Drucker was a chaplain in the Polish Army who retrieved Jewish children from Christian homes and brought them to the children's home in Zabrze. This was a one-man operation to "redeem" Jewish children, who called him "Pan [Sir] Kapitan".
At the war's end, Jewish communal life started to resurrect itself in Poland. Rabbi Dr. David Kahane, Chief Polish Army Chaplain, was appointed by the Polish government to head the "Committee of Religious Communities" in addition to his military duties. The Committee was responsible for the rejuvenation of religious life amongst the "surviving remnant" in Poland. As part of this endeavor, the Committee took upon itself the mission of retrieving Jewish children who were still living with Christians. Later on the Zionist "Koordynacja [Coordination Committee] for the Redemption of Jewish Children" was established, which operated independently from the Committee. Attempts to establish one united organization were unsuccessful. Rabbi Kahane entrusted the "redemption" of Jewish children to Yeshayahu Drucker. The operation was funded largely by the AJJDC, the Rescue Committee of United States Orthodox Rabbis and Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Schonfeld from London, one of the leaders of the Agudat Israel party.
Yeshayahu Drucker was born in 1914 in the town of Jordanow, near Krakow. He grew up in a Zionist home affiliated with the Mizrahi movement, and graduated from the State Seminary for Teachers of the Mosaic Religion in Warsaw. When the war broke out he fled eastward, but was caught and imprisoned by the Soviets, who sent him to a Soviet forced labor camp in Komi. In 1943 he enlisted to the Polish Kosciusko Division which fought alongside the Red Army and participated in the battle for Berlin. During his military service, Drucker stood out as the Jewish soldier who arranged holiday prayers, ensured that Passover was observed strictly, and helped his fellow Jews maintain their Jewish identity in the army. Word of his actions reached Rabbi Kahane, and when Drucker was about to leave military service, Kahane recommended that he be appointed Polish Army Chaplain with the rank of captain, even though he did not have Rabbinic ordination, and suggested that he spearhead the effort to rescue Jewish children.
The information regarding the children's whereabouts reached the Committee via survivors who returned to their hometowns searching for family members, and gave testimony pertaining to children who had been handed over to Christian families. Information was also obtained from people who were paid to search for the children, from Poles who had sheltered Jewish children and from family members. "The details accumulated, adding up to hundreds of addresses of children's locations", relates Drucker.
Drucker started travelling throughout Poland in his search for the children. He wore a Polish Army officer's uniform, which helped in his dealings with the locals. He quickly understood that he would need a place where he could house the children:
Of course, we had the option to bring the children to one of the homes run by the Jewish Commitee [The Central Committee of Jews in Poland, CKZP]. They had several beautiful children's homes, in Otwock, Łódź, Krakow etc. But there, the education provided was not nationalistic or Jewish, and so we didn't want to put even one child there. In light of this, we decided to establish an orphanage run by the "Committee of Religious Communities" in Zabrze, near Katowice. … We were given a building that had been a Jewish retirement home before the Nazi regime, a nice building with a garden. In our search for a director for the orphanage, we looked for a woman who would have a great deal of empathy for these children, survivors of the Holocaust. We were fortunate enough to find a wonderful educator, Dr. Nechama Geller, who herself had hidden with Poles, and who dedicated herself body and soul to the education of these children.
Drucker encountered many obstacles. He had to meet with the Poles and the children several times until he succeeded in persuading the families to relinquish the children to Jewish institutions. It was widely assumed amongst Polish locals that the Jews were immensely wealthy, which sometimes led to extortionate demands for money in return for their consent to hand over the children. Some of those who had harbored children delayed handing them over in the hope of inflating the sum they would receive in consideration for their return. There were also Poles who refused to part with the children for any sum of money offered. In some cases, the children's relatives had to turn to the Polish courts in order gain custody. On other occasions, Drucker acted on behalf of the child's biological family against the wishes of the children and the Poles they were living with, and removed them by force, bringing them to Zabrze. These children thus once again suffered the anguish of parting and separation. They were literally torn between their new Polish families and their biological parents, relatives and Jewish organizations, all of them claiming rights over the child. The Koordynacja also worked to return the children, and the competing actions of different organizations sometimes resulted in the demands for money being increased, and caused the children great distress and confusion. Drucker recalls:
Of course, we had to pay the Poles for sheltering the children. … but when it came to it and we needed money, it was hard to obtain and we had to haggle with the Poles. Personally, I believe that a Pole who risked his life – never mind why - shouldn't have been deprived and at the very least, he should have been reimbursed for sheltering the children.
The children themselves were rarely questioned about their prewar home life. In many cases, they did not know who their parents were, and didn't remember anything about their lives before the war. The Committee's fundamental belief was that these children had to be restored to their people and their religion, and be given a traditional Jewish education.
In the summer of 1946, the Chief Rabbi of Eretz Israel (Mandatory Palestine), Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, a supporter of this rescue endeavor, came to Poland. Drucker met with him and was encouraged to continue with his work. Rabbi Herzog managed to arrange for the departure of some 600 children from homes in Poland for Eretz Israel, among them children from the orphanage in Zabrze. On the way, the train carrying the children stopped in Prague, and the Rabbi met them in a ceremony held at the railway station in his honor. The Rabbi's reception was filmed, and became a symbol of new life for orphaned Holocaust survivors. Excerpts from the film are featured in this exhibition. Fourteen-year-old Batya Akselrad (later Eisenstein), who was on the train, relates:
We left Zabrze and arrived in Łódź. There, we went to a home where there were children and teenagers who had survived the war with their families in Russia. We stayed in Łódź for a few days, and then we alighted a train on which each child had a bed, and we were given good meals. Yeshayahu Drucker joined the train at Łódź and accompanied us to the Czech border. He wrote me beautiful, touching words on a piece of paper. We reached the border and parted from Yeshayahu, who returned to Poland to continue his sacred work.
The children's home in Zabrze was operational for approximately three years, and some 700 children stayed there for different periods of time. The home was staffed by teachers, educators and caregivers, most of them Holocaust survivors themselves, who worked together tirelessly to nurture the children. Drucker himself spent Sabbaths and Jewish holidays there, as well as every free day available to him. He would sit with the children, talk to them and tell them stories. As soon as the home filled up with children, arrangements would be made through the Youth Aliyah for their departure together with Koordynacja children, in order to prepare for their immigration to Eretz Israel.
Irena Taubenfeld (later Ilana Feldblum) spent the war period under an assumed identity in a Polish convent. She was twelve when she met Yeshayahu Drucker, who tried to convince her to leave the convent. She left the convent only two years after meeting Drucker for the first time, and reached the children's home in Zabrze. She recalls:
I think I was frightened to return to Judaism. I didn't want to be Jewish, because it meant danger and disgrace. … But as soon as I made the decision, I contacted Captain Drucker and he arranged a place for me at the children's home in Zabrze. That children's home really was a safe haven, because they received us very warmly and understood what each of us had been through. There were only two religious boys there, all the other children were not. They couldn't be. They couldn't force us to be religious because it was a transition that was too hard to make. There were children who continued to go to church. … I was one of the older children... We slept together in a large room, and we were like one big family. … And Captain Drucker would come to visit. The children really loved him. When he came, it was like a holiday. Everyone would run to him and talk to him. … Only later did I realize that Captain Drucker was all of 25, 26. He was also a young man who had endured the war. … For us, he was a much loved, noble figure, and he always knew how to show love and understanding. We have stayed in contact with him until today.
In late 1946 and early 1947, Rabbi Dr. Schonfeld obtained "Certificates" for the orphans, and brought some 250 children from Poland to England, including some of the children from Zabrze. The children were placed with Jewish families and in Jewish institutions, and some of them later immigrated to Eretz Israel.
In early 1948, the Polish communist authorities started to restrict the activities of Zionist party activists, and sought to close the Committee and Koordynacja children's homes with a view to transferring the care of the children to the Central Jewish Committee The retrieval of children became harder to execute, and at the end of that year the children's home in Zabrze was closed, the children eventually immigrating to Israel. There, the Zabrze children were dispersed amongst many different kibbutzim, and thus, in addition to all the hardships they had already endured, once in Israel they did not have the security and support of belonging to the group with which they had arrived from Europe.
Drucker immigrated to Israel in 1950. Later in life, he spoke about the project to "redeem" the children:
As this operation ends, I have mixed feelings. We carried out an operation for the good of the nation. We rescued children. And especially after the Holocaust. But for the children themselves, this return to the Jewish fold fomented in many of them a psychological crisis from which I fear they have not recovered to this day. … If we consider the matter from the viewpoint of the individual himself, was it worth all the effort? The boy had no idea he was a Jew, and the very knowledge that he was only humiliated him. … Had we left him, perhaps he would not have undergone the whole crisis he went through after returning to the fold of Judaism. … After all, the child had found his place and his home in a particular family, and the family sometimes loved him more and sometimes less, but he had people to whom he could turn and say 'daddy', 'mommy' … But we came along and removed him and made him a child of the general public.
After immigrating to Israel, Drucker met some of the children he had removed from Christian homes and brought to Zabrze. In his testimony from 1968, he talks about their integration into Israeli life:
The children were placed in kibbutzim. I don't stand in judgement on the kibbutzim one way or another. But these children were completely different from kibbutz children who had been born at home. They had parents, and they had never experienced life without parents. These children needed special warmth, which they did not encounter in Israel. Even those children who came to relatives did not manage to maintain the relationship for very long. Family ties were severed because they did not understand what the child was going through. If their intention was to absorb the children here and heal them psychologically, they should have trained a special team of people to look after them. … Today, the children have already grown up, some of them coped, but very regrettably a large percentage did not. They live from hand to mouth, and when I meet with them, I often feel their mute reproach – why did I do this to them?
In a later testimony, he relates that most of the children eventually found their way in life, and made peace with their past, and that when he would ask them "Did I do the right thing bringing you here, or not?" their affirmative response was a balm for his conscience. When questioned by a Polish journalist, "Who gave you the right to change history, to take children who had a home, and bring them to the unknown?", Drucker responded with a verse from Isaiah: "And when there is yet a tenth of it, it will again be purged, like the terebinth and like the oak, which in the fall have but a trunk, the holy seed is its trunk." (Isaiah 6: 13) [The remaining tenth will be as strong as the trunk of the terebinth and the oak, from which the nation will continue to exist]. "These children were the holy seed of Jewish continuity".
Yeshayahu Drucker's full testimony is preserved in the Yad Vashem Archives.