearest of which was about a mile away. At the foot of the hill stood a barn and a shed that served as stable, pigsty, and chicken coop. There were also a field for growing potatoes, a vegetable garden, a well, and a small, immature orchard with two beehives for Krystyna’s husband’s research. A book on beekeeping from his library taught me how to take care of them; by the end of our second year in Ignalino, the number of hives had grown to six and we had enough honey for ourselves as well as for barter and bribes.
Once it was settled that we would be staying, we took on particular responsibilities. Monica was in charge of the household, the cooking, and the little girl. I saw to our livestock—one horse, a cow, two pigs, a dog, a few chickens, and the beehives—and it was my job to bring water from the well at the bottom of the hill. The path was steep, but in time I worked out a technique for carrying four full buckets at a time. Krystyna and I shared the “man’s work”: collecting forage for the animals, plowing and sowing, felling trees (illegally) in the government forest and chopping them up for firewood. All three of us labored at planting and gathering potatoes and vegetables, weeding the garden, and picking wild fruit in season.
A task that fell exclusively to me was entertaining German soldiers who would occasionally come by on patrol, looking for Jews and enemy combatants. The entertainment amounted to getting them drunk on our homemade vodka. My specific qualification for the job was that I knew how to pretend to keep pace with our guests while not really drinking myself; this trick I had learned from watching hostesses in the night clubs of Kaunas, where I had managed to attend university for a year. The scary part was getting the soldiers back to their garrison in a nearby village. Driving our poor horse to exhaustion, I would bring the wagon close to the gate of the compound, shove off the dead-drunk soldiers, and rush back, arriving home to the great relief of Krystyna and Monica.
Occasionally Krystyna would travel alone to the nearest town to exchange honey for salt and matches—the only two things we could not produce and could not do without—and to buy her ration of sugar, which we used to feed the bees in winter. Monica and I made every effort to avoid contact with outsiders. To the few people who met us, we were introduced as nieces of Krystyna who had come to help out on the farm. On a few occasions, when the village grapevine warned us of an impending visit by the Armja Krajowa (AK), the fiercely anti-Semitic Polish partisans, we would leave the house and stay in the forest for a couple of days. Had the AK discovered us, they would not have hesitated to deliver us to the authorities or to kill us themselves.
Krystyna’s house was furnished with a huge library but, since construction had been interrupted by the war, had no electricity or running water. In the evening, after washing with homemade soap and well water that had been heated on the stove, we would read. This was a complicated operation. One of us would hold aloft a dry wooden plank burning at one end; another would hold a bowl underneath to catch the cinder and ashes; the third would read aloud. Among other things, we read a lot of Christian philosophy; Monica and I were particularly impressed by the spiritual journey of John Henry Newman, the 19th-century Oxford intellectual and convert to Catholicism.
My memories of our three-and-a-half years at Ignalino are as of an archipelago of isolated islands in a sea of oblivion. What did we talk about during our long seclusion? What questions preoccupied us, what topics did we raise during our meals, on our long treks, working side by side in the garden? I cannot recall so much as a shred, trivial or significant.
I do remember the drama of our arrival, our subsequent daily routines, our sorties to the forest (with the ever-present bottle of vodka for the forest guard), our sallies to collect forage, and Krystyna’s perpetual, half-serious reminder to make sure we were wearing panties: “It may help if somebody attacks you.” I can also hear the occasional nighttime knock at our window of Russian partisans. After feeding them, one of us would keep watch around the house while they slept on the kitchen floor. I can see clearly their rifles leaning against the wall of our bedroom, hidden from view behind the door, and also their faces, dirty and sad. And I can hear them telling us how they longed for their homes and families.
Nor have I forgotten the sound of the machine-gun fire from the killing fields in the Ponary forest not far away. Sometimes, at night, when a strong wind brought the crackle of the guns especially close, Krystyna would kneel and pray, and we would cry. This was our only indication of what was happening to the Jews of Vilna. Twice, a cloud of smoke rose over nearby villages, and the wind choked us with a terrible burning smell. The villages had been set on fire when the Germans discovered that a resident had been giving aid to an escapee or partisan.
I recall the numberless times when, feeding the animals or cleaning the pigsty, I would look at my parched, cracked hands and feet and try to imagine myself in a party dress. I remember with affection my bees and how—despite the painful stings they gave us—we would bless them as we drank the first yield of honey in the spring, knowing that within a week our sores would heal and our hair would shine again and our mood would improve. I still have an almost mystical belief in the health-giving power of honey, and to this day bees evoke in me a sense of wonder and gratitude.
Then there was the terrible letdown of the fall of 1944, when, after years of praying for this moment, we beheld the first detachment of our liberators galloping through the farm on their little black Cossack horses, shooting into the air and then—straight into our beehives. As a huge, dense cloud of helpless insects hung in the air, the three of us stood there, crying, struck dumb by the incongruity of this anti-climax.
After the war, with Vilna once again the capital of the Lithuanian republic of the USSR, Krystyna was “repatriated” to Sopot, a resort on the Baltic Sea in northwest Poland, where she continued to teach school. Monica and I eventually made our way to Jewish Palestine, where we arrived in 1946, two years before the establishment of the state of Israel. In the following years we remained in close touch with Krystyna, usually by mail and eventually by phone as well. She even visited us in Jerusalem in the late 1950’s, on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Rome.
In 1967, Krystyna’s daughter Hania was killed in a car accident on the day of her graduation from medical school. We pleaded with Krystyna to come live with us, but she refused. Thinking that she might not wish to accept charity, or to commit herself to a non-Catholic environment, we arranged suitable work and accommodation for her with the Jesuit mission in Jerusalem. But she would not be swayed. In 1984, Krystyna was recognized by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and research institute, as a “righteous Gentile”; she was given a medal, and an olive tree was planted in her honor. She died three years later.
During our many decades of correspondence, Krystyna shared with us her thoughts on books, people, world events, and the contemporary social scene. She wrote to us affectionately, as close friends, and was extremely grateful for any sign of attention, like the good chocolates and warm clothes we used to send her. Only once did she make a specific request, asking if, with her eyesight growing dim, we might send her a gadget for threading needles. She also told us matter-of-factly about the curious benefits—like getting priority in queues or a seat on public transport—that had come to her in Poland as a result of her medal, which she wore on the flap of her jacket.
What Krystyna never discussed with us, or even alluded to, was our life together at Ignalino. This could not have been inadvertent. Did it stem from deep personal considerations, possibly not even connected with us? Was it because she wanted to forestall expressions of indebtedness or gratitude? It would be easy to believe that, like all truly good and honest people, Krystyna saw what she had done as normal and natural, and that drawing attention to it would embarrass her. I wonder, though, if there was not a deeper explanation for her reticence.
At Ignalino, Krystyna’s dominance in matters big and small had seemed natural to us. Even leaving aside the fact that we had already been her pupils in school for eight years, she was older than we, possessed a kind of innate authority, and was the mistress of the house. It was quite obvious that responsibility for what happened to all of us was ultimately hers. I cannot recall any sign of doubt or hesitation on her part, or a single instance when she tried to shift the initiative for our safety to us. We were all in the same boat, she was the captain, and we were to survive or die together.
I remember only one occasion when Krystyna insisted on including us in a decision. It was at the end of our second year at Ignalino. A wounded Russian soldier, an escapee from a POW transport, had come to our door asking for food and shelter for a few days. “Well, girls,” Krystyna asked, “what shall we do?” Not only would the soldier be a burden on our meager resources, but he would greatly increase the risk to all of us. Sheltering a Russian escapee, like sheltering a Jew, carried the penalty of summary execution. Still, the decision to let Nikolai stay was unanimous.
To some extent, I think, our voting to take in Nikolai eased our own sense of guilt: now Monica and I were no longer the only ones endangering Krystyna and Hania. But perhaps the main reason we were pleased to have him was that he made us into rescuers ourselves. Just sharing in the decision marked a welcome change in our normally passive and dependent lives. In a small way, we, too, were now on the giving side. As I laundered Nikolai’s filthy clothes and nursed his infected wound, I could feel that I had stepped into Krystyna’s huge shoes.
Our admiration for Krystyna was boundless. But as time went on, the extent of our dependence had started to gnaw at us. We became, in a way, prisoners of our gratitude (a literal translation of the Hebrew expression, asir toda). Could we continue to receive so much without ever repaying the debt? How long could we go on exposing Krystyna and Hania to such terrible danger? How could we go on living in total dependence on another person, kind and generous though she was, without in any way exercising independent judgment or initiating action of our own? As we began to think of our predicament in this way, Monica and I became restless, finding more and more things to resent, more and more occasions to be unhappy and frustrated.
Since even a verbal rebellion against Krystyna’s authority would have been preposterous, the only possible target of our anger was ourselves. In later years, my sister could recall actual moments of such revolt on my part, when, in a pathetic and futile attempt to assert myself, I would determine to leave Ignalino. But Monica was always the more reasonable one. She would wisely announce that she could never participate in such an absurd venture, adding the psychologically shrewd point that Krystyna needed us on the farm. After everything she had done on our behalf, leaving would be a selfish and unfair act.
Yet Monica, too, was troubled by the glaring asymmetry of our relations. Her attempt to reduce the imbalance was characteristically non-violent though no less self-destructive. She concluded that we could best respond to Krystyna’s gift by means of a gift of our own. Though Krystyna had never tried to proselytize us, our guess was that she would be gratified if we were to convert to Catholicism.
Both of us recognized that this, too, would constitute an act of submission, rather than marking a positive rehabilitation of our wounded pride. But our Jewish identity was not particularly strong, and Krystyna’s example, not to mention our reading of Cardinal Newman and others, had made Catholicism rather attractive to us. If we were ever liberated, we decided, we would adopt the Catholic faith, hoping to repay Krystyna in the only currency that might at least partly compensate the immensity of her gift to us.
While rummaging among some old documents and souvenirs about a year ago, I found a mother-of-pearl crucifix, a rosary, and a Christian Bible, with a loving inscription by Krystyna, dated October 1944. It brought to mind a long-buried and now hazy memory of a visit to a village priest. A preliminary conversation about our newfound faith? An actual conversion ceremony? I simply cannot recall, and neither could my sister Monica, who died last autumn.
I do know that the hectic pace and often traumatic character of events after our liberation left us little room for serious reflection. I also know that, by the time we settled in Israel, our solemn resolve to become Catholics had vanished, along with all memory of it. Could we, indeed, ever have made peace with ourselves had it not been for the grace extended to us by such forgetting?
As for Krystyna, I still wonder how she took the fact that we ultimately reneged on our decision. Was she disappointed? Perhaps. But she may also have felt that it restored her gift to what she had intended it to be—something unreciprocable and perfectly pure.