WARSAW, Poland — Józef Walaszczyk, a member of the Polish resistance who rescued dozens of Jews during the Nazi German occupation of Poland during World War II, has died aged 102.
Walaszczyk died on Monday, according to the Institute of National Remembrance, a Polish state historical body.
Walaszczyk fell in love during the war with a Jewish woman, Irena Front, only learning that she was Jewish when German Gestapo forces searched a hotel where he was staying with her.
He helped her hide and tried to distract the Gestapo men by pretending to be sick.
He later arranged for Front to get false documents, even entering into a fictitious marriage with her.
Soon after that, Front and 20 other Jews were arrested by the Gestapo.
“If something was to be done, it had to be done for them all. I had to arrange for a kilogram of gold by 5:00 p.m. – and it was already noon. Only then would the Germans forget about the incident and release the Jews,” Walaszczyk recalled in an interview, according to the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
Walaszczyk managed to collect and pay the required ransom, thereby saving the lives of 21 people.
He also employed 30 Jews in a potato flour factory that he had been tasked with managing due to his knowledge of the German language. He kept them alive by bribing a German official. Most of those he employed survived the war, according to the Polish state historical body and the museum.
In all, he said that he rescued 53 Jews.
He was also involved in the Polish underground that resisted the German occupation of Poland throughout the war.
Walaszczyk was afraid of being betrayed to the Germans by other Poles during the war. In an interview with JTA, he said that he does not support laws in Poland that censor what can be said about collaboration.
“There were many rescuers. There were also traitors,” he said. “I know because some of my friends were killed because of traitors. We need to speak about both at the same time because the existence of each one of those groups helps us understand the significance of the actions of both.”
Walaszczyk was almost killed by a three-man German execution squad for being caught carrying parcels to the Home Army, Poland’s anti-German resistance movement. He recalled that the Germans had him against a wall with their guns pointed at him. At that moment he felt the urge to shout, “Long live Poland!” But he refrained, fearing the Germans would only arrest and inflict suffering on another Pole in revenge.
At the last moment, a Gestapo office intervened, saying the death would have been too easy for him and that he should instead be sent to Auschwitz. Ultimately his life was spared after his mother intervened with a higher-ranking German officer, who valued his work at the factory.
Walaszczyk also took part in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, a revolt against the German occupiers that was brutally crushed.
After the war, he and Front split up. He worked in commerce until he was 94.
Thanks to Front’s efforts, Walaszczyk was honored in 2002 as a “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum.
The honor recognizes non-Jews who saved Jews across German-occupied Europe during World War II.
Dozens of people from 49 countries delivered filmed greetings to Walaszczyk on on his 101st birthday in 2020.
Walaszczyk watched the 25-minute video of greetings at his Warsaw home on a tablet provided by From the Depths, a non-profit Holocaust commemoration group.
It was extremely dangerous to help Jews during Germany’s occupation of Poland, with the Germans executing not only those caught helping Jews but also their entire families.