Safe Harbour: The Story of Janek Bartczak and his Brave Heart

S. Nadja Zajdman

© Copyright 2020 by S. Nadja Zajdman

Renata interviews her wartime rescuer Janek Bartczak in Phoenix, Arizona, April 1997.

Into the 1990s my mother Renata became increasingly active in Holocaust Education. She trained as a docent at Montreal’s Holocaust Center. She worked as an interviewer and researcher with McGill University’s oral history project Living Testimonies, which was a precursor to film director Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. She attended international conferences. She lectured to students in schools and on group tours, both at home and abroad. She reunited long-lost relatives and rescued the lost identities of hidden children. Mum became a wounded healer transforming lives.

Each spring Mum traveled to Poland, spending an average of three months there. She became the North American liaison for The Association of Hidden Children in Poland. In Warsaw Mum roomed with friends, and worked in an office located on the same street where she had lived as a child.

Some of those in Poland hidden during the war when they were children, came late to the recognition of their Jewish roots. Those who married mostly intermarried, and their children were raised as Catholics.

At least one became a priest, and several became nuns. Decades after the war, some were still too frightened to acknowledge their antecedents. Many lived in poverty. Mum lobbied for the establishment of pensions for those who were robbed of their parents and inheritance. The lawyer’s daughter from Warsaw won her case. She was also integrating her many identities and becoming the Holocaust educator and activist Renata Skotnicka-Zajdman.

What she was doing for others, Mum was about to do for herself. In 1997, during a search to discover the fate of another child hidden in wartime, Mum stumbled on clues suggesting her wartime rescuer Janek Bartczak might be alive.

During a time of war and a place of horror, friendship flourished between two young men wooing two Jewish sisters. One of the men was a Polish Catholic; the other, a Polish Jew. The Catholic youth became a smuggler. When Warsaw’s Jews were walled into their ghetto, Janek’s business activities allowed him daily access to the girl he loved. Unknown even to the members of his immediate family, he had joined the underground resistance movement.

Janek Bartczak was generally perceived as a dandy. His brother-in-law, a policeman who patrolled outside the Ghetto gates, dismissed him as a spiritual lightweight. Janek strutted through the streets of the Ghetto in knee-high black leather boots, a black leather coat, and a Tyrolean-type hat. His hair was flaxen and his features, Slavic-sharp. His intimidating appearance made a powerful impression on his Jewish friend’s teen-age sister Renata. His phantom would swagger through the back alleys of her memory for the next fifty years. Trying to transmit his image as vividly as she could, Renata came to call her ghost “Richard Widmark,” for the sinister-looking film star.

During the height of the deportations in the summer of 1942, Janek’s brother-in-law arrested Renata at the Ghetto gates. The arrest was pre-arranged. Pawel Golombek used his position to lead to safety the Jews he was supposed to be shutting in. His apartment became a safe house. He and his family supported not only themselves, but also the escapees they sheltered, by the smuggling activities of his wife’s two brothers, and by selling moonshine manufactured in their kitchen, as well as his policeman’s salary. An unquestioned arrest, a child snatched from Umschlagplatz, the central train platform where Ghetto Jews were collected and carted off for mass murder, hidden under his coat, and delivered to the sanctuary presided over by his wife and mother-in-law—Golombek committed these audacious acts under the noses of the German occupiers and his anti-Semitic neighbours; acts which, had they been discovered, would have led not only to his execution, but to the execution of his entire family.

As of September 1, 1942, there were two Jewish girls sheltered by the Golombeks. There was the dark-haired, dark-eyed, ten-year-old Isabella whom Golombek’s sister-in-law claimed, to neighbours, to be her illegitimate daughter by a Roma. There was blue-eyed Renata, whose chestnut-coloured hair had been bleached blonde by her brother. Three years earlier she’d been setting the table for her mother’s birthday breakfast when the roar of the Luftwaffe, the planes of The Third Reich’s air force, signalled the invasion of Poland. Since that day she had endured bombardment, homelessness, and refugee-hood. She witnessed the death of her mother in Soviet-occupied Poland, and was caught in the German invasion of the Soviet Union. She had slept in ditches and stolen food from fields. Hiding on a farm, she had been repeatedly raped. Her throat was cut, like any other hunted animal. She had been beaten by Polish police, thrown into jail, and further beaten in a cell shared with Polish prostitutes. Preferring to die with family, she smuggled her way into the Warsaw Ghetto, to her brother, but her brother, preferring that Renata snatch a chance at life, smuggled her back out.

On the evening of September 1, the Russians sprang a surprise bombing raid on Warsaw. To identify their targets, they tossed flares from the sky. The Golombek family, along with Isabella, hastened to the basement of their apartment building. Renata was instructed to remain upstairs, for fear she’d be recognized as a Jewess and betrayed by neighbours. Feeling abandoned in the safe house during the bombardment on the anniversary of her dead mother’s birthday, the girl snapped. She went to the bathroom, found a razor knife and lifted it to her wrist. On the verge of severing an artery, Renata hesitated. Instead, she began to scream. Her uncontrollable cries were so loud they could be heard in the basement, even through the sound of bombardment. Janek dashed towards the stairs. “No!” His sister cautioned. Janek disregarded his sister’s warning, raced up to the apartment, and barged through the bathroom door. He was appalled by what he saw. “No!” Janek yelled, echoing his sister, and knocked the razor knife out of Renata’s hand before she yielded to despair. Then he darted to his bedroom, grabbed the blanket from off his bed, pulled Renata out of the bathroom, wrapped her in the blanket and then into his warm, strong arms. While the flares flashed and the bombs exploded Janek stroked Renata’s trembling head, rocking her and soothing her with visions of survival and a new world at peace and free from humiliation, violence, and pain. He sang lullabies to the quivering child, who felt like a wounded bird cupped in his hands, until she finally fell asleep.


In the immediate aftermath of the war, Renata’s brother led her to believe that Janek Bartczak was killed on Warsaw’s barricades during the second uprising in August of 1944. She mourned him, and in her mind, she buried him. Over fifty years later, in her capacity as an activist in an international network developing among Jews who survived genocide, my mother Renata decided to find out what happened to the child with whom she shared sanctuary in the Golombek household. During her search, Mum stumbled upon an old address for one Janek Bartczak. Like many Poles, it appeared he had gravitated to Chicago.

My mother considered me her memory keeper, and ran regular spot-checks. As she got older, the imperative to impart the legacy of her spectres grew increasingly intense. Deceptively casual, she queried, “Who was Pawel Golombek?’

Innocently, I answered, “He was a Polish policeman.”

“Correct,” Mum pronounced, like a schoolteacher who was satisfied, but only for the moment. “And who was Janek Bartczak?” The bar was raised higher. “Ahhh—Richard Widmark?” Mum smiled. Close enough.

“What happened to Bartczak?” The interrogation was relentless. I had gotten away with the doppelganger analogy; now I knew I’d better get this one right. “He was killed in the August ’44 uprising.”

“Not necessarily.” Mum was savouring the moment when she could deliver the punch line. She then called a member of her network in Chicago, a woman for whom she’d been instrumental in re-uniting with a twin brother in Poland. The woman went to the address the next day. “He doesn’t live there anymore. The neighbours say he retired and moved to Arizona.” Within the week Bartczak resurrected, metaphorically enough, in Phoenix.

“I have to go and see him.” Mum stated the obvious, and immediately began to plan. “I’ve got enough flight points on my Visa card to make the trip, but where would I stay?”

Instantly I turned to the telephone and called Rabbi Grafstein, whom I’d met when she helped to establish Living Testimonies. After being rejected by a Canadian congregation because of her gender, Sarah Leah Grafstein applied and was accepted as a prison chaplain in Phoenix, Arizona. She would marry an American ten years her junior, and adopt a half-black boy. “Your mother will stay with me.” Rabbi Grafstein responded as I hoped she would. “Meeting Renata changed my life.”

“Janek’s story must be told.” Mum moved into crusader mode. “But who can interview him? Regina says his English is poor.”

“Are you kidding?” Incredulous, I stared at the woman who was missing the obvious. “You will!”

“Me?” Mum was overwhelmed by the suggestion.

“You’ll conduct the interview in Polish. Who could do it better? Everything you’ve done has led to this.” As I became aware of the obvious, my breath caught. “You appear to have been chosen.”

“Oh my.” As the import of my words sunk in, Mum shuddered. “But who would set it up? We have cameras and a technician in the studio here, but how would we do it in Phoenix?”

Once more, I called Rabbi Grafstein, who then placed a call to California. Mum was officially registered as an interviewer for Spielberg’s recently established Shoah Foundation. Technicians and equipment were expedited to Arizona.

Mum flew to Phoenix at Easter. The metaphors were becoming outrageous.

When Mum and Janek reunited, she fell into his arms. “You’re alive, you’re alive.” She huddled against the older man’s chest, the way she had on the night of the bombardment. “I still can’t believe it.”

The elderly gentleman held her close. “So are you,” he whispered. “This is even harder to believe.”

Janek was now in his mid-seventies. He was still vigorous and strong. His flaxen-coloured hair had thinned out, and what was left of it was white.

Living in freedom and peace had allowed Janek to shed his tough persona, and his natural sweetness shone through the features of his broad Slavic face.

As they got their bearings, the rescued and rescuer updated each other on what had turned out to be their lives. “My brother and I accepted that you were trapped and killed on the barricades during the ’44 uprising.” Mum gazed at her wartime rescuer, in wonder. “How did you manage to escape?”

“The same way you did, moja kochana.” Janek gazed tenderly at the woman, now in late middle age, whose fate he had accepted would forever remain a mystery. “I escaped through the sewers. Unlike you, however, once I got out, I didn’t have far to go. When I hauled myself out of a manhole I looked up to see a policeman staring at me. It was Pawel, my very own brother-in-law!”

Muj Boze!” Mum erupted, unconsciously shifting into her wartime Catholic persona. “My Lord!”

Oh yes!” Janek agreed. “Can you imagine? I was starving. I was stinking, I was wet and I was filthy, and I resurface in downtown Warsaw like a vision out of hell!”

“What a shock for Pawel,” Mum gasped, “But a happy shock!”

Oh, I’m not sure he recognized me right away, but I recognized him! I think the shock for Pawel was discovering that I had joined The Underground and fought in The Uprising. He didn’t think much of me, until then.” Janek was obviously proud to have earned the respect of his heroic brother-in-law.

Continuing to fight in the underground resistance movement, Janek was captured by the Germans and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. He escaped, made his way to Italy and joined the Polish army-in-exile under General Anders’ command. Janek’s unit was transferred to Britain. Before war’s end, Polish warriors were shattered by the news that the dream of an independent Poland was lost; betrayed at Yalta by Roosevelt and Churchill. Like many Polish soldiers and pilots who helped to save the country that ultimately betrayed them, Janek felt he couldn’t go home. While still in power, Churchill offered British citizenship to displaced Polish servicemen and women. After he was ousted from power, the new Labour government tried to scare displaced Polish military personnel into leaving. Like thousands of Polish refugee servicemen and women, Janek decided his future lay elsewhere. He immigrated to South America. Only in 1947 was he able to notify his family in now-Communist Poland that he was alive. In time, he married an Argentinian woman. Janek’s wife was now serving coffee and cake. In awe, she watched the woman who had risen like a phoenix from the ashes. So did their son, Antonio, with his Jewish wife and their two young boys. Their grandfather had never told them of his wartime exploits. True heroes are silent, or dead.

Unlike most subjects interviewed for Holocaust oral history projects, Janek was relaxed. He told his tale as if holding a long-overdue conversation. He was almost gleeful as he recounted how often and well he outwitted both the German occupiers and his treacherous Polish neighbours. When Mum asked why he behaved as he had, Janek responded by placing his hand over his heart. His testimony was a gift to both of them. The woman whom he rescued as a child was now a rescuer of Memory.

When Mum returned home, she made it her mission to have Janek officially recognized and honoured by the Israeli government as a member of an elite category known as Righteous Among The Nations. Israeli law stipulates that at least two living witnesses submit depositions in order to validate the nomination of a candidate. Having yet to locate the hidden child Isabella (though they would), Mum’s network launched a search for Janek’s wartime Jewish lover. She was traced to New York City. In the intervening 50 years Ada had been twice divorced and recently widowed.

You’ve got to do this,” Mum commanded.

Of course I will.” Ada was in a daze, reeling from the news that her wartime lover was alive. Ada and Janek reunited over a telephone line, but they would never set eyes on each other, again.

Before leaving for her annual stay in Poland, Mum called Janek to say good-bye. He was a widower, now.

Three days after Mum’s departure, Antonio called me. “Oh gosh! I’m so sorry. I’m so very very sorry.”

“Will you tell your mother?’

“Of course I will.”

Calculating the time change between North America and Europe, I estimated that I could reach Mum in her Warsaw office.

“Sweetheart! This isn’t our usual time to talk. Is something going on? What’s up?”

My silence sent Mum into alert. “Something is wrong. What is it?”

Sadly, I told her. Janek Bartczak suffered a stroke and died a second and final time. He was 79 years old.

“No! Oh no! I’d only just found him and now I’ve lost him again!” Mum was grief-stricken.

“No Mum.” My voice was soft with sorrow. “You haven’t lost him. Antonio told me his father died at peace because he finally found out what happened to you and to the other child sheltered in his home. Who he was and what he did won’t be lost because you recorded it. The Shoah Foundation will keep Janek’s story and memory safe. He’s safe now, Mum. He’s safe. Janek will never be lost again.”

Mum was in tears, and I was near tears. Yet, despite her grief, my mother recognized the truth of my words. Not only had she taken the time to say good-bye but Renata, a wild orphan of war, also found a way of saying Thank You.

Since Janek wasn’t in a position to receive it, a notice was sent to Antonio, summoning him to an Israeli consulate. In a desert city in the American Southwest, in a ceremony witnessed by his Jewish wife and their two sons, Janek’s son was presented with a certificate and medal for his father’s part in providing a safe harbour during a violent storm, and for his magnificent, and now-stilled heart.

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