Yad Vashem posthumously honors Polish gentiles for saving Jewish boy from Holocaust

13 July 2011

On Thursday, Israel’s Holocaust memorial institution Yad Vashem will posthumously pay tribute to the late Stefan and Maria Magenheim of Poland who were declared Righteous Among the Nations in 2009 for saving a Jewish boy from the Nazi onslaught. The couple's nephew, Stefan Laudyn, director of the Warsaw Film Festival, will accept the medal and certificate of honor on their behalf.

On the eve of World War II, approximately 375,000 Jews lived in Warsaw, constituting almost one-third of the city’s population. On 28 September 1939, German troops occupied Warsaw, and a year later the Jewish ghetto was established confining what used to be the largest Jewish community in Europe into a small, overcrowded area. Between 22 July and September 1942, some 300,000 Jews were deported from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp. In January 1943, another 6,000 Jews were deported. In the months that followed, the ghetto inhabitants lived with the knowledge of the imminent liquidation of the ghetto, while the Jewish resistance movements prepared for the inevitable assault.

In March 1943, the parents of five-year-old Wlodziu Berg understood that if they wanted to save their son, they would have to part from him and give him to non-Jewish friends.  They asked several Polish friends to care for the child, but since hiding a Jew was punishable by death, people were afraid to take him in. The desperate parents turned to Stefan Magenheim, who used to work with Wlodziu's father on the publication of a Polish newspaper. He and his wife Maria, a couple with no children of their own, agreed to take the child into their home.

The child was smuggled out of the ghetto and brought to the home of Stefan and Maria. They opened their door and their hearts to the frightened boy, who had never been separated from his parents before. ‘Uncle Stefan’ read him stories from children's books and "Auntie Maria" put on little skits to entertain him. The couple told their neighbors that he was the son of friends who had been arrested by the Germans, but Stefan and Maria lived in constant fear that the lively boy would divulge his true identity.

Three weeks after Wlodziu's arrival at the Magenheim home, they were betrayed, most likely by a neighbor. A ‘szmalcownik,’ a pejorative term for Poles who extorted money from hiding Jews or from Poles protecting Jews, arrived at the Magenheim apartment flanked by two policemen. Maria gave him some money, but it was clear that they had to move the child to a safer hiding place. 

With the help of Magdalena Grodzka-Guzkowska – also recognized as Righteous Among the Nations – Wlodziu was brought to an orphanage near Otwock, where he remained for two years. During that period, Maria came to the orphanage whenever she could, bringing him cakes and other special treats. Wlodziu's parents both survived the Holocaust and were reunited with their son. 

They changed their last name to Donat, emigrated to the United States, and Wlodziu became William. The story of his rescue is described in the appendix of The Holocaust Kingdom, a poignant memoir written by his father, Alexander Donat. 

Stefan Magenheim passed away in 1950; his wife Maria died in 1966. In February 2009, the couple was officially recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. William Donat passed away in 2009.

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