“You Would Have Done the Same for Me”: The Story of Helena Kotula

“You Would Have Done the Same for Me.”

The Story of Helena Kotula

By Donna Gawell

There are some people whose stories from WWII remain buried under the ashes and rubble. History doesn’t often reveal many details of the ordinary and humble who have come before us.  Sometimes a few facts are resurrected painting a person as brave, wise and generous, and then we don’t need to know much more. Helena Katula is one such amazing person.

Helena Katula was a widowed owner of a small grocery store in Kolbuszowa, Poland during WWII. The only surviving information about Katula comes from books written by author Norman Salsitz. His very traditional Jewish family had known her for years, and she was a loyal and trusted customer of the Solsitz family’s business. It appears Salsitz didn’t even know Helena Katula’s first name and referred to her only by the formal title, “Pani Katulova” in his stories.

Norman Salsitz’s family from Kolbuszowa

Kolbuszowa was a unique town as half of the small town’s population before the war was Jewish. The Poles and Jews lived quite separate lives but coexisted in relative peace. For centuries, Kolbuszowa’s town symbol has been two hands clasped in friendship with the Christian cross and Star of David demonstrating this unique relationship. This laudable history was abruptly crushed when Nazi Germany invaded Kolbuszowa in the first weeks of September 1939.

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Gromnica: The Thunder Candle

One of the most unique gifts I have ever received came from a cousin who lives in a small village in Poland. He handed me a precious gift at our first meeting with these words of caution, “Now this candle is special. It should only be lit during lightning storms or if someone in your house is on their death bed.”

This lovely candle is a gromnica (plural gromnice) and is also known as a Thunder Candle. The Polish word “grom” means a clap of thunder. Almost every Catholic home in Poland will have at least one of these long and relatively thick candles that are decorated with religious symbols and images.  In modern times, the gromnice is stored away carefully for important ceremonies such as a christening, First Communion, Confirmation or Anointing.

The most important function of gromnice has not been ceremonial but protective. As its name implies, the gromnica was believed to protect against thunderstorms and was lit and placed in windows to keep lightning away. My ancestors’ village was in the middle of a huge forest, and I can imagine the villagers knew how the destructive havoc of a bolt of lightning. Likely they saw many homes that were destroyed that way. As a child, I can recall how terrified my Polish aunt was of lightning storms. Even though she didn’t live in a forest, her intense fear of lightning was obviously passed down through the generations. Polish prayer books often contain a prayer to say during storms.

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Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 24: Nominating Polish Christians for the “Righteous Among the Nations” Award- I Need Your Help!

Monday, April 24, 2017 is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

I am in the process of completing the application for two Polish people to posthumously receive the “Righteous Among the Nations” award from Yad Yeshem in Israel. This distinction is awarded to gentiles who assisted Jews during the Holocaust. Please read the story and about the ways you can assist so the application and testimony would be favorably received by the committee. Maybe next year in Jerusalem?

A Tree is Planted in Israel for Each Recipient of the Award

The research for my next historical novel led me to a little-known story about a Catholic priest and a widow only known as “Pani Kotulova.” The details of their kindness and bravery took place in the small town of Kolbuszowa in 1942. Father Antoni Dunajecki, the priest from the town’s church and Pani (Mrs.) Kotulova” are the two rescuers of Norman Salsitz, a young Jewish man. Salsitz wrote about these courageous people in his remarkable book “A Jewish Boyhood in Poland: Remembering Kolbuszowa.”

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From Steerage to the Suite Life

This article is a detour from my usual historical writing, but I hope you find it interesting.

My husband and I were treated to “the suite life” on a cruise by my daughter and her husband. We typically cruise in cabins classified as inside to those that have balconies, and this was our first full suite (Penthouse with large balcony). I thought it would be interesting for the readers to read a compare and contrast of the cruise experience in different types of cabins.  For those of you who have never cruised, I hope this inspires you to try one.

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S is for Spectral Evidence

One of the greatest travesties of justice in American history was that spectral evidence was allowed as court testimony during the Salem Witchcraft Trials in 1692. Spectral evidence is based on the visions, hallucinations, or dreams of the accuser. Today, it is inconceivable that any sane person would consider this type of evidence as valid, and there were some in colonial New England who would have agreed

A specter is a spirit or ghostly apparition that causes torment to its victims. The problem is that others cannot see the specter even though they may observe the alleged victim writhing in pain. Only the “victim” and perhaps a few of her friends were privy to observe the specter. This evidence was considered admissible at the time because the Puritans believed that the Devil and his minions were at work and powerful enough to send their evil spirits to lead pure, religious people astray.

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