Award ceremony at the Yad Vashem Synagogue. Read William Donat's speech delivered during the ceremony
06 January 2009
A ceremony honoring Magdalena Grodzka-Guzkowska from Poland as Righteous Among the Nations was held at Yad Vashem on 6 January 2009. It was a most moving meeting between rescuer and survivor: Ms. Grodzka-Guzkowska flew in from Poland and survivor William Donat came especially from New York to pay tribute to the woman who had saved his life. The ceremony was also attended by a group of educators from Lodz, Poland, who had come to Jerusalem for a seminar at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies.
Magdalena Grodzka-Guzkowska (née Rusinek) was 15 years old when she joined the Polish Underground against the Germans. In 1943, she met Jadwiga Piotrowska, later recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, and joined her in rescuing Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. Magdalena collected the children, cared for them and escorted them to their places of refuge with Polish families or in convents. She displayed enormous dedication and love, although she was placing her own life at serious risk. Before bringing the children to their hiding places, she taught them Christian customs in an effort to disguise their Jewish identity.
One such rescue activity saw Magdalena save the life of a six-year-old Jewish boy called Adas, who had been severely injured by local thugs. Magdalena took the boy for medical care at the hospital, and then moved him to a hiding place in a monastery. She also saved the life of five-year-old Wlodzio Berg. In spring 1943 his parents managed to smuggle him out of the ghetto and bring him to an elderly couple. Someone denounced the family, and a new place had to be found for the child. Magdalena brought him to a safe place. She brought him food every day, as well as colors with which to draw pictures. Eventually he was brought to a convent in Otwock. Wlodzio Berg, now called William Donat, survived the Holocaust and requested that Yad Vashem recognize his rescuer as Righteous Among the Nations.
Alexander Donat, Wlodzio-Wlodek-William’s father, described the family’s fate in a book - The Holocaust Kingdom. He tells his readers how they prepared their son for life on the Aryan side:
“We had two weeks to prepare the child psychologically and materially. New shoes were necessary. Lena had, in the interim, been teaching Wlodek the Catholic prayers. ‘Now remember’, she told him, ‘ you have never lived in the Ghetto and you must never use the word Ghetto. You’re not a Jew. ….We were bitterly aware of the tragic spectacle of a mother teaching her only child to disavow his parents, his people, his former life…We also had only two weeks to engrave on our hearts and minds the image of our only child. We tried not to let Wlodek feel the pain the impending separation was causing us….”
Wlodzio remembers the weeks he stayed alone in the hiding place. His rescuer told him to stay in his room, not to make noises and not to go near the window. She would leave him bread and jam, colors and paper boats to keep him busy. In order to ease the loneliness and the terrible fear the child must have felt all alone while the ghetto was going up in flames, she told him that there were good spirits watching over him. Within the terror that surrounded him, Magdalena was the reliable support he had. This notion was expressed in the account he gave after the war: “Magda took care of everything”.