1900: The private, decent, and humane execution of a human being named George Smiley 1430: Ten men beheaded, and an eleventh man married

1945: Karolina Juszczykowska, who couldn’t say no

January 9th, 2015 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1945, Polish Gentile Karolina Juszczykowska was executed at the prison in Frankfurt am Main for her attempt to save two Jewish men in Tomaschow, Poland, the previous year. She was 46 years old.

The people she tried to rescue have never been identified; only their first names, Paul and Janek, are known. According to Karolina, she met them on the street and they offered her 300 zloty a week to hide them. She kept them in her home and locked them inside when she went off to work during the day; they slept on the floor at night.

The arrangement lasted only about six weeks before they were betrayed.

The Gestapo raided Karolina’s home on July 23, 1944 and found Janek and Paul hiding in the cellar. Karolina was arrested and the two men were summarily executed.

Karolina emphasized that she only took them in because she needed the money to support herself. The judges who presided over her case seemed to believe her and, although they issued the mandatory death sentence, recommended clemency, writing, “The accused is in a difficult financial situation and succumbed to the temptation to improve her life.”

Karolina was indeed poor. “I have no assets,” she said in her statement to the police, “and don’t expect to have any in the future.” She’d worked menial jobs her whole life: farm work, construction, domestic service, and most recently in the kitchens of Organization Todt, the Third Reich’s civil and military engineering division. She had never been to school and was completely illiterate; she signed her police statement with three crosses.

But, as Yad Vashem points out when writing of her case, no matter what she said, it’s highly unlikely that Karolina Juszczykowska’s reasons for hiding Jews were primarily mercenary.

The wartime Polish economy had shattered, inflation had soared, and 300 zlotys wouldn’t have even been enough to cover the costs of feeding two extra people. No rational person would risk her life for that — the sentence for a Pole caught helping Jews was nearly always death.

What, then, motivated our Gentile rescuer?

Psychologist and filmmaker Eva Fogelman wrote a book called Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust, wherein she examines the many and various motivations of rescuers. “Many rescuers,” she writes,

found it impossible to explain to anyone who did not live through those times why they acted as they did. In war, there were no rules. The familiar seemed strange, and the bizarre seemed normal. In retrospect, rescuers’ behavior, in some instances, was not understandable even to them. How could they have endangered their families? How could they have done what they did or said what they said?

In Fogelman’s estimation, many rescuers were motivated by simple morality, either of a religious or purely personal kind.

Moral rescuers had a strong sense of who they were and what they were about. Their values were self-sustaining, not dependent on the approval of others. To them, what mattered most was behaving in a way that maintained their integrity. The bystanders who ultimately became rescuers knew that unless they took action, people would die …moral rescuers typically launched their rescuing activity only after being asked to help or after an encounter with suffering and death that awakened their consciences. Scenes of Nazi brutality touched their inner core and activated their moral values … For the most part, when asked for help, moral rescuers could not say no.

We will never know for sure, but it could have happened like this: In 1943, Karolina, while working for Todt, either witnessed or heard about the liquidation of the Tomaschow Ghetto and the accompanying violence and brutality. Most of the ghetto’s Jews were sent to Treblinka in January 1943; the last few hundred were taken away in May. Janek and Paul went into hiding and managed to stay off the radar for a year or so, but by the time they met Karolina they’d been run to ground and were desperate. They asked for her help. She couldn’t say no.

Although Karolina’s judges recommended she be pardoned, the death sentence was carried out anyway. There were no survivors and all we know about this case comes from court documents. But her sacrifice did not go unnoticed.

On May 17, 2011, over 65 years after her death, Israel recognized Karolina Juszczykowska as Righteous Among the Nations, its official honorific for Gentiles who aided Jews during the Holocaust.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Poland,Wartime Executions,Women

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