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Holocaust survivor, rescuer live like sisters

They are two silver-haired ladies with a special bond forged in the Holocaust. One is the daughter of Jews, the other her Roman Catholic rescuer.
Poland Holocaust Bond
Janina Pietrasiak, right, brings out papers documenting the tragic fate of her family, alongside a woman she considers her sister Maria Lopuszanska, in Warsaw, Poland. Czarek Sokolowski / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

They are two silver-haired ladies with a special bond forged in the Holocaust. One is the daughter of Jews who perished under the Nazis, the other her Roman Catholic rescuer.

Today Janina Pietrasiak, 74, and Maria Lopuszanska, 79, live like sisters just around the corner from each other in a Warsaw neighborhood shaded by chestnut trees.

They see each other every day, tend to each other's needs, even finish each other's sentences.

Their story is a testament to how devotion born of deep adversity can endure for a lifetime and how the Holocaust survivors' exhortation "never forget" can find resonance as much in acts of great generosity as in those of unspeakable depravity.

During several hours with The Associated Press, the women relived the events that merged their lives while sitting side-by-side in Maria's tiny room in a nursing home, a five-minute walk from the modest apartment where Janina lives alone.

Clinging to a family
Maria was the teenage daughter of members of the Polish anti-Nazi underground who gave shelter in their Warsaw apartment in 1942 to Janina and her mother, Roza Feldman.

Feldman soon died of tuberculosis, her strength depleted by the cold and hunger she had endured before escaping from the Krakow Ghetto.

After that, Janina, not yet 8 when she joined the Catholic home, clung desperately to her new family and was baptized to fit in with them and increase her chances of survival under the Nazis.

After the war, she gave up the chance to live with an uncle in the United States — sealing a fate lived out for decades behind the Iron Curtain as Poland came under communist rule.

"I was very afraid to leave their family because I was happy I had a family, and I kept holding on to them all the time, trying not to lose them," she said.

"It was the family that raised me, that rescued me. I also didn't want to leave Poland — I thought it was the country that let me live."

'I was no hero'
The bond deepened during the ill-fated Warsaw Uprising of 1944, when the girls had to fend for themselves because Maria's father was ill and her mother had taken up arms against the Nazis in the streets of the capital.

They saw bombs exploding, corpses and body parts strewn on the streets, narrowly escaping death themselves more than once. Both recalled how the younger Janina would bury herself in the older girl's skirt as the bombs exploded.

"She was like a mother," Janina said, reaching over and grasping the hem of Maria's skirt as she remembered.

"She thought I wasn't scared of anything," Maria added. "But I was 15 years old. I was incredibly scared of the bombs. I was no hero."

Many losses
Janina lost the most. Her father died in Auschwitz. Her only sibling, Ewa, survived the war but later committed suicide by inhaling gas. And the death of her beloved mother fills her with pain to this day.

Through the years, Janina suffered bouts of depression so severe that she was forced to retire early at age 59 from her work as a translator, and went on medication.

"I think of my mother often because she was the dearest person in my life. It stays with you all the time, what you go through. You can't throw it out of your memory," she said.

Her marriage to a devout Roman Catholic brought a daughter, but also the fresh pain of a husband, from whom she is now separated, who taunted her with anti-Semitic remarks.

"My husband is very religious and doesn't especially care for the Jews," she said. "Anytime he tried to say something against the Jews, I would tell him, 'you forget who I am.'"

Despite her own ordeals, including a battle with leukemia now in remission, the main focus in her life is the woman she calls her sister.

'Righteous Among the Nations'
Maria lives on a pension so small that after paying her nursing home, she only has $145 left over — most of which the breast cancer survivor needs for medicine.

After the war she became an economist, married and had three children. Her room is filled with photos of her grandchildren, along with crucifixes. Her husband died in 1987.

Janina became a regular Mass attendee and didn't seek contact with Jews until 1997 — and then it was only in an attempt to seek recognition for Maria.

She contacted the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, which then bestowed the title of "Righteous Among the Nations" to Maria and to her parents, Henryk and Janina Jetkiewicz.

The title, reserved for non-Jews who saved Jews, has gone to people from 44 countries. On Jan. 1, Poles made up the largest number, 6,066, followed by the Netherlands with 4,863.

A blooming garden
Thanks to her recognition as a rescuer, Maria receives $1,200 per year from the New York-based Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which helps with the medicine and a few extras such as this year's summer holiday to the Warsaw countryside.

As the afternoon wore on, the women moved to Maria's tiny terrace ringed by peach-colored geraniums and gazed out over the nursing home's lush and blooming garden.

Janina wiped a fleck of lint from Maria's cheek. Maria then reached over and tenderly straightened out her sister's rumpled dress.