Acting upon a motion by Towarzystwo Przyjaciol Ziemi Debickiej (Society of Friends of the Debica Region), The City Council of Debica has given the name of Aleksander and Leokadia Mikolajkow to a square located between the Gawrzylowski Brook and the City Public Library complex. The square is near the house in which the couple had saved the lives of 13 Jews during the WW2.
Aleksander and Leokadia Mikolajkow settled in Debica as a married couple in 1930. They had acquired the ownership of the house at 248, Kosciuszki Street. It was in there where their two sons Leszek and Andrzej were born. Both had been professionally engaged in the health care. He was a social insurance doctor; and she was a hygienist working for children and youth. Apart from the professional duties they were active in the Polish Red Cross. They did carry on like that until the outbreak of the WW2. The cruel wartime was to bring an eternal glory to them.
As soon as the German occupants had entered Debica, they immediately began to persecute both the Jews and the Polish intelligentsia. After a ghetto had been established in 1941, doctor Aleksander Mikolajkow employed a young boy named Efraim Reich as an office assistant and a messenger. As a result the boy was able to keep away for some time at least from imprisonment in the Debica ghetto. In July 1942, when the Germans began the first ghetto liquidation action, the doctor and his wife took Efraim's entire family in upon his request.
That was contrary to the then occupation law. The Poles who kept Jews in hiding and the hidden Jews as well as their entire families were all subject to the death penalty on the Generalgouvernment territory. Despite the clear evidence, there are some people today defying the fact that 1/3 of all persons recognized as Righteous Among the Nations are Poles, and claiming that Poles could have saved much more Jews. I can answer the claims by reminding of the German regulation that provided that anyone who would hide Jews in the occupied Poland was subject to the death penalty while, let us say, in the occupied France that was a fine totaling one-day salary. It is really hard for a normal individual to convert human life to a relatively small amount of money. Please bear in mind that the German occupants had encouraged Poles to denounce their Jewish neighbors by offering a high compensation, e.g. a one-kilo bag of sugar or a bottle of vodka, in exchange for a human life. Subsequently, there in fact were some mean individuals who out of greed, jealousy, envy or an ordinary human wickedness would denounce Jews and Poles to the Gestapo. The people, called szmalcownicy, were later uncovered by proper units of the Home Army and judged severely by the Polish Underground State's tribunal that not infrequently would adjudicate the death penalty.
After the first liquidation action, the Germans posted up announcements saying, Those who do not turn in the hidden Jews will be shot dead. Consequently, the Reichs had decided they would not endanger the Mikolajkows' lives and would go back to the ghetto immediately. But Dr. Mikolajkow said, I am always willing to risk my life to save respectable and innocent people, and continued to keep them hidden for the next few days. After a few days, when the things had calmed down a little in the ghetto, the Reichs went back to it. In the meantime, Ms. Leokadia would bring some food to the Jews in the ghetto despite the fact that any Christian caught near the ghetto fence would also be shot dead.
The Jewish family was re-evacuated in November 1942, when the Germans began to prepare themselves to the second liquidation action. The Reichs had found a shelter in the Mikolajkow house again. After a few days they had returned to the ghetto once more. Happily, they were not to stay there long. Thanks to the nature of his profession and his interpersonal contacts, Dr. Mikolajkow had learned that yet another liquidation action was due towards the year's end. So it had to be the final evacuation. In a few days, the 13 members of the Reich family sneaked across the ghetto fence to the Mikolajkow house. Since that time, between December 1942 and the end of August 1944, the Reichs' shelter would in turn be an attic, a garage, a cellar and the attic again. Without access to light, running water and fresh air, they would stay hidden in complete darkness sometimes up to the neck in rainwater that flooded the garage under the immediate and permanent threat of uncovering, until the Red Army liberated Debica. To make things even more dreadful, all that time the Gestapo had its headquarters in a building next to the Mikolajkow house. After nine months, the Gestapo commandeered the doctor's garage to use it for their needs and consequently they did not give him much room for maneuver in his fugitive relocation efforts.
Evidently, Aleksander and Leokadia Mikolajkow were not able to bear the cost of supporting a group as large as that all by themselves. Nevertheless, they had never taken or demanded any money from the fugitives. Everything the Mikolajkows were doing for them, they were doing out of the goodness of their hearts. Happily, the Mikolajkows' efforts had been secretly supported by activists of the county branch of the nationwide charity organization called Central Welfare Council headed by Princess Helena Jablonowska and Mr. Franciszek Sadowski the principal of the local high school.
Moreover, Aleksander and Leokadia Mikolajkow were regularly helping the Jewish children who had survived the liquidation actions and were placing them in Polish orphanages. They were also engaged in some underground activity. When the Red Army was liberating Debica, the Home Army was in the middle of its nationwide military action called The Storm. The height of the action's progress in our region was a battle the Home Army soldiers fought with the Germans in the Kaluzowka clearing. During the battle the Mikolajkows had been medically supporting the area.
It may be deemed a historical paradox that on the very same day that the 13 members of the Reich family were saved, their benefactor was killed. Aleksander Mikolajkow's body was allegedly found by his son Leszek first and then by his wife Leokadia. It still cannot be resolved today, who had fired the bullet that actually hit him: a Soviet or a German soldier? Anyway, please bear in mind that it was a time when everyone was shooting at everything that moved. Dr. Mikolajkow was buried in the Old Cemetery in Debica. An inscription on his tombstone says, He lived and died serving his neighbors. Yet the most beautiful epitaph was written and published in the New York Post by the saved young Efraim Reich in 1960, I remember the anniversary of his death every year. I believe in life after death, and I believe that Dr. Mikolajkow is one of the greats there. If there are still people like him around, the world will have to become a better place at last.
After his death, the widow had to obtain a livelihood all by herself and her life was full of humbling experiences. Actually, she had suffered the worst humiliation of all when the government of the United States turned her visa application down despite a special invitation sent in by the New York Jews. In the meantime, the same government would keenly welcome some ex-Nazi experts. Upon several petitions, when Ms. Mikolajkow had finally been allowed to the U.S., the ultimate tribute was paid to the great woman. The Jews had stopped the traffic to greet her, then they put her into a limo and pulled it by tow ropes along the main street by hand among the cheering crowds. Israel had also remembered the heroic couple. The Israeli parliament had awarded the state's supreme decoration for non-Jews, that is the Righteous Among the Nations medal, to her and her husband posthumously. Two trees had been planted in their honor around the Yad Vashem Institute site.
The young Efraim Reich had undergone a spiritual metamorphosis in the occupation hell. A happy-go-lucky young man had turned into a man of immense faith. He had become a rabbi in New York and then he left for Israel where he lives and teaches to this day.
On January 31, 2006, at its 35th session, the City Council of Debica did approve the petition submitted by the Society of Friends of the Debica Region and it gave the name of Aleksander and Leokadia Mikolajkow to the square located between Kazimierz Wielki Square, Rzeszowska Street, Gawrzylowski Brook (earlier known as Debica Brook) and Solidarity Square. This is a great news that will help rescue the eminent individuals from oblivion among Debica residents today. It is all the more so since the historic building, that once was the scene of the events described above, has recently been designated for demolition. It must be added that the building is located in the immediate neighborhood of the aforementioned square. One must certainly recognize the road communication needs of our fellow residents but nevertheless one must also bear in mind that it was just the communication needs that once persuaded the authorities of the city of Krakow to demolish the old city walls. Not infrequently, the present day descendants of the councilmen kick themselves when foreign tourists (Poles are not as naïve as this) happen to ask, What's the name of the invaders who have wreaked such havoc in the cultural heritage of the city?.
Perhaps a cheaper way (note that one has to provide substitute accommodation for all of the current residents) would be to move the building and lay it on new foundations 5-6 meters away? That manner of operation would help save the nearly 100-year-old building that surely may not be considered an outstanding architectural relic but admittedly is one of the town's existing monuments of the tragic history of the 20th century. Some proper promotional activities may make the house known globally as a symbol of our town as well as of its residents' dedication. It is already the most recognizable Debica building among visitors from the U.S. and Israel.
However, if Debica residents by the agency of their City Council representatives choose to demolish the house anyway, one should place a memorial plaque with a proper description of the dramatic events in there.
Memory of the likes of Aleksander and Leokadia Mikolajkow should be retained for ever. Thanks to people like them we may still pass the tale of goodness and humanity on to next generations. And we are thankful to them for this.
The author is a historian and the president of the TPZD.
The article was published in the Obserwator Lokalny Weekly No. 6 (287) in Debica, Poland on February 11, 2006
Reprinted here with permission of Jacek Dymitrowski.
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