Ex-inmate recalls daring escape from Auschwitz
in stolen Nazi uniform, man exited with Jewish girlfriend
NOWY TARG, Poland — With every step toward the gate, Jerzy Bielecki was certain he would be shot.
The day was July 21, 1944. Bielecki was walking in broad daylight down a pathway at Auschwitz, wearing a stolen SS uniform with his Jewish sweetheart Cyla Cybulska by his side.
His knees buckling with fear, he tried to keep a stern bearing on the long stretch of gravel to the sentry post.
The German guard frowned at his forged pass and eyed the two for what seemed like an eternity, then uttered “Ja, danke” — yes, thank you — and let the couple out of the death camp and into freedom.
It was a common saying among Auschwitz inmates that the only way out was through the crematorium chimneys. Bielecki was among the few to escape through the side door.
The 23-year-old Bielecki used his relatively privileged position as a German-speaking Catholic Pole to orchestrate the daring rescue of his Jewish girlfriend.
“It was great love,” Bielecki, now 89, recalled in an interview at his home in Nowy Targ, Poland, a small town 55 miles south of Auschwitz.
Bielecki was 19 when the Germans seized him on the false suspicion he was a resistance fighter and sent him to the camp in April 1940.
In September 1943, Bielecki was assigned to a grain storage warehouse. Another inmate was showing him around when a door opened and a group of girls walked in.
“It seemed to me that one of them, a pretty dark-haired one, winked at me,” Bielecki said. It was Cybulska — who had just been assigned to repair grain sacks.
Their friendship grew into love as the warehouse offered brief chances for more face-toface meetings.
In a report she wrote for the Auschwitz memorial in 1983, Cybulska recalled that “every meeting was a truly important event for both of us.”
Cybulska, her parents, two brothers and a younger sister were rounded up in January 1943 in northern Poland’s Lomza ghetto and taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her parents and sister were immediately killed in the gas chambers, but she and her brothers were put to work. By September, 22-year-old Cybulska was the only one left alive.
As their love blossomed, Bielecki began working on the plan for escape.
From a fellow Polish inmate working at a uniform warehouse, he secretly got a complete SS uniform and a pass. He filled in the pass to say an inmate was being led out of the camp for police interrogation.
The next afternoon, Bielecki, dressed in the stolen uniform, came to the laundry barrack where Cybulska had been moved for work duty. Sweating with fear, he demanded the German supervisor release the woman.
Bielecki led her to a side gate guarded by the sleepy SS guard who let them go through.
The fear of being gunned down remained with him in his first steps of freedom: “I felt pain in my backbone, where I was expecting to be shot,” Bielecki said.
For nine nights, they moved under the cover of darkness to the home of Bielecki’s uncle in a village not far from Krakow.
Cybulska was hidden on a nearby farm, while Bielecki hid in Krakow — a fateful choice they thought would improve their chances of avoiding capture by the Nazis. The couple made plans to meet right after the war.
After the Soviet army rolled through Krakow in January 1945, Bielecki left the city and walked 25 miles along snow-covered roads to meet Cybulska at the farmhouse.
But he was four days too late. Cybulska, unaware that the area where she had been hiding had been liberated three weeks before Krakow, gave up waiting for him, concluding he was either dead or had abandoned their plans.
She got on a train to Warsaw, planning to find an uncle in the United States. On the train, she met a Jewish man, David Zacharowitz, and the two began a relationship and eventually married. They made it to New York. Zacharowitz died in 1975.
In Poland, Bielecki eventually started a family of his own. He had no news of Cybulska.
In her report, Cybulska said that she was haunted in the years after she left Poland by a wish to find Bielecki, if he was alive.
While talking to her Polish cleaning woman in 1982, Cybulska related her escape story. The woman was stunned. “I know the story; I saw a man on Polish TV saying he had led his Jewish girlfriend out of Auschwitz,” the cleaning lady told Cybulska, according to Bielecki.
She tracked down his phone number, and one early morning in May 1983, the telephone rang in Bielecki’s apartment in Nowy Targ.
“I heard someone laughing — or crying — on the phone, and then a female voice said, “This is me, your little Cyla,” Bielecki recalls.
A few weeks later they met at Krakow airport. He brought 39 red roses, one for each year they spent apart. She visited him in Poland many times, and they jointly visited the Auschwitz memorial, the farmer family that hid her and many other places.
“The love started to come back,” Bielecki said. “Cyla was telling me: Leave your wife; come with me to America. She cried a lot when I told her: Look, I have such fine children; I have a son; how could I do that?”
She returned to New York. They never met again. Cybulska died a few years later in New York in 2002.
In 1985, the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem awarded Bielecki the Righteous Among the Nations title for saving Cybulska.
“I was very much in love with Cyla,” Bielecki said. “Sometimes I cried after the war, that she was not with me. … Fate decided for us, but I would do the same again.”
As an Auschwitz prisoner, Jerzy Bielecki helped his Jewish girlfriend, Cyla Cybulska, escape from the death camp in 1944. Bielecki recalled the story at his home in Poland.