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 a period that seemed like an eternity — then uttered the miraculous words: "Ja, danke" — yes, thank you — and let Jerzy and Cyla 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. These were among the few ever 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, who was doomed to die.
"It was great love," Bielecki, now 89, recalled in an interview at his home in this small southern town 55 miles from Auschwitz.
"We were making plans that we would get married and would live together forever."
Bielecki was 19 when the Germans seized him on the false suspicion he was a resistance fighter and brought him to the camp in April 1940 in the first transport of inmates, all Poles.
He was given number 243 and was sent to work in warehouses, where occasional access to additional food offered some chance of survival.
It was two years before the first mass transports of Jews started arriving in 1942. Most of the Jews were taken straight to the gas chambers of neighboring Birkenau, while a few were designated to be forced laborers amid horrific conditions, allowing them to postpone death.
In September 1943 Bielecki was assigned to a grain storage warehouse. Another inmate was showing him around when suddenly 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 with a broad smile as he recalled the scene. It was Cyla — who had just been assigned to repair grain sacks.
Their friendship grew into love, as the warehouse offered brief chances for more face-to-face meetings.
In a report she wrote for the Auschwitz memorial in 1983, Cybulska recalled that during the meetings they told each other their life stories and "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 the Lomza ghetto in northern Poland and taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her parents and sister were immediately killed in the gas chambers, but she and her brothers were sent to work.
By September, 22-year-old Cybulska was the only one left alive, with inmate number 29558 tattooed on her left forearm.
Planning their great escape
As their love blossomed, Bielecki began working on the daring plan for escape.
From a fellow Polish inmate working at a uniform warehouse he secretly got a complete SS uniform and a pass. Using an eraser and a pencil, he changed the officer's name in the pass from Rottenfuehrer Helmut Stehler to Steiner just in case the guard knew the real Stehler, and filled it in to say an inmate was being led out of the camp for police interrogation at a nearby station. He secured some food, a razor for himself and a sweater and boots for Cybulska.
He briefed her on his plan: "Tomorrow an SS-man will come to take you for an interrogation. The SS-man will be me."
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 out of the barrack and onto a long path leading to a side gate guarded by the sleepy SS-man 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.
But when he eventually looked back, the guard was in his booth. They walked on to a road, then into fields where they hid in dense bushes until dark, when they started to march.
"Marching across fields and woods was very exhausting, especially for me, not used to such intensive walks," Cybulska said in her report to Auschwitz as quoted in a Polish-language book Bielecki has written, "He Who Saves One Life ..."
"Far from any settlements, we had to cross rivers," she wrote. "When water was high ... Jurek carried me to the other side."
At one point she was too tired to walk and asked him to leave her.
"Jurek did not want to hear that and kept repeating: 'we fled together and will walk on together,'" she reported, referring to Jerzy by his Polish diminutive.
For nine nights they moved under the cover of darkness toward Bielecki's uncle's home in a village not far from Krakow.
His mother, who was living at the house, was overjoyed to see him alive, though wasted-away after four years at Auschwitz. A devout Catholic, however, she was dead-set against him marrying a Jewish girl.
"How will you live? How will you raise your children?" Bielecki recalls her asking.
Four days too late
To keep her away from possible Nazi patrols, Cybulska was hidden on a nearby farm. Bielecki decided to go into hiding in Krakow — a fateful choice they believed would improve their chances of avoiding capture by the Nazis. The couple spent their last night together under a pear tree in an orchard, saying their goodbyes and making plans to meet right after the war.
After the Soviet army rolled through Krakow in January 1945, Bielecki left the city where he had been hiding from Nazi pursuit and walked 25 miles along snow-covered roads to meet Cybulska at the farmhouse.
But he was four days too late.
Cybulska, not aware that the area where she had been hiding had been liberated three weeks before Krakow, gave up waiting for him, concluding her "Juracek" either was 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 headed to Sweden, then to Cybulska's uncle in New York, who helped them start a jewelry business. Zacharowitz died in 1975.
In Poland, Bielecki eventually started a family of his own and worked as the director of a school for car mechanics. He had no news of Cybulska and had no way of finding her.
In her report Cybulska said that she was haunted in the years after she left Poland by a wish to see her hometown and to find Jurek, if he was alive.
Sheer chance made her wish come true.
A phone call, 39 years later
While talking to her Polish cleaning woman in 1982, Cybulska related her Auschwitz 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 "Juracku, 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, staying together in hotels.
"The love started to come back," Bielecki said.
"Cyla was telling me: leave your wife, come with me to America," he recalls. "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 and wrote to him: "Jurek I will not come again," Bielecki recalled.
They never met again and she did not reply to his letters.
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. The institute's website account of the escape and its aftermath is consistent with Bielecki's account to The Associated Press.
"I was very much in love with Cyla, very much," Bielecki said. "Sometimes I cried after the war, that she was not with me. I dreamed of her at night and woke up crying."
"Fate decided for us, but I would do the same again."
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