A Christian Family Saved Twenty Three Jews From The Nazis
Julian Bilecki was just a teenager when he and his family hid twenty three Jews in an underground bunker, which saved them from Nazi death squads in war-torn Poland.
By 1943, nearly all the families of the Jewish community in Podhajce, Eastern Galicia, numbering about 3,000, had already been slaughtered by the Nazis.
But a small group, several of them children and teenagers, escaped from the Ghetto, and found their way to the Bilecki farm.
Arrival At The Bilecki Farm And Refuge
In June of 1943 the Bilecki family members who lived near the ghetto heard a knock on their door, and when they opened it they saw not only some of their Jewish friends and neighbors but also some strange faces, numbering twenty three in all.
They had come to seek refuge from the Nazis.
The Bilecki family took them in and decided that with the few young and strong men in the group of escapees that they could build a bunker in a cave in the woods and camouflage it with leaves and branches.
Food Was A Major Problem
Food was scarce during these times, so how do you feed twenty three extra people without arousing suspicion?
But somehow the Bileckis were able to ration enough food for everyone.
Snow Leaves Footprints
The temporary shelter was soon discovered by passers-by in the woods and fearing for their friends’ lives, the Bileckis were forced to look for another location, to build a new bunker.
The second bunker was built very near to the Bileckis’ own home but it was winter and the snow-covered ground would leave a trail of footsteps to the new hiding place.
A survivor, Mrs. Grau Schnitzer, later recalled how,
"Julian Bilecki being a young, agile and very brave boy, would jump from tree to tree to deliver food to his Jewish friends in order to avoid leaving tracks in the snow".
"Once a week, someone from the family would come to sing hymns to the Jews and share news from the outside world".
"They gave us food for the soul and hope to survive. They deprived themselves. They endangered their lives".
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Mrs. Grau Schnitzer, then 9, recalled how she left the ghetto with her parents to bury a wagon full of dead bodies and then escaped.
Her father and uncle, who had known the Bileckis before the war, went to them for help.
"We knew that they were believers and we knew that they were good people. We had no choice, and we hoped that they would not report us. We said ‘Here we are, help us and they helped us’".
Another survivor, Sima Weissman, later recalled how,
"They not only hid us, but spent time with us, reading the Bible and praying for our salvation. Three times it was necessary to change hiding places, so that nearby villagers would suspect nothing. It’s impossible to describe what these people did for us. No family member would have done more than they did".
Genia Melzer, another survivor, was 17 then and was left for dead by the Nazis in a pile of corpses after a mass shooting.
"I lay down on the floor with my head down, and my little cousin, 9 years old, lay down on my right side. They started shooting, but I wasn’t shot. They thought I was dead but when the little girl coughed, they came with an ax and started chopping".
Genia survived the second assault, too, still pretending to be dead.
"They took us to this mass grave and they threw all the people into it and I was on top".
Genia Melzer crawled out from among the bodies and ran to the woods near Podhajce, where Julian Bilecki found her covered with blood and took her in.
Her brother, uncles, aunts, cousins and all her friends were killed, but she survived and today she is a great-grandmother.
Liberation At Last
One day after almost a year of living underground the group heard shots above the bunker and they knew that at last that they had been liberated.
And that freedom was just beyond that thin layer of twigs and branches that had concealed them from the world for almost a year!
The Russian Army liberated the area on March 27, 1944, and the surviving Jews went their separate ways, some immigrating to the U.S.
Gifts And Honor At Yad HaShem
Over the years, the survivors sent packages of food and clothing to the Bilecki family, who remained poor, and they continued to correspond by snail-mail.
And in addition to gifts the survivors arranged for the family to be honored as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
A Half A Century Later
More than a half-century later, a gray-haired Julian Bilecki, then 70, along with five survivors, all New York residents, were brought together by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.
Bilecki, a retired bus driver Bilecki was flown in from Ukraine, which was his first airplane ride, and his first time out of his country.
As he walked into a reception room at Kennedy Airport, the five survivors, now gray and some walking with canes, applauded and cried as they greeted him with flowers, hugged and kissed the man who, as a teenager, risked his life to help them escape the Nazis and survive the Holocaust.
Tears welled up into his eyes.
"I see you all have gray hair. I too have gray hair. I thought I would never see you again. I feel lost. I thought this would never happen. All I did was help. It is very pleasant that people remember. Now I am getting paid back by God".
Bilecki said through a translator.
Seven Ukranians Honored
In 1992, in the first ceremony of its kind in Ukraine, seven Ukrainian citizens were inducted into Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations for their efforts to save Jews during the Holocaust.
One of those honored was Julian Bilecki.
Attending were representatives of Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Julian’s brother Roman, a resident of upstate New York, had been similarly honored for his heroic efforts to offer refuge to Jews by several organizations.
Julian Bilecki (1928–2007),
"To save one life is as if you have saved the world".