Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel.
name: Kowalik Janina
Date of Birth 1905
Present Address: 10 Matejki St. , Bochnia, Poland
Interviewer: H. Rylski
Date of testimony: August 1964
Testimony's language of origin: Polish
Translation and commentary by: I. Zelinkovsky
The following testimony is of Mrs. Kowalik Janina. The witness is a Polish lady who was working at the break of the second world war (1939) in the city of Krakow as a nanny for a Jewish family named Hersztajn. She joined them on their escape to the city of Lwow and in 1940 crossed the border with the family back into German-occupied Poland. On the way the Hersztajn family was separated and Janina was left with the children while the parents were kept on the Russian side. She took the children back to Krakow and cared for them as if she was their own mother. She moved the children to Bochnia in 1941 to avoid putting them into the Krakow ghetto. When ghetto Bochnia was established she arranged accommodation for the children in the ghetto and provided them with food and care even for their education. Mrs. Kowalik arranged for the return of the parents to Bochnia and helped in hiding the children during the aktions. Eventually Janina helped the father and the two sons to escape to Slowakia. She did not succeed in rescuing the mother and the daughter in spite of repeated attempts to save them from the ghetto and from the Szebnie labor camp. Mrs. Kowalik helped other Jews to escape from ghetto Bochnia and helped many people who lived in the ghetto by delivering supplies from the outside and more. During all that time she kept helping prosecuted Jews while risking her life on many occasions.
I was born in 1905 in Kolwarji Zenbrzydowskiej (a small town near Krakow).
My parents lived in Tarnow where they had a house. My father made models,
he travelled abroad many times (as part of his work) and we lived comfortably.
He was an old man, widower (it was his second marriage) and he passed away
when I was two years old. My brother was born after my father's death. A
certain time later my mother remarried. Her new husband was a young man who
did not like me. Therefore mother gave me to a lady who resided in a large
house (a rich lady) in Pilznie. I was raised there and my parents relocated
to Chrzanow. In 1917 mother took me back to their place since she needed
my help at home. I did not like it but I had no choice. Later on when my
stepfather came back from Russian captivity (as a war prisoner) I started
to do hard work at a locomotive factory. A short time later I became ill
and when I recovered I decided to leave my parents' home. I went to Krakow
and worked in a children's
|hospital. Some time later due to the intervention of professor Bujak
I got a private job at president Starzynski's1 daughter. Later
when she relocated to Warsaw I changed my occupation and worked as a nurse
(nanny) for the Hersztajn family. I worked there until the year 1939 and
delivered all their children except the oldest which was six months old when
On the second day of the war I escaped with all the family to the city of Lwow. We stayed in Lwow for six months. In January 1940 we made an attempt to cross the border on our way back to Krakow. As a result we got separated because the parents and an uncle were captured by the Russians, but I, the guide and the children crossed the border. It all happened in this way. While we were crossing the border they started to shoot at us. At that time the guide dropped the 6 year old child and escaped. Seeing that, I dropped the suitcase, picked up the child and run after the guide. The other two children followed me but the parents and the uncle laid down still on the snow and there they were captured by the Russians. I caught up with the guide and he took us to Belzec, on the German side. We went to the shad, which was this guide's house, and there we stayed for three nights. Finally we managed to escape from there since he wanted to kill me in his search for my money. Later on we resided in an apartment of a policeman for 18 days since public transportation did not exist. Finally I went to a German office which issued permits. They told me that in the best case they would send me back to the Russian side. I begged them for a permit (that will allow me to stay in the German occupied territories). As to the children, I said that they were my brother's children and I gave them fictitious names.
A short time later I was on my way to Krakow. During our trip we had different obstacles. As soon as we came to the train station in Belzec the youngest child become ill. A certain German person helped me and took us to a waiting room designated for Germans only, where it was warm. We reached Hrubieszow and from there we continued our trip by train in the direction of Krakow. On the way one passenger told me that the children don't look like me (do not resemble Polish children) and due to that I got off at the nearest station and waited for a few hours for the next train. Finally we reached the city of Lublin. There we saw Jews carrying signs which read "this is a Jew". The children were scared. We waited for the train for a few hours. Some time later we arrived at Tunel. We had to wait again for a few hours in the freezing weather with all the other passengers. The children were wearing light coats and the youngest child started crying again. Again a certain German took us to a waiting room. He served us tea and when the train arrived he took us to the train car. This is how luckily we reached the city of Krakow.
I hired a coach and asked him to take us to our building on 33 Dietla
street. There was no vacancy there so I went to the Jewish community office
and asked them for accommodation. I told them that I have the Hersztajn's
children and we need a place to stay. I received one room and we lived there
almost for a whole year. Obviously ghetto Krakow was not established
|I was looking for means of survival. I met a person who worked in
the factory which was owned by my landlord and he taught me how to produce
soap. I started to produce soap and sold it from door to door. In this way
I managed to support myself and the children, I even sent them to school
and they even learned music. The girl played on the piano and the boys played
When the ghetto was established in Krakow I was notified that the children had to be transferred into the ghetto. It was at the end of 1940. I tried to figure out what to do since I did not want to send the children to the ghetto. I decided to relocate to Bochnia because there resided the children's aunt from their mother's side. This aunt used to send us from time to time some meat and butter and everything was Kosher. I managed a Kosher kitchen for my children. I wanted to raise them the same way they were raised before.
I went to Bochnia on the very last day of which I had to send the children
into the ghetto. We stayed at that aunt's house but there was not enough
room for the four of us so I had to search again for an apartment. I rented
an apartment, a nice small furnished one-room, and decided to stay there
with the children. I started to travel to other places since I had to earn
some money for survival. There was no ghetto in Bochnia at that time. The
ghetto started to form there only half a year later. I was very frustrated
because again I had no idea what to do with the children, so I went to the
Jewish community office. I believe that at that time there were a lot of
Jews in Bochnia and I am not surprised that the Jewish community could not
help me. They listened to me and were very sympathetic. I kept going to them
for three days and finally I was given a small house of one room and a kitchen
and I had to take in another family of my choice. I told them that I would
like to take in the children's aunt because she will take care of them while
I was traveling between Krakow and Bochnia with some merchandise. I traveled
daily to Krakow to make some money for living and for the children's education.
I wanted them to get a good education. The older child took music lessons
on violin and the second one learned English. I started to live in that house
in the ghetto. At nighttime I used to go to my other apartment outside the
ghetto. From time to time I used to take the youngest boy with me and in
the morning I took him back into the ghetto and brought with me food supplies
for the whole day. Before leaving I used to take requests from people who
wanted to arrange some things outside the ghetto or who wanted to purchase
some items. I could have performed those services since I was traveling to
Krakow daily. This is how it continued until 1942. At that time I managed
to relocate the children's parents from Lwow. I maintained contact with them
through all that time by correspondence. They wrote me that they wanted to
come back and that they were afraid of being sent to Siberia. They were living
in the vicinity of Lwow. The Jewish community in Bochnia assured me that
they will be able to obtain permission for their relocation. This arrangement
was supposed to be based on exchange. It had happened in 1941 before the
war (the German offensive against Russia). Nothing came out of it and the
parents returned only after the Germans captured the city of Lwow. They came
by car which I arranged for them in Krakow, with them came a certain rabbi
|The children were very pleased to be with their parents but this
happiness was short lived. An aktion took place in Bochnia. I took the children
to my place. It was in late summer of 1942. The parents remained in the ghetto.
Right away I took the youngest boy to Krakow and he stayed at his aunt's
place, which was on the Aryan side of the city and had Rumanian documents.
I hid the two children with me at my apartment, to be specific in my landlady's
attic. On the following day my landlady came to me and ordered me to remove
the children from the premises. There was a decree that in the case that
a Jew was found hidden in a house all the residence had to face execution.
I was frustrated because I had no idea what to do with the children. How
could I let them go for execution?. My landlady did not agree for any solution,
even for the possibility of hiding them in my room under my responsibility.
She told me that it is all the same since it will be under one roof (in the
same house). I decided to go to Krakow. I borrowed from my landlady's son
a student's hat. I took with me the oldest boy, he was already passed his
Bar-Mitzvah, who was quite dirty from the attic. I had arranged the Bar-Mitzvah
ceremony for him by myself in the ghetto, before the return of his parents.
He had a noticeable Jewish appearance.
We went to the train station before dark. There were many Germans around since the aktion was in progress. I told the boy not to be scared because we had to maintain a confident look. I purchased the tickets and somehow we managed to go through. We went straight to the platform because there was a control (people were checked for legitimization of their documents). I led the child to the water fountain and told him to wash himself before the train arrived.
The train arrived when it was already dark and I hoped that everything would be O.K. Luckily we made it to Prokocim2 . We crossed a field and arrived at the aunt's house, where the youngest child was staying. They were alarmed to see us since they did not expect us to come while the aktion took place. I had to leave right away for the girl and I made my way back during the night. I reached Bochnia before dawn. The girl was hidden in the washroom all night because my landlady did not allow to put her in the attic.
I dressed her and in the morning we went to the train station. It was
the second day of the aktion but luckily we managed to make it to the station,
because this time I was less frightened than the time I took the boy with
me. I left the girl in Prokocim and went back to Bochnia in order to find
out if the parent are still alive. It was the third day of the aktion and
only on the third night I was able to go to sleep. Before dawn someone knocked
at my door. It was Selingier who came for the children and he informed me
that the parents were among the living. Mr. Landau arranged that they could
stay (in Bochnia) and that the children could return to the ghetto. This
Landau was an important person in the Jewish community and he knew the parents
well. I told Mr. Selingier, who was working for the
Ordnungsdienst3 , that I had taken the children to Krakow. He
could not believe that I managed to take them while the aktion was in progress.
I swore to him that it was the truth and he dropped to his knees
|with astonishment, how was I able to do something like that? He
asked me to bring them back right away because they had to go to work. I
knew this Mr. Selingier well, he was a good man.
I went to Krakow and took the two older children back with me. The youngest one I left behind since he was not required for work in the ghetto. I sent them to the ghetto and that was how it remained until the next aktion. At that time the parents and the children left for Krakow by car and there they hid. After the aktion they returned to the ghetto in Bochnia. Before the last aktion, before the liquidation of the ghetto, they obtained Rumanian papers (documents). I arranged for these documents to be made in Krakow and it was not only for them. I arranged such papers for many other people. The notary Bobrzycki produced these papers in Krakow. These papers were good, but not everybody was able to use them since it was extremely difficult to get out of the ghetto.
When we realized that the end is near, we decided to send the father and the oldest boy first. I took them to Prokocim where their relatives were waiting for them. Together they wanted to go to Slovakia. After that I had to take the mother and the daughter, the youngest boy was all that time at his aunt's house. The daughter was working outside the ghetto in a tailoring workshop. The mother was working inside the ghetto and it was very difficult for her to get out.
One day I asked Irka not to return into the ghetto because I felt that something bad was about to happen. But she did not want to go without her mother. I could do nothing about it since after all it was her mother ....... and at that night the aktion took place. She was taken to Szebnie near Jasla, to the camp in Szebnie.
First I went to Krakow to inform them of what happened and to convince them to leave. (Later) it might be too late and there was no reason to wait anymore. I took them to the border. Upon my return to Bochnia I tried to find out the location of the Szebnie camp. Someone told me that it is possible to send parcels to that camp but only under Polish name. I got an address of a Polish person and I send a parcel with everything that was needed, clothes etc. I delivered one parcel by myself which contained warm clothes. We sent letters to each other and in this way we kept communicating. Irka asked me to rescue her but in case that this was impossible she requested poison. I told her that I will do whatever possible.
I returned to Bochnia and started to arrange a kennkarta4
. I made contact with one man from Moderowka village, near Szebnie because
I heard that this man was able to smuggle people out of that camp. I showed
him the picture (of Irka). Irka was a beautiful girl and I was worried that
something would happen to her. I decided to go together with this man since
I did not want to leave her alone with him. This man said that he will send
her to the border, of course for an appropriate sum of money.
|I arranged that kennkarta and went to Szebnie. I went to that guide
and he explained to me in what way I could contact Irka in order to give
her the kennkarta. I went to a garden where the home of the
Lagerfurhrer5 was located. There I met a messenger and I gave
him that kennkarta. Irka did not want to take the kennkarta because she did
not agree to be saved by herself. She told me that if she will escape out
of the camp 10 people will be executed as a consequence and the first person
to be executed would be her mother. She wanted to talk to me and asked me
to come to the fence.
When I came to that place I met a person I knew, his name was Grajower. He was a friend of Irka and he went to tell her that I am waiting for her at the guard house. Suddenly a German who was on duty in that garden arrived. He demanded to see my documents and besides that he took my purse. The kennkarta was in that purse together with a few hundreds of dollars. I figured that I was finished. He ordered me to wait while his commander was inspecting the contents of my purse. Naturally as he closed that door (behind him) I escaped from this house. Somehow I managed to get out of that house. I was left without my documents and besides that the Germans had my address in Bochnia. The lady I came with to Szebnia, lent me some money for my return trip but I could not go (shouldn't have gone) back to Bochnia. In spite of that I took a risk and returned home. I kept sending parcels through the lady I knew since she kept on going to that camp. Through this lady I got a message from Irka, a short time later, that she is planning an escape without grave consequences. According to that plan a fresh human corpse had to be brought into the camp. In that way during the roll call a change in the number of prisoners in the camp would not be noticed. It was done in such a way, that they brought a human body from the cemetery (on a platform) under the garbage or under (a pile of) firewood and in the same way the living prisoner was sent on the way out. Irka also planned to save herself in that way.
I decided to help her and established contact with that guide who promised to deliver a corps. My duty was to arrange for a car that will transport Irka on her way out. As a matter of fact, when everything was ready for the escape the Germans liquidated the camp in Szebnie. Some of the prisoners were murdered on the spot and the rest were sent to Auschwitz.
Question: What happened with Irka and her mother?
They sent them to Auschwitz. I was informed of it by Mr. Grajower at the end of 1944. He escaped from the wagon and joined the partisans. They were taken to Auschwitz and there they died.
Question: What happened to the father and the sons?
They were in Slowakia and all the time I receive letters from them until the liberation. The Germans even gave me a hard time for receiving foreign letters.
|Question: And how did you meet the Ortner family and how
did you saved Celinka?
I knew the Ortner family prior to the war. Celinka's mother was sent to the Szebnie camp and then Celinka, who was Irka's age, came to me and asked me to save her. Naturally I did not refuse. I waited for her to get out of ghetto Bochnia. She came out of the ghetto with two other people and I led them to a (house of a) poor lady where they stayed. Two days later a car from Krakow, which was arranged by Celinka's father, arrived to take them to Slowakia. There was another obstacle yet. One lady who came with Celinka had a small child which was impossible to take on that trip. We hid the child with people that I knew. She (the mother) asked me to look after her only child. This child is the engineer Lichtblau who resides in Israel (at present).
I agreed to take care of that child but under the condition that she will take Celinka with her. As things turned out, taking Celina on their escape was questionable. They left and a short time later I was informed that they had been caught. It was not true and as a matter of fact they reached their point of destination. In Slowakia a guide was waiting for them and was ready to take them across the border after they gave him the password. After they were already in Slowakia that mother sent a goral6 for the child.
Question: Would you please tell us now about the engineer Lichtblau whom you took out of ghetto Tarnow ?
Once I was sent by someone from the Jewish community of Bochnia to arrange something in Tarnow. Exactly while I was in Tarnow an aktion was in progress there and the Jewish population was transferred into the ghetto. I entered a building at the specific given address and was surprised to see the blood on the stairs. I went to the apartment and met a scared woman who told me that the Germans are in the building. I ran to the corridor and was spotted by one German. He started to chase me but I managed to hide myself in the garden before he caught up with me. Sometime later I went to the railroad station. I was about to leave but there I met a person I knew who had relatives in ghetto Bochnia. This person was Mrs. Lichtblau. She had a child with her whom she wanted to send to Bochnia. She gave me that child, it was a few year old boy, and luckily I managed to bring him to Bochnia. He was hidden in Bochnia at his aunt's place. It seems that a some time later they crossed the border (left the country) using foreign papers. After the war they returned to Poland and I saw them in Tarnow. Later they went to Israel and now I met them again. He is an engineer and right now he was sent on a mission abroad. I haven't seen him but I met his parents who resided in the city of Rehovot.
Question: How did you managed to contact the Hersztajn family after the war?
They wrote me a letter asking if they could come to Krakow. First came
the older one (son), The father did not survive the war because he was sent
to Auschwitz from Slowakia. Only the two brothers remain. In Krakow they
managed to rescue a small part of their fortune. The youngest one was 13
years old at that time and we celebrated his Bar Mitzwa in Krakow. I wanted
them to stay in Krakow but they
|felt uncomfortable there and in 1947 the younger one of the surviving
group left for Israel. He went on that famous "Exodus". The older one returned
to Slowakia and worked there in a factory. Then he left for Vienna where
he became sick. At the same time the young brother reached Israel after a
long journey and he was lonely. He used to send me sad letters. Both of them
used to write to me and I always advised them as if they were my own children.
I advised the older one to go to Israel and they were together. The young
one served in the army and later on he worked in an office as an accountant.
The older one is an accountant too. Both got married, have their own apartments
and I believe that the children are on their way (their wives are
On about 15 of January I came to visit them. By accident I met Celinka Ortner. My boys did not even know that she is alive and residing here. When she just heard about my visit she immediately came to me and took care of me. She tried to make my visit to Israel as enjoyable as possible. She joined me personally and in that way I was able to visit many places. I went to Jerusalem, Sodom, Ashqelon, Acre, Caesarea, Nazareth and Tiberias, everything thanks to Celina. They made a party for me and at that party I was able to meet many people from Bochnia and Krakow. I was very moved by it. I am happy after so many years to meet all these people again with whom I shared this hell and now they are working here and building their lives. May God give them all happiness and that they will not know anymore hardship. May their children grow in peace for the benefit of their parents and their country.
In Mrs. Kowalik's testimony we were introduced to her very unique
personality. The witness risked her life for the Jewish family Hersztajn,
she had worked for and whom she felt were her own family. In addition to
her devotion to that particular family she risked herself saving the lives
of other Jews in the ghetto. From this testimony we can figure out the date
of ghetto formation in Bochnia. According to Mrs. Kowalik the ghetto in Bochnia
was formed 6 months after the formation of ghetto Krakow. Since the Krakow
ghetto was formed and sealed in March 1941 then the Bochnia ghetto must have
been formed in September 1941. The food supply in the ghetto was inadequate
and Mrs. Kowalik had to bring food for the Hersztajn family from the outside.
The food rationing was not sufficient for survival. Within the ghetto, especially
during the period prior to August 1942, the Jewish population tried to maintain
normal everyday life under the assumption that the present conditions are
temporary. In this testimony the witness attempted to provide the children
with education and even gave them music lessons. Such action indicates that
the ghetto's residents did not believe or did not want to believe in the
horrible fate that awaited them in the near future. After the aktion of August
1942 there was a noticeable change in the way the ghetto was run. Everybody
had to work in order to justify their existence in the ghetto and the children
were no exception. The Jews in Bochnia were kept occupied in the local workshops
until the very last day of the ghetto's existence. Another point raised in
this testimony was the collective responsibility that the Germans imposed
on the Jewish inmates in the Szebnie labor camp. The prisoners were afraid
to escape from the camp since they knew that such an action would result
in the death of their friends and their loved ones. Mrs. Kowalik kept maintaining
her ties with the Jewish population in spite of the risk and during the war
she kept helping persecuted Jews while risking her life on many occasions.
If the majority of the local population in Poland during the war acted like
Mrs. Kowalik did, it could have affected the war outcome