Charlotte Reches, Agnieszka Wrobel, Henry Reches and Jodi… (Colby Ware, Baltimore Sun )
The intertwined history of the Jewish Reches family of Mount Washington and Greenspring and the Roman Catholic Staszczak-Wrobel family of Poland is extraordinary, and extraordinarily inspiring.
When family members recount it at schools, churches, synagogues — or to passengers on a sightseeing bus — it can bring tears to strangers' eyes.
That history began during World War II as Germany occupied Poland and, in 1942, the Nazis resolved to make the small town of Mosciska Judenfrei — free of Jews.
The Staszczaks, led by matriarch Rosalia Staszczak and her daughter Josefa Wrobel, agreed to conceal the Reches family on their farm, in a hole dug into the earthen floor in the Staszczak barn. Today, the Reches family says that for nearly two years, six members of their family and two others hid there.
"It was a courageous decision that put their lives in jeopardy," said Henry Reches, 73, who was a young boy hiding in that hole. "If the Nazis had found us, they would have shot them first, before they shot us."
Late in August, 70 years after the family crawled from that hiding place for the last time, the Recheses welcomed Agnieszka Wrobel, 29 — a great-great-granddaughter of their protector family — to Baltimore. At a neighborhood reception, about 150 family members, members of Shomrei Emunah Congregation and community friends gathered to meet and greet the visitor from Poland.
"It's incredible to think that more than 70 years later we have their great-great granddaughter here, spending time with our family," Reches said. "It's something that, all those years ago, we never would have imagined."
Family oral histories relate how six members of the Reches family, along with an unrelated brother and sister, stayed in the crude hole dug in the Staszczaks' barn. According to recollections it wasn't deep enough for an adult to stand and barely wide enough to accommodate eight people. It tended to flood during heavy rains.
If they left the hole — and they seldom did — it was briefly, and under cover of darkness. A bucket served as a toilet, a small kerosene lamp provided the only light. When the coast was clear, and many days it was not, the Wrobels' teen-aged sons would bring what food they could spare.
Yet the dank, fetid hole proved a saving alternative to Nazi death camps where many others perished.
After the war, the Staszczak-Wrobels and their descendants stayed in Poland, for the most part. Many members of the Reches family ended up in Israel or the United States.
Despite seven decades and thousands of miles, the Reches family has never forgotten its debt of gratitude. The families correspond — for years by letter and more recently via e-mail and Facebook — and family members who settled in Baltimore in the early 1950s sometimes even sent money and gifts. From time to time, the families have visited back and forth.
Wrobel, great-granddaughter of Josefa Wrobel and great-great-granddaughter of Rosalia Staszczak, said she heard bits and pieces of the families' history growing up.
"It wasn't that my grandfather sat me down and told me the whole story," she said. "I learned it in pieces over the years."
She admits when Henry Reches last visited her family in Poland in 1993, she was too young to grasp the full significance of World War II, the Holocaust or the shadows the events cast over her family history.
Half a world away, Henry Reches' daughter Jodi Reches has made sure it is not forgotten. She's written and spoken about the ordeal and the moral lessons of heroism, altruism and humanity she draws from it.
"If not for the brave and heroic sacrifice of the Staszczak and Wrobel families … it is most likely that our beautiful family would not be here today," Jodi Reches wrote in an email. "Along with the hand of God, they made our survival possible."
She and other family members take pride in the fact that their own children are now keeping the story alive by writing papers and giving presentations at their schools and synagogues.
"We hope that our families will always stay and touch and share this bond," she said.
After a week of celebration and sightseeing, including trips to New York, Washington and Annapolis, Wrobel left for home on Labor Day — but not before both families touched upon the elements of faith and gratitude they practice in their own way.
Henry Reches said Wrobel attended Catholic Mass at the Cathedral of Mary of Queen in Baltimore. The day before, the Reches family took her to their synagogue, where the rabbi welcomed her as an honored guest.
"All week she's been saying 'I'm not the hero of this story, it's my ancestors,'" Henry Reches said. "We've just been honored to have her here, and to share this experience with her."