Two women who helped save the world
A grove of carob trees marks the way to Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial to the holocaust. At this archive in the Judean Hills at the edge of Jerusalem are recorded the names of the 6 million Jews who perished during World War II.
Awful though the toll was, it would have been even worse but for the efforts of the "righteous gentiles," as they are called, whom the carob trees commemorate. These are gentiles who risked their own lives to save the lives of Jews during the war.
The carob tree was chosen as a symbol of these people because its leaves do not wilt -- a reference to the description of the righteous man in Psalms 1:3.
Some of the trees commemorate groups, such as the Danish underground, but most honor individuals, private citizens who saw what was going on around them during the Nazi occupation and said, "enough."
Some of those gentiles honored by a carob tree have received an even higher honor: the silver Medal of the Just.Fewer than 100 of these have been given. They have been awarded one by one over the years, as Jews who were protected have come forth to testify on behalf of their protectors. The inscription on the medal reads, "Whoever saves a single soul, saves the whole world."
There are two women in the Boston area who helped "save the whole world," and have been awarded the medal in the last couple of years. Alice Schiffer of Brighton, a housewife in her 30s at the time, saved over 20 Jewish children in her native Belgium during the German occupation from 1942 to 1945. And Stefania Burzminski of Brookline sheltered 13 people in her apartment in occupied Poland while she was still in her teens.
How do "ordinary" people manage to find within themselves such extraordinary resources to go on quietly, day after day risking their lives -- often for people they don't even know? How do they find the courage to say, "No, I won't let any more of this happen than I can help"?
In 1942, 16-year-old Stefania and her six-year-old sister, Helen, had been left alone in the family apartment in Przemysl (pronounced Pchemish), a town of 100,000 located between Lvov and Krakow. Their father had died, their mother and brother had been taken off to a labor camp, and their two sisters had gone off in search of them.
And the Jews of Przemysl were being rounded up into a ghetto.Stefania had visited friends there. "people asked me, what was it like? I tell them, if you want to know, go visit the zoo. The ghetto was a human zoo.
"Our parents told us not to make differences between people. We all have one God. It doesn't matter how well educated you are, how much money you have, or anything. . . . In the future, they always told us, if you can help people, don't hesitate.
"And so I thought if people needed help, I'd try."
Meanwhile, as the Nazis moved into Belgium, Alice Schiffer was becoming concerned about the Jewish community there.
"There are too many nice Jewish kids here, I thought, and with the Gestapo, there soon won't be any left. When I saw all the misery in Brussels, what they were doing with the Jews, my heart just went out."
One day she was visiting a cousin when the Gestapo came to arrest a Jewish couple who lived upstairs. The cousin knew the couple had two daughters who would presumably be picked up as well, as soon as they came home from school.Mrs. Schiffer decided to head them off, meeting the girls at their door before the German agents got there.
After breaking into their apartment, sealed by the Gestapo, to get their clothes, she took the girls home with her. She had never met them before.
And then, since she had no children of her own, she called her mother for advice on child-rearing.
A convent seemed the safest place for them, and so the two Kollmann sisters, Lydia, aged 12, and Inge, 9, affected a Roman Catholic conversion. Mrs. Schiffer adopted them under the assumed name of van Weymeersch and just like any middle-class Catholic parent with daughters in the convent, she visited them every Sunday afternoon, and paid the nuns their tuition every month.
Actually the convent had quite a number of temporary Catholics as the Kollman sisters, and the nuns knew very well what was going on. At one point, however, Lydia rebelled: "I don't want to be Catholic, I want to be Jewish." Afraid that her noisy protests would attract unwelcome attention, the nuns arranged for her to live at a convent in Namur, where she remained for the duration.
Gradually it became known -- quietly -- that Mrs. Schiffer was working in the Resistance. People would bring her Jewish children to hide as their parents were picked up. She would take them out to her parents in the countryside for a few days, until a permanent hiding place could be secured. In some cases, they stayed quite a long time. Mrs. Schiffer sheltered over 20 children this way.
"I worked with a schoolteacher who was part of the Resistance," Mrs. Schiffer explains. Her name was Fernande Henrard, "a wonderful, wonderful woman, who did a lot of good." The Gestapo put her into a concentration camp toward the end of the war, but she survived, and passed on only last year.
Meanwhile in Przemysl, the Germans had started liquidating the Ghetto. Stefania began to "conspirate," as she puts it in her idiosyncratic English, with a friend Josef and his brother and sister-in-law. They hatched a plan to hide, along with four friends, in Stefania's apartment. She had two storge compartments, one reached through a trapdoor under her bed, and one hidden behind concealed doors in the attic.
Once the seven were hidden, two more people approached Stefania, "because they knew I would be friendly." At first, they wanted to stay only a few days, but then it became apparent that they would have to stay longer.
"I told them, 'If we survive seven, we'll survive eight or nine.' And later I met more people who needed help -- how could I refuse shelter?"
A school across the street from her apartment had been turned into a German military hospital.One day a couple of German officers came to her door and told her that they needed her apartment to house some of the hospital staff. They gave her two hours to clear out.
It did not look good, to say the least. "Her people," as she refers to them, couldn't survive in their hiding places without Stefania to help them, even if they could stay hidden from the Germans.
Some of them told Fusia, as they called her, to take Helen, and just run away -- but to leave them rocks and hammers so that they could go down fighting when the Nazis came.
Others suggested she might be able to find them another hiding place in one of the abandoned buildings in what had been the Jewish quarter. She spent an hour and a half of her precious two hours poking around only to discover that all the doors and windows had been removed from the houses; no one could survive a Polish winter in such a place.
And so when she raced back home, she had only 30 minutes left. Her people renewed their advice to take Helen and run away.
"And then for a moment they all stood in a circle around me. Helen took one of my hands, and the eight-year-old boy in the group took my other hand. And then I said, 'I will not run away. I will not leave you. If God wants us to die, we will all die together. If God wants us to live, we will all live together.'"
By this time she had only 20 minutes left.
She went to her bed and knelt with her sister in prayer.
"'If there be no miracle, we will die,' I said."
Her people knelt behind her. And she prayed. "I didn't know what to say, I just talked. . . . 'Don't let us die. These people don't want to die. We have one god, only people are a little apart now.'"
After several minutes, she felt suddenly at peace. She felt everything was going to be all right.She told her friends to hide in the upper bunker, a sort of closet with secret in the attic. She went about straightening up the apartment for the arrival of the German officers, singing cheerfully as she went.
"Her people" thought she had come unhinged. As she closed the doors behind them, they told her, "We will meet again in heaven."
At the appointed hour, there came a knock at the door -- but it was only one officer instead of two, and he was in a noticeably jollier mood than he had been earlier.
She told him, "You'll have to find a place for me to stay if you throw me out of this place."
"Oh, that's all right. We only need one room. You and your sister can stay here."
Mrs. Burzminski's eyes fill with tears as she remembers the experience. "Whoever can explain that?" she asks. "How can you ever explain it?"
But two German nurses were installed in the apartment. They had the inner room, reached by going through Stefania and Helen's room. And they had German boyfriends visiting them often.
For seven months they lived there without finding out about 13 people living in the attic. "Thirteen Jews upstairs, two German nurses downstairs and I was in the middle," Mrs. Burzminski says.
They stayed until the hospital was closed during the retreat of the German Army.
"It was a horrible time. But we were alive."
The apartment lacked running water, electricity, and gas. Sanitation was primitive, and one of her less attractive duties was emptying chamber pots without arousing the nurses' suspicions.
Feeding 13 people without attracting official notice was another major challenge.
Her little sister was in school, but Fusia had a job in a factory in Przemysl. She had "bought" her job by bribing a factory boss. Besides needing the money, she had to get a job to avoid being sent to a German labor camp.
Meanwhile in Belgium, Mrs. Schiffer was also busy helping underground Jews. Besides the children, "I helped big people too." Everyone needed food coupons to eat in those days, and the Jews were technically entitled to them. But it was a Gestapo trick to wait for Jews to show up to pick up their coupons and then arrest them for deportation. So Resistance workers like Mrs. Schiffer performed the dangerous job of picking up coupons for people in hiding.
"But I was so stupid!" she says of those reckless days. She says she didn't always realize how dangerous some of the things she was doing were. "Afterward my husband told me, 'Your life was on the line every day.' But when somebody needed help, I wanted to give it. And even now that I'm older, if they asked me to do it all over again, I would."
Like Mrs. Burzminski, she depended on her faith in God to help her face her challenges."What I did, I did with all my heart. People, whether they are Jews or Catholics or whatever, are people. . . . I thought during that time, if God wanted to take me, that would be okay, too."
"There were miracles every day. We lived from miracle to miracle," Mrs. Burzminski says. "They tell me it was over two years. I don't know. I just lived from day to day."
A photograph taken during that time shows her as a somber-faced teen-ager standing up ramrod straight and looking right at the camera. Her little sister stands in front of her, looking equally serious despite the huge bow in her topknot.
A later photograph pictures a much happier-looking Stefania shortly after the arrival of the Soviet Army had given her something to smile about. She is surrounded by five of her "family," including her husband-to-be, Josef.
The Soviets arrived in Przemysl one day in 1944. Stefania couldn't be sure their ordeal was over, however; the area had passed from German to Soviet control and back again before.
Leaning out of their windows to see what was going on, Fusia and the other townspeople started talking with some of the soldiers marching through. When she found out that one of the officers was a Ukrainian Jew she felt she could speak freely with him.
"Are you sure the Germans are not going to come back?" she asked.
"Yes, I'm very sure. The Soviet Army is almost to Berlin [well to the west]. The Germans can't come back."
"Well, then, I have something to show you." She brought him up to her apartment. Her people were in the bunker, ears pressed to the door.
She opened the door and all 13 poured forth, sweeping her up on their shoulders like a hero.
It was all over.
"The soldiers asked, 'Who gave this girl the courage to do all this?' They knew the penalty for harboring Jews was death," she recalls. "But I knew it was someone up there" -- she points heavenward -- "that gave me the courage to do it. And thank god they were all safe."
"There were 13 of them. Twelve of them went forth, like the 12 lost tribes of Israel, and one of them stayed with me." This was Josef Burzminski, whom she married. "That was some recompense for me," she says with a smile.
The couple went to Israel for a time during the mid '50s, then went to the US , settling in the Boston area in the early 1960s so that her husband could pursue his studies at Tufts University. She has a daughter, 20, and a son, 15.
Like Mrs. Burzminski, Mrs. Schiffer married a man she had helped protect during the war. Peter Schiffer and another man hiding in the attic of a retired postman's house were among those to whom Alice brought food twice weekly. "Then one day after the war I met him on the street. We became such good friends that we got married." They came to the US right after the war, settling in a Boston suburb. He passed on in 1972.
Mrs. Schiffer's souvenirs of her days as a heroine include a file of letters from the people she worked with: Mlle. Henrard, the schoolteacher; Mrs. Kollman; the conspiratorial nuns in the convent in the Schaerbeek district of Brussels. Serious, elegant, European handwriting on thin, pastel official stationery, letters with notaries' seals, letters yellowing with age, letters that have been unfolded and refolded so many times that they are tearing along the fold lines, letters testifying that Mrs. Alice Schiffer did indeed at great personal risk save lives during the war.
She has her official identification as a member of the Belgian Resistance -- an orange pasteboard card with her photograph riveted in and all the particulars in both French and Flemish.
She has photographs, too, of Lydia and Inge, sepia-toned shots made just after the war by a studio in Brussels. They're attractive girls wearing neat jackets and plain blouses. They have wavy, dark hair and serious expressions.
She corresponds regularly with Lydia, now in Tel Aviv, and Inge, who now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. She plans to visit Lydia in February and Inge during the summer. Inge has recently married a second time, her first husband having dies a number of years ago, and Mrs. Schiffer is eager to meet her new "son-in-law." "Inge tells me he's a wonderful, wonderful man, and she's very happy."
Mrs. Burzminski, meanwhile, is busy writing a book about her experiences, called "The Fight for 13."
She works at the oilcloth-covered dining table in the living room of her modest apartment in Brookline. She writes in thick, spiral-bound school notebooks in her spiky Slavic script. The pages include penciled-in interpolations in another hand -- she has had help with her book. Dictionaries in Polish and English -- and French, too, which she sometimes uses to work her way from Polish to English -- are piled high. She has some grammar reference books around, too. There's one with a special table of past-tense forms of English verbs.
"I have trouble with the past," she says. She's referring to grammar, but she means much more. Later on she says, "I live all the time 35 years in the past. . . . I've lived through so much I should be 200 years old."
Even today, when she recounts her experiences, she gets so excited that she has to stop and draw some deep breaths, or blink away tears, before she can continue. She often works on her book late into the night.
"I think this memoir should be published, and children should read this in school, to learn that people are not for killing, that people should help one another. I know my story can help," she says.
What she needs most now is a professional writer to help her with her manuscript. She applied to one agency which provides free lancers for people like her who need writing and editing done. But when she was quoted the fee, she said, "Excuse me for a few minutes while I faint."
She carries on bravely. "This is still my life. I'm still not quiet. I will not rest until I publish my memoirs. There will come time for me maybe later. I ask God to give some little sign. Sometimes I have to wait."