Holocaust survivor and her rescuer living like sisters

Sunday, August 3, 2008

WARSAW, Poland -- They are two silver-haired ladies with a special bond forged in the Holocaust. One is the daughter of Jews who perished under the Nazis, the other her Roman Catholic rescuer.

Today Janina Pietrasiak, 74, and Maria Lopuszanska, 79, live like sisters around the corner from each other in a Warsaw neighborhood shaded by chestnut trees.

They see each other every day, tend to each other's needs, even finish each other's sentences.

Their story is a testament to how devotion born of deep adversity can endure for a lifetime and how the Holocaust survivors' exhortation "never forget" can find resonance as much in acts of great generosity as in those of unspeakable depravity.

During several hours with The Associated Press, the women relived the events that merged their lives while sitting side by side in Maria's room in a nursing home, a five-minute walk from Janina's modest apartment.

Maria was the teenage daughter of members of the Polish anti-Nazi underground who gave shelter in their Warsaw apartment in 1942 to Janina and her mother, Roza Feldman.

Feldman soon died of tuberculosis, her strength depleted by the cold and hunger she had endured before escaping from the Krakow Ghetto.

After that, Janina, not yet 8 when she joined the Catholic home, clung to her new family and was baptized to fit in with them and increase her chances of survival under the Nazis.

The bond deepened during the ill-fated Warsaw Uprising of 1944, when the girls had to fend for themselves because Maria's father was ill and her mother had taken up arms against the Nazis in the streets of the capital.

They saw bombs exploding, corpses and body parts on the streets, narrowly escaping death themselves more than once. Both recalled how the younger Janina would bury herself in the older girl's skirt as the bombs exploded.

"She was like a mother," Janina said, reaching over and grasping the hem of Maria's skirt as she remembered.

Janina lost the most. Her father died in Auschwitz. Her only sibling, Ewa, survived the war but later committed suicide. And the death of her beloved mother fills her with pain to this day.

Through the years, Janina suffered bouts of depression so severe that she was forced to retire early at age 59 from her work as a translator, and went on medication.

Her marriage to a devout Roman Catholic brought a daughter, but also the fresh pain of a husband, from whom she is now separated, who taunted her with anti-Semitic remarks.

Despite her own ordeals, including a battle with leukemia now in remission, the main focus in her life is the woman she calls her sister.

Maria lives on a pension so small that after paying her nursing home, she only has 300 zlotys ($145) left over -- most of which the breast cancer survivor needs for medicine.

After the war she became an economist, married and had three children. Her room is filled with photos of her grandchildren, along with crucifixes. Her husband died in 1987.

Janina didn't seek contact with Jews until 1997 -- and then it was only in an attempt to seek recognition for Maria.

She contacted the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, which then bestowed the title of "Righteous Among the Nations" to Maria and to her parents, Henryk and Janina Jetkiewicz.

The title, reserved for non-Jews who saved Jews, has gone to people from 44 countries. On Jan. 1, Poles made up the largest number, 6,066, followed by the Netherlands with 4,863.

Thanks to her recognition as a rescuer, Maria receives $1,200 per year from the New York-based Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which helps with the medicine and a few extras such as this year's summer holiday to the Warsaw countryside.

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