Sydney barrister attends grave dedication in Poland

June 20, 2012 by  
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In a tiny village in southern Poland, a Sydney barrister has attended the rededication of the grave of the woman who saved his mother in WWII…and words from the Talmud are inscribed on her headstone.

Irving Wallach accompanied by his wife Ronni Kahn stood solemnly at the graveside.

Wallach told J-Wire: “Brzostek memorial day ceremonies were a great success, attended by approximately 120 people – overseas guests and Brzostek residents. The guests included Australian ambassador to Poland Jean Dunn, parish priest Father Jan Cebulak and Professor Jonathan Webber.

The grave of Maria Jalowiec now stands out in the local cemetery in a fitting place of honour. On her grave were gum leaves with the red and white Polish colours.”

The story of Maria Jalowiec was told by Wallach at the graveside and J-Wire publishes his address in full

from Irving Wallach


Irving Wallach at the former headstone

I am here to honour the blessed memory of Maria Jalowiec, a courageous and righteous Polish woman who saved the life of my mother, Rivka (Regina) Wallach, the daughter of my grandparents Hersch and Shaindl Reiss. She, her brother Josef and sister Renia were the survivors of a family of eight.
The Jalowiec and Reiss families were neighbours in the village of Opacionka.
My mother died in 1970 aged 59 years after she had suffered a series of strokes and had become an invalid three years earlier. As a boy, I remember sitting with my mother helping to pack large parcels full of clothing along with a tin of coffee and American dollars which she sent to someone in Poland who had helped her during the Holocaust.
The last time I had heard my mother, Rivka, talk about how she had survived was before I was 15 years old. After her family had been rounded up by the Germans, she had escaped by jumping out of the back of a moving truck as it slowed to take the bend in a road. She hid in a forest with a group of Jews through two Polish winters.  She slipped on ice, broke her leg and when her health gave out, she and her friend Genka returned to her village of Opacionka. For two years she was hidden by her neighbour Maria Jalowiec in the roof of her barn.
I want to tell you the story of how I came to discover the name of Maria Jalowiec and to meet her grandson Tadeusz who, as an eight year-old boy, helped his grandmother save the life of their Jewish neighbour, Rivka, during the Holocaust.
In late September and October 2011, my wife Ronni and I travelled to Katowice for a reunion with members of the family of my late father, Jakob Wallach. After the reunion, we set off on a journey across Galicia with our guide Krzysztof Malczewski and my Polish cousins. We were looking for records about my father’s pre-war wife and children who had perished. As it turned out, however, completely unexpectedly I stumbled across my mother’s story.
On the first day of our journey, we stopped off at the Brzostek municipal records office where we found the birth records of my mother Rivka, and her family in the original leather-bound register books. Speaking through our Polish guide who was simultaneously translating for us, we asked if anyone could tell us about people who had hidden Jews during the War. We were directed to the home of one family and then to another family who had saved Jews, but not my mother. Eventually, we reached Opacionka, my mother’s village five kilometres away. There, we met the oldest person in the village.
In a portent of what was to come she told us, “Yes, a few Jews hid but only one, Rivka, survived. Rivka was the daughter of Hersh Reiss”. I felt I had been struck by a bolt of lightning when I heard my mother’s and then my grandfather’s names. Rivka had been hidden by the family of someone called Kajetan and the family still lived in a yellow house past a small roadside chapel down the road. The house is just across the laneway from the house of my grandparents, the Reiss family.


Genowefa and Tadeusz Jalowiec at rededication

With our guide Krzysztof translating there we met Tadeusz Jalowiec, now in his late seventies, and his wife Genowefa. We asked Tadeusz if he knew anything about people who hid Jews during the War.
Here I was, in Poland on the other side of the world from my home in Australia. Tadeusz was a total stranger to me. Yet he began telling my mother Rivka’s story, complete with details, as I recalled she had told me in Sydney over forty years before. The words burst out of him as if he had been waiting seventy years to speak about the events of those years from 1942 to 1944 when he realised that two Jewish women were being hidden in the roof of his grandmother’s barn. I relate to you the recollections of Taduesz as he told them to us that day in October last year.
During the War, Tadeusz had been an eight year old boy living with his grandmother, “Babcia Maria”. His grandfather Kajetan had died. Babcia Maria spoke German and looked like the classic “little old lady”, an innocent granny. She used this facade to perfection to do what she knew was right and courageous when a neighbour, my mother, was in desperate danger for her life and who needed her help. However, in those dangerous times, doing what was right and courageous was far from the norm and well beyond what so many others failed to do.
I was astounded to hear Tadeusz, completely unprompted, blurt out my mother’s name. Tadeusz remembered my grandfather Hersch Reiss, a kindly man who had employed his grandfather, Kajetan. Hersch also gave the Jalowiec children sweets.
Tadeusz recounted how, after the German invasion, Hersh Reiss and his daughters had been taken away by the Germans “to Russia” but Rivka had escaped when she jumped out of the truck. Later Rivka returned to the village. At first Tadeusz did not know what was going on, that his Babcia Maria was hiding Rivka and her friend in the roof of their barn. He could not understand why Babcia Maria told him to take good food in a bucket to the barn and then leave it on the floor for the cattle. She gave him strict instructions that he was never to look upwards towards the roof.
Tadeusz was puzzled when he kept hearing noises coming from the barn’s roof. Babcia Maria however told him the noises were nothing – “just cats”. Tadeusz saw the feet of two women in the straw. He knew then that something serious was happening in the barn and that he must keep this secret for his Babcia Maria. He realised there were two women hiding from the Germans and that they must be Jews. He kept this secret with his Babcia.


Tadeusz Jalowiec with Irving Wallach

One day, Tadeusz said, a group of German soldiers came past the house. The officers went to the front door and announced to Babcia Maria that they were going to stay in the house for as long as they needed to stay in Opacionka. For two weeks they all crept about on eggshells while German officers moved into the house and soldiers camped outside in tents. For those two weeks my mother and her friend could not leave the barn roof. Babcia Maria brought food to them only when she could and when she would not be seen. All the time the Germans demanded that Babcia Maria meet their demands for food. Yet the barn where the two Jewish women were hiding was only 5 metres from the house where the Germans were.
Over the two years they were hidden in that barn roof, my mother and her friend had to stay inside during daylight. A code was devised by tapping on the barn rafters when it was safe.
As Tadeusz told the story, it became clear that initially he had been Babcia Maria’s unwitting helper. As time went on he realised the danger and risk of death to Babcia Maria and her family because of their life saving mission. A conspiracy of silence became an active partnership between Babcia Maria and Tadeusz.
In late 1944, the Soviet Russian Red Army and the front line of the war neared Opacionka. The Germans evacuated the village.  Babcia Maria did not leave the village and did not abandon my mother and her friend to inevitable discovery and death. Somehow she convinced the Germans to allow her to stay, supposedly so she could care for the farm animals. She used the time before she was compelled to leave to help my mother and her friend escape to a priest who she knew was hiding 14 Jews in a church in the town of Lubcza. When Babcia Maria asked the priest to take them in, he told her that two more Jews were welcome. As Tadeusz told us, the priest said he may as well be shot for 16 Jews as for 14.
In December 1944 or January 1945, the Red Army and liberation arrived. As my mother had told me so many years ago, Tadeusz confirmed that my mother returned to Opacionka after going to the town of Jedlicze and finding her brother Josef and his 14 year old daughter, Malka (my cousin who now lives in Melbourne, Australia).
My mother had told me that in gratitude for saving her life, she had promised to give Babcia Maria the Reiss family home. Tadeusz showed us an authenticated deed in which my mother, her brother Josef and sister Renia, as the heirs of my grandfather Hersch Reiss, gave the house to Maria Jalowiec. Here was the documentary proof before my eyes that my mother had fulfilled her promise in recognition of Babcia Maria’s extraordinary courage.
Maria Jalowiec died in 1979 at the age of 92 years, having seen her two daughters and Tadeusz grow up and have their own families.
With my wife and family, last year we visited the grave of Maria Jalowiec to pay our respects to this courageous and upright woman.
We are here today at this rededication ceremony to recognise Babcia Maria’s courageous deeds. Just as my mother recognised Babcia Maria’s courageous acts, my sister Sabina, my daughter Miriam and I now honour the person and her family who saved my mother. I also honour Tadeusz Jalowiec for his courage and I thank him today.
After the War, in late 1945 in a Displaced Persons camp in Cremona near Milan, Italy, my mother met and fell in love with my late father, Jakob Wallach. With the help of her sister Renia and brother-in-law, Samuel Lobel, Rivka brought her love Jakob to Australia. They had two children, my sister Sabina (born in 1950) and myself (born in 1952).
There would have been no renewal of life without the courage and righteousness of Maria Jalowiec and her eight year old grandson, Tadeusz, who saved the life of their neighbours’ daughter. My mother Rivka survived to have a new life with her husband Jakob and to give birth to her two children.
We can truly understand the words of the Talmud where it is written:
“Whoever saves a life, it is as if that person saved a whole world.”


One Response to “Sydney barrister attends grave dedication in Poland”
  1. Naomi says:

    This is an amazing story of courage and compassion, and beautifully written. The “conspiracy of silence” between Tadeusz and his wonderful grandmother touches the heart. It is so important to read stories such as this and to know about the bravery and conviction of Tadeusz, Babcia Maria and the priest; sadly there were too few such people. It is wonderful that Irving Wallach was able to meet Tadeusz and that together they could celebrate the lives of Rivka and Maria. Thank you, Irving Wallach, for sharing this inspirational story with J-Wire’s readers.

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