She extended help each time she heard “a voice of the demeaned and the beaten.” She loved those who were unloved
In September 1939, Poland was occupied by the two neighbouring countries – Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. In the territory incorporated into the Third Reich and within the borders of the General Government created by the German occupying power, the German Nazis pursued the policy aiming at the total genocide of the Jewish people.
Initially, the German policy was to isolate the Jews from the Poles. The Jewish population was publically humiliated, forced to wear armbands or patches with the Star of David, drove to force labour and – since 1940 – resettled to the ghettos. Since autumn 1941, leaving the ghetto, hiding on the “Aryan side” or providing aid to Jews – be it arranging a hideout or an ad hoc support – was punishable by death.
“In my memory, and the memory of my friends, all the people I have met, my Mother was a good, wise and righteous person,” the daughter of Wanda Nelken-Załuska wrote in her memoir. “She extended help each time she heard ‘a voice of the demeaned and the beaten’. She loved those who were unloved.”
Wanda Nelken-Załuska came from an assimilated Jewish family of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) activists from Krakow. She was born in 1913. Her mother, Aleksandra, converted to Catholicism already as a teenager. Ignacy Daszyński and Józef Piłsudski were among the family friends. Wanda attended a high school run by the Ursulines, graduated from the Philosophy and Art History Departments at the Jagiellonian University and started working at the Czartoryski Museum. “I had no ties with the Jewish milieu. However, I did have Jewish colleagues at the PPS.”
When the war broke out, she engaged in a conspiratorial activity. Józef Cyrankiewicz was the head of her group. “Our PPS cell produced identity documents. My role was that of a postman or a distributor,” she recalled.
She used her contacts at the Ursulines in order to rescue Jews, also her family members. She even intervened with Cardinal Sapieha. Artur Nacht-Samborski, a friend, painter and pedagogue, was amongst those she managed to rescue.
When the Germans captured Józef Cyrankiewicz in April 1941 and subsequent arrests followed, Wanda left Krakow and fled to Warsaw. There, she became active in the Home Army and “Żegota” (Council to Aid Jews).
She arranged flats for Jews in hiding, provided false documents, taught them prayers and behaviour at a church. She entered the ghetto via the Courts building on Leszno Street a number of times in order to lead the children to the “Aryan side.” She organized adoptions and foster homes with Polish families; she also took the children to the Ursulines. “I tried to provide them with any weapon, so that they could survive,” she recalled the lessons of prayers and ‘proper’ behaviour years later. “What hurt most was the helplessness of the children, the helplessness of their parents.”
“I remember you well from Krakow. You were very beautiful, subtle and elegant, also delicate and discreet…” Jan Karski wrote to Wanda Nelken-Załuska, his wartime friend. “Your letters are as sad as mine. We probably went through too much, and we surely hoped for too much. There is no other way though – we must persevere until the ultimate test.”