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[Page 104]

Righteous Gentiles

A three part article on Martin (Mendel) Helicher

Published in the “Forward” on January 17, 1966
By Y. Shmuelevich


This is a dramatic story which begins in the shadow of the Nazis. A friendship between a Pole and a Jew. After the war, the two of them met in America. The Pole died and willed his property to the Jew. Now, the Jew is turning over the inheritance to the deceased's brother in Poland.

In a little town in New Jersey, not far from New York, an event took place which is worthy of attention. This is an unusual incident the likes of which we have never heard before.

A Pole who lived in that town, primarily among other Poles, died a short time ago. When his will was read after his death, it turned out that the deceased left all his (substantial) property to a Jewish survivor of the Nazis. Obviously, this aroused anger and dissatisfaction among the Polish community, but the Jew did something which aroused astonishment and admiration. The Jew transferred all the property he received from the Pole to the deceased's brother in Poland. The brother lives in Poland and his deceased brother had not left him anything.

How did it happen that a Pole living among Poles left all his property to a Jew, and why did the Jew transfer the property to the brother in Poland? This is a story which arouses great interest. It is related to the Second World War and to life in Nazi hell.

Mendel Helicher, age 55, comes from Mikulince near Tarnopol in Eastern Galicia. During the twenty years immediately preceding the Second World War, Mendel Helicher lived in Tarnopol. There, he was active in Zionist circles and in other Jewish organizations.

When war broke out, Mendel Helicher served as an officer in the 54th battalion of the Polish Army.

When Hitler attacked Poland, the Polish army was defeated. Helicher, together with the other 125 men of his vanquished unit, were stopped near Kelze. Only six of the 125 men remained alive. Helicher reported that other Polish units faced a similar fate.

From the remains of these units, a new division was formed and sent to Opoczna near Kelze. Lieutenant Zigmund Brishevski from Novisonich was appointed commanding officer of the unit.

The new Polish division resumed the fight against the Hitlerists but was defeated immediately. Most of the soldiers were killed. There were only a few hundred left. Mendel Helicher of Galicia was the only Jew among them. Ultimately, for lack of food and other necessities, the Polish soldiers surrendered and let the Hitlerists take them prisoners. Helicher recalls: “I knew very well what I could expect as a Nazi prisoner. Therefore, I decided to head for the forests on my own. While I was wandering through the forests, I encountered a few Polish officers. Among them was the last division commander, Zigmund Brishevski. A friendship immediately developed between us. We were as close as brothers.”

Zigmund Brishevski was the only person who knew Helicher was a Jew. Incidentally, his name at the time was Martin, not Mendel and Martin Helicher sounded like a non-Jewish name. Nevertheless, Helicher was worried. He was sure that everyone knew that he was Jewish and that his end would not be long in coming. He was particularly worried when the refugees from the defeated Polish division were surrounded in the forest by Hitlerists. There was no choice but to surrender and be taken prisoner.

Helicher confided in his friend Brishevski that he intended to commit suicide rather than fall into Nazi hands. His Polish friend tried to prevent him from taking such rash action. He promised to protect and defend his Jewish friend.

“At night while I was asleep, Brishevski took my gun, so I wouldn't be able to shoot myself, “ Helicher said. “He watched over me all the time. He encouraged me and comforted me continuously. I owe my life to that honest and kind Pole.”

The group of Polish officers in the forest saw no choice but to give themselves up to the Nazis and to become prisoners of war. Mendel – Martin Helicher was among the prisoners.

The group was sent to Garliz, where there was a large concentration camp for Polish prisoners of war, officers and enlisted men alike. The camp housed about 20,000 prisoners, including a few Jews. The Hitlerists never stopped looking for Jews among the prisoners. If they found one, they forced him out of his uniform and sent him off to the Nazi death camps. There, they were murdered together with the other Jews. In the end, Martin Helicher was the only Jew in the large P. O. W. camp. The goodhearted Pole, Zigmund Brishevski, protected him all the time. Everyone thought Martin Helicher was a Ukrainian. Then, unexpectedly, the disaster happened. The angel of death approached Mendel. As he tells it: “When all the Jewish soldiers and officers were weeded out of the camp and sent to extermination camps, the rest of us were moved into military barracks which already housed other Polish prisoners who arrived before us. Among them were officers and men from the vicinity of Mikulince and Tarnopol. They knew me, and knew that I was Jewish. I decided right away to put an end to my life, but my good friend Zigmund Brishevski said to me: “You must be brave. A man who is still alive must never lose hope.”

A Hitlerist officer once came into the hut where Helicher and Brishevski were quartered, and says he knows there is a Jew in the hut from Tarnopol. The Nazi demanded that this Jew be handed over to him immediately. At that point, Helicher plucked up great courage, marched to the center of the hut and declared: “I am a Ukrainian, and I know all those present very well. I know the men who came from Tarnopol and there is no Jew among us.” All the officers and men present were taken by surprise. They confirmed that the Ukrainian had spoken the truth and insisted that there was no Jew in their hut. It turned out that someone had informed on Helicher, but the Nazis suspected the Pole Brishevski of being a Jew because he looked like one. They “examined” him thoroughly and finally came to the conclusion that he was not a Jew after all. Thus, Brishevski directed the Nazi attention from the real Jew and toward himself…

Helicher continued to live among the Christians in the hut. Occasionally, new dangers would crop up. The angel of death was always waiting in ambush for him.

One night in September 1939, at midnight, a gang of Hitlerists stormed into the hut and demanded a medical examination of every prisoner. They were looking for Jews. Everyone who passed the examination and was found to be Gentile received a tag entitling him to receive food. “I, too, stood on the long line,” Helicher said, “completely naked. My heart trembled. In a matter of minutes, the German murderers would know that I was a Jew.” At that point, a miracle happened. A man named Bigada, formerly a judge in Tarnopol, came over to the Jew. He had already passed the physical. The judge, a lieutenant, held out his tag to the Jew. Slowly, the Jew moved out of the line. The Polish judge, who passed the exam a second time and got a new tag, was a close friend of Zigmund Brishevski. If the Nazis had ever found out, Bigada would have been shot.

Danger was not over for Martin – Mendel Helicher and waited for him anew around every bend. Once, when Helicher was standing on line for food, a Ukrainian named Olenik recognized him. They had served together in the Polish army and Olenik knew Helicher was Jewish. The Ukrainian went to the Nazis and informed on Helicher. The Nazis examined him and when they found that he had been circumcised they branded a Jewish star on his left hand so that everyone would know that he was Jewish. They incarcerated him in the Garliz prison. But his good and kind-hearted friend Zigmund Brishevski did not desert him. He made sure his Jewish friend got out of danger.

Among the Polish officers at Garliz was the judge from Tarnopol “Pisterer.” He was a “volksdeutsche” (literally a son of the German people) and served as an interpreter for the Nazis who liked him very much. He even wore a German uniform. “Judge “Pisterer” went to the judge I mentioned previously, Bigada,” Helicher explained, “together with the clergyman Tsach who had been the chaplain of the 54th battalion in Tarnopol. The three of them went to see the Nazis in charge of the camp. The chaplain said that I had been a Catholic all my life and belonged to his church. My circumcision, he explained, was the result of an operation. I was released on the strength of his testimony.” To this day, he bears the Jewish star on his left hand and survived from the Nazis as a devout Catholic.

When he was released from prison, he was returned to the P. O. W. camp where he lived as a Catholic among the officers and men. The Nazis no longer hurt him as a Jew.

A short time after this, the prisoners were sent out to work in the German villages. Mendel Helicher was sent to the village of Fischer near Ludwigslust together with the other officers. Here, he worked like all the others. Here, too, destiny played cruel games with him. A Pole who knew Helicher was Jewish passed the information onto his Polish friends. They threatened to tell the German mayor. This time, too, he survived. The unexpected salvation came to the Galicia Jew who hovered between life and death. “It was during the summer of 1941,” Helicher said. “My good friend Brishevski was sent to work in another village and we were forced to separate. The mayor of the village where I had been sent was a Nazi. I knew for sure that if the Christians would tell him that I was Jewish, I would be finished. I was desperate; my situation was terrible, but our G-d is a great G-d.” There were two elderly German farmers' wives in the village and when they heard Helicher was Jewish, they decided to save him from danger. But how? The two German women devised an original plan. They began bringing the other officers in the camp (in secret) cigarettes, small quantities of sugar, clothing and other items. They did this on one condition, namely that the officers would not tell the mayor that Helicher was a Jew. It worked. The Polish officers were glad to receive the German women's presents and left Helicher alone.

“Indirectly,” Helicher added with a smile, “The Poles got cigarettes, clothing, candy and other things because of me, and as a result my life was saved …” Thus miracles happened during the years of Hitlerism to Jews whose lives were always in danger.

Martin – Mendel Helicher managed to stay alive until the spring of 1945 when he was liberated from the Nazi nightmare. Immediately after the war, he went to Helminshart near Bremen, Germany, where he worked with Judge Bigada on a special Nazi war crimes commission. His good friend Zigmund Brishevski was in the same area. “I traveled all through Germany,” Martin Helicher said “and I helped find the Nazis who murdered our people. I also helped organize the displaced persons camps when they were established. These camps were designed to shelter the Jewish refugees on a temporary basis. I also helped get certain Jewish children out of the Polish camp. In this way, I saved Jewish girls from the hands of Polish men who were illegally their husbands. These girls were returned to their religion, to their source and to their suffering people.”

When Mendel Helicher began looking for his relatives and investigating their fate, he got terrible news. All of his relatives had been taken by the Nazis and their Ukrainian helpers. He lost his father Hersch, his mother Sima, his sister Malka, his brother Yaakov, and dozens of other relatives. They were all killed in Mikulince, together with about two thousand other Jews who had lived there.

In 1949, Mendel Helicher arrived in the United States. There, he found out that the Ukrainian who killed his father lived in New York. In the United States, Helicher also met his good friend Zigmund Brishevski who had helped him so much in the Nazi prison camp. In America, too, Brishevski came to the aid of his Jewish friend. It turns out that Brishevski was employed as an inspector on the Hoboken, New Jersey railway line. He was happy to see his Jewish friend again. He welcomed him as a brother and helped him get a steady job on the same railway line. Their friendship became even closer as a result of their working together.

Brishevski lived in Jersey and remained a bachelor until his death. Helicher, on the other hand, lived in the Bronx and married Helen Dubnow, originally of Lodz. She had arrived in the United States in 1950, after years of suffering at the hands of the Nazis.

“When I got to New York in 1949,” Helicher said, “I found out a terrible thing. A few people from our town who had succeeded in escaping the Hitler hell told me that a Ukrainian who had murdered my father was living in New York. His name was Martinewitz and he had been a shoemaker in Mikulince. He served as a policeman during the bloody Nazi era. In this capacity, he acted like a wild beast toward the town's Jewish population.”

At the beginning of the war, when the Soviets annexed Mikulince, this man, Ivan Martinewitz, was a loyal Communist and served the Soviet rulers, as did other Ukrainians. In the summer of 1941, when Hitler attacked Soviet Russia, Martinewitz became a hard line Nazi. This, too, was typical of many Ukrainians.

The Jewish survivors of Mikulince say that Marinewitz was one of the cruelest among the Nazi policemen. He would strut through town carrying his gun, enter Jewish homes at any hour of the day or night that the spirit moved him, and shoot ceaselessly. The murderer continued to carry on for as long as there was even one Jew left in town.

“This same murderer Martinewitz,” Helicher told me with tears in his eyes, “shot my father Hersch. It happened on August 20, 1942.”

Helicher and other Jewish survivors from Mikulince made every effort to bring Ivan Martinewitz to justice here in the United States. They wrote to Congressmen, Senators, and the Department of Justice. They pleaded and demanded…Finally, and investigation was begun against the Nazi murderer Ivan Martinewitz.

“There were those who immediately made sure no harm would come to Martinewitz,” Helicher said. “He managed to slip away and no one knows where he is living now. Where is justice?” the son of the murdered martyr wants to know. “Doesn't it bother anyone that the murderers of our relatives are walking the streets of the United States as free men?”

Helicher's good Polish friend Zigmund Brishevski shared the pain. However, there was nothing he could do.

On September 1, 1965, Zigmund Brishevski had a heart attack at work. He died instantly. He was 55.

When Mendel, who worked the same railway line, heard of his friend's death, it struck him like lightning. The Jew mourned his friend's loss with all his heart and soul.

When they got to Brishevski's home at 2135 Kennedy Boulevard, Jersey City, they discovered something sensational. Brishevski, who had always lived among Poles, had willed his property to his Jewish friend Mendel Helicher. He wrote his will in September 1960. When the Polish neighbors heard the news, they couldn't believe it. The will, however, was clear, in black and white. It said, “In the name of G-d, amen, I. Zigmund Brishevski of Jersey City, being of sound mind, do hereby write my last will and testament. It is my wish that after my death all my property and all that shall remain after me shall go to my friend Martin Helicher.” According to the will, Helicher was the sole heir to Brishevski's home and property. The inheritance totaled $25,000.

After Brishevski's death, Mendel Helicher found out that Zigmund's older brother Joseph was alive and living in Poland. He was an old, sick man living in Nowy-Sonch. “I decided,” Helicher said, “to give everything Zigmund Brishevski left me to his elderly and needy brother Joseph.”

This whole story is a true expression of humanity and humanism.

The deceased Pole helped the desperate Jew as a brother during the Nazi era. Now, the Jew expresses his gratitude by helping the deceased's brother who lives in Poland.

It should be mentioned here that Mendel is active as the Secretary of the United Union of Jews from Tarnopol and is also active in the Bar-Kohba Organization whose directors are Dr. Yaakov Megden and Rabbi Azriel G. Weissman.


[Page 113]

On the Way Back

By Itzik Hersch (Yitzhak Schwarz)

On my way back from Soviet labor camps, I dreamed that when I got “home” I would meet old friends filled to the brim with Jewish tradition and spirit. What I found was a large Jewish cemetery. It was a huge field of Jewish graves. I returned to our town weak and exhausted. Weakness took hold of me and would not let go. I walked among the ruins of a Jewish community, which was once rich in Jewishness and full of life. For generations, the Jews of Mikulince fertilized and enriched the soil of the Diaspora with tradition and lasting Jewish social values. Now, there was nothing left. Nothing had been saved from the inferno and there was no sign of the spiritual greatness of our Jewish community. Where is the living soul of the shoemaker, the woodcutter, the butcher, the tailor and the water carrier? The joy of living, the merriment and the singing which once filled our poor but happy homes are now gone. I found nothing there, not a trace of the life which once was. All that remained was sadness and strangeness.

I searched for some hope for the future in our town, some way to live there with the spirits of those whose lives had been so cruelly cut off. Even the opportunity to remain there as the only survivor was denied me. I was tried and exiled to five years of hard labor in faraway Siberia for a second time. I always remembered the small town where I was born, grew up, went to school and worked. I will always remember our town Mikulince and its people.


[Page 114]

Jewish Doctors in the Popular Army

By Shlomo Strauss-Mark


In November 1941, Dr. Stanislaw Sierpinski-Margulis from Mikulince (known in the underground as Felek) came to the Warsaw Ghetto from Lvov. Upon his arrival, he contacted friends who used to be active in various Leftist organizations and was told that they wanted to establish and underground organization to fight the Hitlerites. A few months later, he received from the Polish Workers' Party a typewritten manifesto from an already existing organization with the same purpose.

On behalf of the district committee, Dr. Izolda Kavalska (known as Ziuta) and Yaakov Dreyer made contact with him. At about the same time, the first secret meeting of doctors is held. Participants included the woman gynecologist Ukrainchikova, the veterinarian Zigmund Kava and Hella Rabinowitz. The meeting took place at the home of Nurse Ada Balaban on Jelna Street. The meeting was held on April 14, 1942. Yaakov Dreyer chaired the meeting. The doctors were given the following tasks: to recruit as many doctors and nurses as possible to the organization, to get together medicines, dressings, and other essential medical supplies for the “Popular Guard,” and the organization of secret training courses for medical aides.
Dr. Ukrainchikova was elected secretary of the cell and Dr. Margulis was appointed head of the “quintet.”

Work in the ghetto advanced at a rapid pace. The number of doctors and nurses in the secret society increased. By May 1942, three well-organized units of medical aides were available to the “popular guard.” Another unit of Shomer Hatsair members joined them, and additional groups were systematically trained and added. In order to expand the network,
Dr. Margulis was sent to the Stavki Hospital, specifically to its neurology department headed by Dr. Herman Apemush.
He used the opportunity to contact Gustav A. Bolkoviak, Nuta Titelbaum, Wanda and others. They provided him with training materials for the fighting units. Intensive underground activity continued until the first actions to eliminate the ghetto. The dark days of “transports” to Treblinka approached. Doctors' certificates could no longer help save lives. Dr. Margulis decided to leave the ghetto.

August 17, 1942

Dr. Margulis makes contact with comrade Franchischek Yejy Voyak (known in the underground as Vitold) through a Jewish girl named Lena Wolinska. Margulis received orders to leave Warsaw and join the partisans who were already active in the forests near Lublin.

Fate decided that Dr. Margulis would be spared. The partisan unit to which he was supposed to report was surrounded by the Nazis a few days before Margulis could get there. The whole unit was killed.

Rebellion and armed resistance against the Germans had begun in all parts of the country and in all those places doctors were needed. Dr. Margulis immediately contacted Yanek Volansky & Yitzhak Becker. On September 15 th , he was sent to the unit under the command of the Pole Franchishek, the recruiter from Warsaw. Here he again met little Vanda-Nuta Titelbaum who served as deputy for political education. This unit conducted daring operations such as attacks on police guardhouses, raids on Hitlerite village councils, and destruction of “lists” of farmers who were obligated to provide food and other necessities. The village of Lusheviza-Mala was the unit's base of operations. Other groups would join them there and after the operation was completed, the partisans would scatter to their homes. Dr. Margulis could not stay there very long. In November, he received an order to return to Warsaw. He was put on the aid committee and remained in that post until the spring of 1943. During the same period, he was occasionally sent to the Opole region to train new groups of aides. The busy days rushed by. There wasn't time to think about the dangers waiting around each corner.

On April 10, Dr. Margulis was sent to Bukovince in the Lublin district to the Tadesush Koschushko partisan unit commanded by Gregor Korchinsky (Gjegosh). Dr. Margulis was now the liaison between the partisan unit and the leadership in Warsaw. In one case, he returned from Warsaw accompanied by two Soviet citizens whom the leadership pf the popular army had ordered him to bring to the partisans. They were the cream of the Russian youth: Arkadyush, a philosophy student in Harkov and Pioter, a coal miner. In Lublin, other resistance fighters joined them, including a deserter from the “railway guard.” It is completely superfluous to waste words describing the high level of dedication required of anyone in such a position, but particularly when the resistance fighter was a Jew. The desire for revenge against the murderers surpassed all fear of death. Thus, Dr. Margulis went to the headquarters of the popular army in Warsaw and brought back information and orders to the partisans in Lublin. Sometimes, he would come back to Lublin with a stock of medicines, dressings, morphine, and other necessary supplies.

In August 1943, Margulis was again sent to serve in Warsaw to organize groups of medical aides and partisans. He was present at one of the meetings chaired by the Communist activist Ignatzi Luga-Savinski that included the following participants: Dr. Irena Herbst (known in the underground as Eva), Yanek Volansky – Becker and Kajik Romelt. Each one of them was given his or her own assignment. Dr. Margulis was sent to the Prava Podmieyska front.
The group of doctors had a number of safe houses, including an apartment on Spolna Street – “Yasna Gura.”

In those days, the circle included Jerzy Pearl (known in the underground as “Milan”), Yanek Volansky-Becker, Irena Herbst (known in the underground as “Eva”), Krisia Gorodezka. Edek Drozdovich-Gutgiser, Marian Baika, the black-haired boy Michael Temchin, Henry Mlodainovsky, Yisrael Ber (known in the underground as Emil), the blonde Jewess Dr. Lucina Sichialova and others.

Medicines were stored with Dr. Marian Baika on Wielka Street. The doctors had the job of dealing with the punitive strike on the partisans. Dr. Antek Landa dedicated himself to this task.

In addition to medical aide, the doctors dispensed underground newspapers. Most of this material was stored in Bielany in the apartment of attorney Viera Viotinska Bakshtanska. At about the same time, Dr. Margulis succeeded in persuading the architect Chaplin-Rosenfeld to join the group, and a secret listening post was installed in his apartment at 29 Grodno Street. Information began flowing to the underground press. Activities on the front lines developed at a fast pace. The Popular Army organized and the medical services reorganized to meet its needs.

January 1944

The doctors take on additional tasks. By now, they have a comprehensive network of hospitals and their sphere of activity is extensive. The tragedy of the Warsaw Ghetto comes to pass. On September 14th, Praga is captured and Dr. Margulis is called to a new assignment: to organize and to provide medical aide to the freed territory.

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