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Yad Vashem to Honor Righteous Among the Nations from Poland Thursday

12 July 2011

On Thursday, July 14, 2011, Yad Vashem will hold a ceremony posthumously honoring Stefan and Maria Magenheim of Poland, as Righteous Among the Nations. The couple's nephew, Mr. Stefan Laudyn, Director of the Warsaw Film Festival, will accept the medal and certificate of honor on their behalf. The event will take place in the presence of family and friends as well as educators from a dozen countries currently at the International School for Holocaust Studies for a three-week seminar.

A memorial ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance will be held at 11:00 followed by the awarding of the medal and certificate in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. The events will take place in English. The event is open to the press, in coordination with the Media Relations dept. 02 644 3410.

The Rescue Story

On the eve of World War II, approximately 375,000 Jews lived in Warsaw, constituting almost one-third of the city’s population. On 28 September 1939 the Germans occupied Warsaw, and a year later a ghetto was established confining what used to be the largest Jewish community in Europe into a small crowded area. Between 22 July and September 1942, some 300,000 Jews were deported from the Warsaw ghetto to the Treblinka death camp. In January 1943, another 6,000 Jews were deported. In the months that followed, the ghetto inhabitants lived with the knowledge of the imminent liquidation of the ghetto, while the Jewish resistance movements prepared for the inevitable assault.

In March 1943, the parents of five-year-old Wlodziu Berg understood that if they wanted to save their son, they would have to part from him and give him to ‘Aryan’ friends. They asked several Polish friends to care for the child, but since hiding a Jew – even a small child – was punishable by death, people were afraid to take him in. The desperate parents turned to Stefan Magenheim, who used to work with Wlodziu's father on the publication of a daily Polish newspaper. He and his wife Maria, an elderly couple with no children of their own, agreed to take the child into their home. The child was smuggled out of the ghetto and brought to the home of Stefan and Maria. They opened their door and their hearts to the frightened boy, who had never been separated from his parents before. "Uncle Stefan" read him stories from children's books and "Auntie Maria" put on little skits to entertain him. The couple told their neighbors that he was the son of friends who had been arrested by the Germans, but Stefan and Maria lived in constant fear that the lively boy would divulge his true identity.

Three weeks after Wlodziu's arrival at the Magenheim home, they were betrayed, most likely by a neighbor. A szmalcownik, a pejorative term for Poles who extorted money from hiding Jews or from Poles protecting Jews, arrived at the Magenheim apartment flanked by two policemen. Maria gave him some money, but it was clear that they had to move the child to a safer hiding place. With the help of Magdalena Grodzka-Guzkowska (recognized as Righteous Among the Nations) he was brought to an orphanage near Otwock, where he remained for two years. During that period, Maria came to the orphanage whenever she could, bringing Wlodziu cakes and other special treats.

Wlodziu's parents both survived the Holocaust and were reunited with their son. They changed their last name to Donat, immigrated to the United States, and Wlodziu became William. The story of Wlodzio's rescue is described in the appendix of The Holocaust Kingdom, a poignant memoir written by his father, Alexander Donat. Stefan Magenheim passed away in 1950. His wife Maria passed away in 1966. On 24 February 2009 Stefan and Maria Magenheim were recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. William Donat passed away in 2009.