Institute News

The people who helped

The New York Times recently published a piece about the rerelease of a book that spotlighted the efforts of non-Jewish Europeans who risked their lives to protect Jews during the Holocaust.

The rerelease coincides with the 30th anniversary of the book, “Rescuers,” by children’s author Malka Drucker and portrait photographer Gay Block.

At least three of the featured rescuers gave testimonies to USC Shoah Foundation.

Here are their stories:


Stefania Podgorska

Stefania Podgorska was a young Catholic woman living in a Polish town during World War II when a bruised and bloodied Jewish man knocked on the door of her apartment and asked if he could spend the night.

She said yes. Stefania not only saved the man’s life, she married him.

Together, Stefania and Josef Burzminski saved a dozen other Jews during the Holocaust by hiding them in a cottage in Przemysl, Poland.

Although USC Shoah Foundation didn’t take Stefania’s full testimony, the Institute did record Josef’s in 1995, and Stefania appears at the end of the interview to say why she chose to help Jews at the risk of her own life.

“I never expected that he will become my husband,” she said. “I just help him and other people because as a human being, I disagree that people can kill other people for nothing.”

Before the war, Josef’s parents ran a shop in Przemysl. Stefania first met the family when she went to work there as a cashier at age 16.

A few years later, when the war was raging, Josef – who was born Max Diamant – jumped from the window of a cattle car headed for a concentration camp and slammed into a metal post, knocking him unconscious. When Josef came to, he fled into the snowy woods. He went to the house of a Polish friend who agreed to take him back to Przemysl. Hiding beneath the feet of the friend who drove a horse and carriage, Josef returned to his empty childhood home, and decided to see if Stefania – who lived with her sister in an upstairs unit – could help him. He knocked on her door, and she answered.

“She was surprised,” he said in his testimony. “I said, ‘Only one night, please let me stay.’ And she said, ‘OK.’”

Josef stayed awhile, and when visitors came, he hid under the bed.

Josef and Stefania later found a large apartment outside of town – which they called the bunker -- where they harbored more people.

The situation grew extremely tense when German hospital personnel took up residence in one of the bedrooms of the complex.

In his testimony, Josef remembers keeping vigil while people slept; if they began to snore, he’d gently wake them and tell them to keep quiet.

At the time the testimony was taken in 1995, all 13 people who’d hid in the bunker were still alive, Stefania said.

“And after the war, he didn’t want to leave me,” she quipped.

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Stefania Burzminski on being a rescuer

Language: English

Stefania Podgorska Burzminski appears at the end of the testimony of her husband, Josef Burzminski (right), to share thoughts on why she risked her life to save him and many others during the Holocaust. Stefania grew up Catholic in Poland.  Their son, Edward Burzminski, looks on as she speaks.


Johtje Vos

In 1940, when the Germans invaded the Netherlands, many Jews attempted to flee; those who remained needed to hide to avoid detection.  Johtje Vos – granddaughter to the former prime minister of the Netherlands -- decided to help the Jews.

She joined an underground organization known as “the Group,” made up of Dutch citizens who worked together to find hiding places for Jews.  In 1942, Johtje married her second husband, a Dutch agriculturalist named Aart Vos.

Throughout the war, Johtje and Aart housed 32 Jews—although never more than 14 at one time. Conditions were usually difficult; food, divided equally among the many inhabitants, was scarce. Johtje remembered that everyone, including her children, was slowly starving during the war.

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Johtje Vos on her decision to help Jewish people

Language: English

Johtje Vos reflects on her decision to help hide Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Throughout the war Johtje and her husband, Aart, housed 32 Jews, although never more than 14 at the same time. In 1982 both Johtje and Aart were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem for risking their own lives to save the lives of others.


Jan Karski:

Jan Karski was working in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs when World War II began in 1939. He escaped a transfer to a Soviet POW camp and joined the Polish resistance movement, where he organized courier missions between the resistance and the Polish government-in-exile and made secret trips to Britain, France and Poland. He was tasked with informing Polish politicians about the Nazi atrocities in occupied Poland, so Jewish underground leaders smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto.

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Jan Karski on the Warsaw Ghetto

Language: English

Jan Karski speaks on being smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto to report on the horrible conditions and the destruction of Polish Jewry. He also recalls how he recently met, just months prior to his interview, a very successful business man, who as a child followed Karski around in the ghetto.