Julian Bilecki: Polish Holocaust Rescuer Recognized

Last Updated: Friday, September 15, 2017

Julian Bilecki was a skinny teenager in war-torn Poland when he and his family helped hide 23 Jews in an underground bunker, saving them from Nazi death squads.

The Bilecki family showed the desperate Jews where to hide, helped them move when they were almost detected and brought food regularly for years.

"In order not to leave traces in the snow, they would jump from tree to tree ... when they would come to us," said Sabina Grau Schnitzer, one of those saved. "They provided us with food and moral support, and came and visit us. It meant so much, it was like food for the soul."

More than a half-century later, a gray-haired Bilecki, now 70, was reunited with five of those Jewish survivors in a tearful reunion at Kennedy International Airport last week.

Jewish Foundation Honors Righteous Rescuers

"Julian walked in and he stopped and he was in shock," said Stanlee Stahl, executive director of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. "He couldn't believe that they were all there.

"Tears welled up into his eyes, and he looked around stunned. ... This is his first airplane ride, first time out of his country. He was overwhelmed," she said.

The foundation, which brought Bilecki to the United States, plans to give him an award next week. The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, founded by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative temple in Encino, California, provides financial assistance and recognition to those who helped to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.

Bilecki, a retired bus driver grew up in an area of Poland that later became part of Ukraine. He arrived for a month-long visit with his son carrying just a gym bag. they were greeted with flowers, hugs and kisses from the survivors.

"What I felt, it was very, very emotional," said Mrs. Grau Schnitzer, 65. "I said to him in Russian and Ukrainian ... 'God should be praised for this moment, and thanks for all your goodness."'

Bilecki, who does not speak English, said he was amazed that he and the survivors had lived long enough to see each other again.

"He said 'I remember you when you were young and didn't have gray hair,"' Ms. Stahl said. "'You have gray hair and so do I. Look where we are now, did we ever think we could be here?"'

Podhajce Ghetto - Zawalow

The Bilecki family hid Jews who escaped from the Podhajce ghetto, where nearly all the Jewish families from the town of Zawalow were killed by Nazis.

Mrs. Grau Schnitzer, then 9, left the ghetto with her parents to bury a wagon full of dead bodies and then escaped. Her father and uncle, who had known the Bileckis before the war, went to them for help.

"We knew that they were believers and we knew that they were good people," she recalled. "We had no choice, and we hoped that they would not report us. ... We said 'Here we are, help us,' and they helped us."

The 23 Jews in the Bileckis' bunker went free when the Russian army arrived in 1944. Many survivors have sent food and clothing over the years to the Bileckis, who remained poor.

The group planned to spend the evening at the home of Genia Melzer, 75, left for dead by the Nazis in a pile of corpses after a mass shooting. She crawled out from among the bodies and ran to the woods near Podhajce, where Bilecki found her covered with blood and took her in.

Nazis "would have murdered (the Bileckis) on the spot if they would have found out that they were helping us," Mrs. Grau Schnitzer said. "They had a heart, they were humanitarians, and we want to show the world that there were people like this."