“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 Kotula is one such amazing person.
Helena Kotula was a widowed owner of a small grocery store in Kolbuszowa, Poland during WWII. The only surviving information about Kotula 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 Kotula’s first name and referred to her only by the formal title, “Pani Kotulova” in his stories.
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.
The trusting friendship between Pani Kotula and the Solsitz family was put to the test during WWII. Most of his family was taken to the nearby ghetto in Rzeszow, and it was this dependable woman who agreed to hide much of their merchandise with the expectation the Solsitzs’ would one day return. The family trusted her because of her honesty during their long time business relationship.
Most of the Jews in Kolbuszowa were placed in a ghetto in the town and subjected to horrible persecution. They were eventually moved to a nearby concentration camp by the Nazis.
In the fall of 1942, the ghetto in Kolbuszowa was completely demolished using the labor of some of the Kolbuszowa Jews. Norman Salsitz and his brother Leibush were two of these workers who were scheduled to be transferred to a concentration camp in Rzeszow. They heard about the Nazi’s extermination activities against Jews in Rzeszow and decided to escape and join up with some Jews they knew to be in hiding in the heavily wooded forests in the region.
Salsitz was twenty-two-year-old in 1942 when he asked Kotula for help to escape from the ghetto in Kolbuszowa. His situation grew desperate and he gave an account of his escape in his book:
“I now remembered Kotulova, the Polish widow whom I had visited just before I left Kolbuszowa to be with my family in Rzeszow and with whom I had left some belongings and merchandise. Her house was right behind the fence that surrounded the ghetto. I resolved to see her at once. After nightfall, I left the camp without telling anyone, not even my brother. I climbed the fence and knocked on Kotulova’s door.
“Pani Kotulova, I have to run away. I need forged papers, and I may need a place to hide.”
“I will help you,” she said.
“Where can I get papers?”
“I’ll have to talk to the priest.”
“Do I know him?”
“You should; Monsignor Dunajecki has been our parish priest for nearly twenty years.”
“Yes, I know of the Monsignor.”
“He has all the birth records of the parish, and he may be able to give you the birth record of someone who died during the war.”
“I had a friend in grade school, about my age, who was killed at the front in 1939. His name is Tadeusz Jadach. Maybe I could use his birth certificate.”
“I’ll see what I can do. Come back tomorrow night.”
When I returned the next evening, Kotulova handed me something more precious than gold: the birth certificate of Tadeusz Jadach, a Roman Catholic Pole. With that paper, I might survive the war. I put my arms around the ample frame of my saving angel and hugged her until she protested she couldn’t breathe.
“I will be indebted to you as long as I live,” I told her.
“You would have done the same for me.”
“Just one more thing, my brother Leibush; I need a certificate for him. Could you possibly get one for him, too?”
“I’ll talk to the Monsignor.”
The next day I had a birth certificate for Leibush: a Ludwig Kunefal born in 1904, a Capuchin who died in 1936. As she handed it over, she mentioned that the Monsignor wanted to meet Leibush and me. A few days later we went to her house to meet the Monsignor. When we saw him, neither of us knew what to do or say; we had never in our lives spoken to a priest, and we were overwhelmed by the man’s appearance. He was tall and majestic-looking, with an inscrutable face. We stood there embarrassed, but he quickly realized our discomfort and extended his hand to us in greeting.
“I am Proboszcz Dunajecki,” he said in a warm, disarming voice. “I am pleased to meet both of you.” We shook his hand, after which our hostess invited us to share some food she had prepared for us. Soon we were immersed in lively conversation.
“I would like to suggest something,” Father Dunajecki said after we had been chatting a while. “You, Tadeusz, you speak Polish like a Pole. But Leibush’s Polish is a dead giveaway. I would suggest that Leibush not use the certificate that I have made available to him. You don’t have to decide now, but think about it.” We told him we would reconsider. As it turned out, we realized that the Monsignor was correct; we never used that certificate.
With Leibush in the other room talking to Kotulova, the Monsignor and I began to talk. The priest grew pensive.
“You know, Tadeusz” he said, “I have been a priest here in Kolbuszowa for nearly twenty years, and I have never gotten to know a single Jew.45 I have never had any dealings with any Jewish organizations, and I have never had the slightest idea what was going on in the Jewish community. I have never even met your rabbi. Now, in view of what’s happened to the Jews here, I deeply regret not having made the effort to know your people better. What’s most upsetting to me is the thought that I could have saved scores of Jewish children by placing them among my parishioners; it would have been an easy thing to do. But no one said anything to me, and I myself have been remiss for neglecting what was going on under my very nose. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.” I could tell he was really sincere. I didn’t know how to respond. He was blaming himself, but who really was to blame?
As we were about to leave, he shook our hands and wished us luck. Then he made the sign of the cross over us and bade us goodbye.”
Norman, now known by his new Polish name, Tadeusz, spent the next two weeks planning for his escape. He prepared a knapsack of his most precious and necessary items but decided to leave it in the attic of Pani Kotula. This brief meeting was likely the last time the Helena Kotula and Solsitz saw one another. His brother Leister was shot and killed by the Germans during their escape.
After his escape, Norman lived not just a double life, but a triple life for the remainder of the war when he joined up with the Home Army known as the Armia Krajowa or AK. His physical features and ability to speak fine Polish allowed him to assume the identity of a Catholic in the AK. Salsitz worked for the underground while covertly protecting Jewish families. Later, after he immigrated to America, Salsitz wrote about his war experiences.*
Pani Kotula was a prophetic and wise woman who understood the dire wartime situation in Kolbuszowa. Solsitz describes her evaluation in his book, A Jewish Boyhood in Poland: Remembering Kolbuszowa:
“If only the Poles would realize that the Germans are no less our enemies than you,” she observed shaking her head, “we would all be much better off. We would join your people, and we would fight together. But the Germans are very clever. They succeeded in turning us against the Jews and getting us to help them destroy your people; then, when they are finished with you, they will turn on us. They will kill many of us, and those that are left will be their slaves. May God have mercy on us all.”
The story of Helena Kotula is representative of the many Polish people who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Tens of thousands of Poles hid Jews, gave them food, and directed them on to safe houses. In Poland, just the act of bravely looking the other way put a Pole’s very life in danger. With Monsignor Dunajecki’s help, Helena Kotula assisted Norman Salsitz at the beginning of his escape which then led to his work as an AK soldier saving many more lives.
As we learn about Norman Salsitz’s escape and his life story, it is evident he stands not alone, but on the shoulders of these remarkable people, Helena Kotula and Monsignor Antoni Dunajecki. Their remarkable heroism shines like a beacon and inspires us as we consider the potential of goodness and courage that abides in us all.
The author would appreciate any new information on Helena Kotula or Monsignor Antoni Dunajecki, especially names and contact information of their families.
The Warsaw Museum of the History of Polish Jews will be publishing this article on their website and Helena’s story will be featured in the museum.
Norman Salsitz is the author of In a World Gone Mad, Three Homelands, and A Jewish Boyhood in Poland: Remembering Kolbuszowa