Ex-in­mate re­calls dar­ing es­cape from Auschwitz

in stolen Nazi uni­form, man ex­ited with Jewish girl­friend

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Monika Scislowska

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.”

Alik Keplicz

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.

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