Together Down The Rabbit Hole Of War
In an Austrian labor camp, Rachel Mitzmacher and righteous
gentile Wladyslaw Misiuna forged a lifetime friendship.
by Carolyn Slutsky
It was in a warehouse used for breeding rabbits in Nazi-occupied Poland that the creation story of the Mitzmacher-Misiuna family friendship began.
It was 1943, the middle of World War II, and Rachel Mitzmacher had been sent from her home in Klimontow, Poland, to a labor camp in Radom that manufactured ammunitions. She worked with a group of other young Jewish women in the rabbit warehouse, the rabbits a hobby of the Austrian camp director who used their skins to make warm clothing for German troops on the Russian front.
Wladyslaw Misiuna, then a teenager living in Radom, was a guard at the camp, and he befriended Rachel and the other women. Misiuna had had Jewish friends before the war, and to him there
was no difference between himself and the Jews in the camp: they were just people in need of help.
These two unlikely friends formed a lifelong relationship in the hell of war, a relationship that lasted through Rachel's deportation to Auschwitz, her liberation and immigration to Israel and eventually New York, where her family lives today.
Last month, Misiuna was honored along with other righteous gentiles by the Polish president. Rachel's son, Akiva Mitzmacher, and grandson, Jack Fried, traveled to Poland for the ceremony.
The warm relationship the families enjoy hides the darker story of their wartime experiences. Back in the labor camp, Misiuna proved a good friend to Rachel. He smuggled in bread, risking and sometimes receiving beatings for his actions, as he had to walk past commandants every morning to enter the camp. He snuck vegetables meant to feed the rabbits to the women.
Eventually, living in the camp's filthy conditions, Rachel developed an infection, one that would be a death sentence without treatment. She received a mild ointment in the camp, but it did not help. Finally, Misiuna cut his own skin and infected himself, seeking medical attention outside the camp and bringing the precious medicine back for Rachel, who survived.
"I felt I was rescuing my own human beings," recalled Misiuna in an interview last month in New York, translated from the Polish by his wife, Malgorzata. "They were not Jewish to me, they were equal."
For Akiva Mitzmacher, Misiuna was a constant figure in the tales of his parents' past.
"My mother always spoke about him," said Mitzmacher, whose parents were both from Klimontow and married on Jan. 1, 1943, in the ghetto. When Rachel and her husband, Wolf, were liberated from Auschwitz, the first trip they took was to see Misiuna, before leaving Poland for Israel in 1946.
"The first money my father earned, he bought a typewriter and sent it to him."
Misiuna was honored as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 1985 and traveled to Israel for the award.
A few years later, he was on his way to Los Angeles when he had an unexpected layover in New York, where the Mitzmachers had lived since 1959. He immediately called Rachel and they spent 12 hours together reminiscing before his flight.
"It's important so people don't forget about what was," said Misiuna of why he risked his life to save Mitzmacher, why he kept in touch over the years, why he is now active in the Polish-Israeli Friendship Society and the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, and why he speaks to young Israelis visiting Poland.
"I wish to return the memory and give good information about Israel and the Jews to the Polish population," he said.
Asked about the current climate for Jews in Poland, Misiuna is realistic. He mentioned the Catholic Church's sometimes anti-Semitic stance, and that older people sometimes hold onto negative opinions of Jews from the past, but said that most young people don't understand or harbor anti-Semitism.
For rescuers and survivors to be in such close touch after the chaos of the war years and the inevitable postwar migration is rare, but the Mitzmachers and Misiunas are certainly not the only ones in this position.
Ilse Loeb recently recounted her lifelong relationship with Joanna "Johtje" Vos, the Dutch woman who saved her and 35 other Jews.
Loeb was a teenager in a precarious situation in 1944: she was hiding with rescuers in a home that was often searched by the Nazis, and when they would come she had to climb into a hole in the wall to hide. The people she was staying with heard about Vos and her husband, Aart, who lived nearby, and they took her to them late one night.
"When my rescuer called Johtje that night and asked if I could stay with them awhile, she had never met me, but she said yes," Loeb recalled.
Loeb stayed for around nine months, taking care of the children living in the house and watching Jews pass through. When a sympathetic Dutch policeman rang their phone then hung up, signaling the Nazis' approach, Aart would lead the Jews through a trapdoor, a tunnel and to safety in the woods, sheltering them in the home the rest of the time.
Loeb survived and moved to the United States in 1947, followed by the Voses in 1951. When she found out Vos was living near her in upstate New York, Loeb sought her out and the two formed a new bond.
"There was a time when Johtje and I would go to the synagogues [to speak] together. It was special that a person could be there with the person she saved," Loeb said.
Johtje Vos died on Oct. 10 in Saugerties, N.Y., at the age of 97.
Akiva Mitzmacher and his nephew found their time in Poland intense. They visited the family home in Klimontow, and Fried said they experienced anti-Semitism from some local children who shouted epithets at them and showed them bones from a nearby Jewish cemetery that they kept in a bucket in their classroom.
Still, Fried found the trip meaningful. "I'm now able to visualize places and people I'd grown up hearing stories about," he said. "It's a way to touch history. I walked where my grandparents walked, prayed where they prayed."
After meeting in Poland, Misiuna traveled to New York last month and had the chance to visit Rachel's grave, something he had always wanted to do, he said, as he feels she was his family.
He also attended the wedding of Rachel's grandson, Michael, and had the satisfaction of seeing that "this family grows and grows."
"I introduced my kids to Mr. Misiuna and said, 'Remember this man, he saved my grandmother and he's the reason why we're all here,'" Fried recalled.
For Misiuna, the recent visit was a catharsis of sorts.
"A part of my personal history is closed," he said of visiting the gravesite and attending the wedding. "This is a new story."