Polish Jews hidden during war troubled by identity problems Raised by Christians, they learn of roots

November 03, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

WARSAW, Poland -- When Lucyna Pryczyna was a child, it did not seem strange that her parents were away. It was World War II. The Germans were occupying Poland, and families everywhere were scattered.

She did not know that her real name was Aida Sejndman, or that she was alive only because her parents had tossed her from a train just before it reached the Zwiezyniec concentration camp. An aging Polish woodsman discovered the bundle and took in the Jewish baby.

He and his wife told the child that she was their granddaughter and that she must tell strangers that her parents were gone. They gave her a picture of their own daughter, off fighting in the Polish resistance, and told Lucyna this was her mother.

"The German soldiers called me a Jewish child when they saw me in the woods. My grandfather would tell them, 'No, I have the papers to prove she's Christian,' " said Lucyna.

Still, a German soldier shot her in the leg one day.

"You Jew," Lucyna recalls him saying.

The tale of Lucyna's hidden identity is shared by an unknown number of East European Jews who survived the war among Christian families in Poland, often not learning of their Jewish identity until they were adults.

Last May, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith held a conference for the hidden children. They expected no more than 500 to show up. Instead, 1,600 came, said Abraham H. Foxman, the ADL's national director, who was himself a hidden child.

Mr. Foxman said he suspects the true number of children hidden during the war will never be known, especially since those who saved the children are dying.

"Every day a rescuer dies and dies with that secret," he said.

"And it's never known that they risked their lives to do a heroic thing."

"As long as there's a stigma attached to saving a Jewish child, people don't want to proclaim it publicly," he said.

Some Poles hid Jews for sums of money and jewels, and some helped out of pure humanity. Either way, they took enormous risks. The punishment for hiding a Jew during the Nazi occupation was instant death.

"One of the only things we had in our power was silence," said Mr. Foxman. "We were not allowed to talk about who we were; we were not allowed to cry. In some cases, we had to not even speak if we were held in hiding."

Now, the once-hidden children have their own children, and they find it difficult to speak openly. Instead, they remain guarded and silent.

"We realized it was affecting the way we relate to our children," Mr. Foxman said.

For many of the hidden children still in Poland, the revelation of their Jewishness was troubling at first. Often, they learned of their origins at their rescuers' deathbeds, after they had already absorbed many of the anti-Semitic attitudes that are now expressed openly in Poland.

Mrs. Pryczyna traveled to New York for the ADL conference last May. She did not find the brother and sister she was looking for, but a troubling moment of revelation.

A lawyer from Canada who had known her family walked up to her and said, "You must be Mr. Sejndman's daughter, because you look exactly like him."

Mrs. Pryczyna straightened her legs and rubbed them at the memory as she talked here. "I couldn't speak. It was such a shock to me. My heart stopped," she said. "From my face, he realized I must be my father's daughter. My legs blew up like this from all the emotion."

Lucyna Pryczyna only learned she was Jewish on her "grandfather's" deathbed, when he was 86 and she was 16.

"You should know who you are," the woodsman said, and he told her to call a certain Dr. Schneider who knew her story.

Dr. Schneider was a Jewish doctor who survived the war because she had married a Polish Catholic. At the age of 3, Mrs. Pryczyna had chicken pox. Her "grandfather" took her to Dr. Schneider and told the doctor the girl's tale.

He said he'd found the baby wrapped on a cushion near the railway tracks leading to the concentration camp. He took her home, and cared for her as his own.

After a time, the baby's cushion began to fall apart. In repairing it, the woodsman discovered a stash of jewelry and documents explaining who Mrs. Pryczyna really was.

Coincidentally, Dr. Schneider also knew who the girl was. She had delivered her when she was born and knew her family.

The doctor told Mrs. Pryczyna her real name and said her father had been a lawyer. There were two older children, a brother and a sister, but Dr. Schneider did not know if they survived the war.

"I could cross them in the street and not know who they are," Lucyna says. "Maybe they're Christians."

Mrs. Pryczyna's confusion was total. As a child, other children had taunted the dark-skinned child that she was Jewish.

"I thought, 'How can they say that?' " she recalled. "My grandparents were wonderful, and here I have a picture of my mother."

At age 12, she moved in with the woodsman's daughter, her presumed mother. She had been taking care of the woman's children like an older sister.

When Dr. Schneider was leaving Poland for Israel, she wanted to take Mrs. Pryczyna with her. But the woodsman's daughter, Mrs. Pryczyna's legal guardian, refused to give her permission to go.

Mrs. Pryczyna did not go to Israel, but left home and moved to Warsaw. She went to the Israeli embassy.

Officials there gave her money for an apartment and introduced her to the Jewish community. They took her in and got her a job in a kosher restaurant called Amica.

Now, she wears the white shirt, black vest and skirt uniform of the hotel restaurant where she has worked 33 years.

As she describes her past, Mrs. Pryczyna covers her mouth. Her co-workers do not know she is Jewish.

Asked what would happen if they did know, she clasped the arm of an old friend who was translating, "You know," she said, "nobody likes us here."

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