Photo of the Day

Young Julian Bilecki. Julian Bilecki (also called Yulian Biletskiy) (1928–2007), a Polish teenager, aided the rescue of 23 Jews during the Holocaust in Poland.  He lived in the village of Zawalow with his family and cousins. His parents owned a farm and all the family would live there in the part of Poland that is know known as Ukraine.

Julian Bilecki


“To save one life is as if you have saved the world”

Teenager Who Saved Dozens Of Jews From Nazi Death Squads

Paralysing terror and enduring agony bind the characteristics of the Holocaust together. It expressed man’s carnal barbarism to the fullest with the rarity of human kindness to illuminate the darkness bestowed. Thankfully, there were some people who preserved the hope for humanity’s future.

A Ukrainian Bible and a bag of mushrooms. Those were the most precious items Julian Bilecki packed for his Lot Polish Airlines flight to New York in 1999, for a reunion with some of the 23 Jews he and his family saved from the Nazis in 1943.

The Bible is for Bilecki. An evangelical Christian, he prayed from it each morning.

The mushrooms were for Genia Melzer, Sabina Grau Schnitzer, Mina Blumenfeld, Oscar Friedfertig and Arthur Friedfertig, mutual relatives from Zawalow (now in western Ukraine but part of Poland until World War II) who live in New York and met Bilecki at JFK Airport in a sea of tears and hugs.

They asked him to bring the mushrooms, a reminder of survival. One morning in the winter of 1943, they and other emaciated Jews emerged from the second of three bunkers in the woods near Zawalow, where Bilecki and his relatives had surreptitiously brought food for a year. The survivors, who were fasting at least once a week as a form of prayer and conservation, encountered a field of freshly sprouted mushrooms.

“Non-poisonous mushrooms,” Schnitzer stressed in the living room of her Forest Hills, Queens, home where her family gathered with Bilecki for an afternoon of reminiscence. The mushrooms kept them alive for a week until the Bileckis could reach the Jews’ new hiding place.

“It was like manna from heaven,” Melzer added.

Julian Bilecki handpicked the mushrooms from nearby woods before flying from Lvov, on a flight paid for by the Polish airline. He dried them over a fire, tied them with a string and wrapped them in a plastic bag, handing them to his hosts at an all-night party the day he arrived. “The best gift was him,” Schnizter said.

Pre-war neighbours in the town of a few thousand residents, she remembered Bilecki (pronounced bill-ETS-key) as a “nice quiet boy. He was quiet. He is quiet now.”

The survivors call Bilecki “Gulko,” his old nickname.

Once lanky, Bilecki, was portly, with silver caps highlighting his shy smile. The retired bus driver and his son Jaroslav made the trip to the United States for the first time under the auspices of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, an organisation that provides moral and financial support to more than 1,500 non-Jews, in 26 countries, who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Genia Melzer was destined to die at the hands of the Nazis, but the Jewish teenager — owes her life to a “righteous gentile” named Julian Bilecki. After 55 years, a grateful Genia got to say thanks. Again. When she was 17 in her native Poland, Genia’s entire family was decimated by German troops during World War II. People were being taken away and never seen again.

“The only reason was because we were Jewish, I lost uncles, aunts, my brother, cousins and all my friends.” The young girl and others in her town ran off, but when their hiding place was discovered, their tormentors hauled them into a shack, guns were drawn. Recalling the moment brought back the horror for Genia.

“I lay down on the floor with my head down, and my little cousin, 9 years old, lay down on my right side,” she says, her voice quivering. “They started shooting, but I wasn’t shot.”

But the nightmare wasn’t over.

“They thought I was dead … but when … a little girl coughed, they came with an axe and started chopping.”

Genia survived the second assault, too, still pretending to be dead.

“They took us to this (mass) grave and they (threw) all the people (into it) and I was on top.”

Covered with blood, she ran into a forest and hid — a young woman alone, desperate to live. Genia Melzer crawled out from among the bodies and ran to the woods near Podhajce, where Julian Bilecki found her covered with blood and took her in. Her brother, uncles, aunts, cousins and all her friends were killed – but she survived.

“The willpower to survive was so strong, even under those circumstances.”

Julian Bilecki, himself a teenager at the time, made that survival possible.

As millions of Jews perished in Europe, he and his brother, Roman, stood in the way of the Nazis, hiding 23 people, including Genia, in their home.

In 1943, nearly all the families of the Jewish community in Podhajce, Eastern Galicia, about 3,000 Jews, were slaughtered by the Nazis. A small group, many of them children and teenagers, escaped from the Podhajce (Pidhaytsi) Ghetto on the eve of its liquidation and survived the Nazi extermination finding their way to the Bilecki farm. They were hidden in various bunkers near the Bilecki family farm for almost a year until they were liberated by the Russian Army on March 27, 1944.

Relations between Zawalow’s 30 Jewish families and the majority Catholic population were “good before the war,” before the Nazi occupation in 1941, Arthur Friedfertig said. When the Jews were rounded up in 1942, taken to the ghetto in Podhajce, the area’s largest city, some Ukrainians showed their true anti-Semitic colours, aiding in beating Jews. The Jews spent a year in Podhajce, “waiting to be liquidated,” some doing forced labour for the Nazis, before rumours about the ghetto’s impending destruction spread in the summer of 1943, Oscar Friedfertig says. He was among some 100 Jews who escaped into the woods.Two Jews walked to the Bilecki farm, telling their plight to Julian’s father, Genko. “They were God’s people,” Oscar says. “They gave us bread and everything.” The elder Bilecki pointed the escapees back to the woods and helped them construct the first bunker a few kilometres away, covering the earthen pit with pine branches and beams of wood.

Two Jews walked to the Bilecki farm, telling their plight to Julian’s father, Genko. “They were God’s people,” Oscar says. “They gave us bread and everything.” The elder Bilecki pointed the escapees back to the woods and helped them construct the first bunker a few kilometres away, covering the earthen pit with pine branches and beams of wood.

THE BILECKI FAMILY. In 1943, nearly all the families of the Jewish community in Podhajce, Eastern Galicia, about 3,000 Jews, were slaughtered by the Nazis. A small group, several of them children and teenagers, escaped from the Ghetto and survived the Nazi extermination finding their way to the Bilecki farm. They were hidden in various bunkers near the Bilecki family farm for almost a year until they were liberated by the Russian Army on March 27, 1944.

Julian Bilecki was born in 1928, eleven years before the start of WW2. His father’s name was Yevgenyi Biletskiy, and his sister was Anna Kifor (née Biletskaya). He had a cousin name Roman Biletskiy, who played a key role in hiding the Jews with him. The Bilecki family were a part of the remarkable men and women who risked their lives to preserve others. Their heroism shone while conserving the lives of twenty-three Jews. Though their lives have been mauled and battered beyond compare, they continued to live an honourable life after the destruction caused by the Holocaust. The Bilecki family with their grace and lenity is a role model worthy of following. They showed true altruism as they stood up for their beliefs. As WW!! raged on, Jews fled, hid and were massacred. The Jews, both strangers and friends that arrived in June 1943 were no different.

Julian Bilecki, sometimes spelt Biletskiy, was born in 1928 in Zawalow, Tarnopol District, Poland, now Zavaliv, Ternopil’ District in Ukraine. He grew up with his father, Yevgeniy Biletskiy, and his sister, Anna. The three shared a home with Yevgeny’s brother, Leon, and his wife, Mariya, and their two offspring, Yaroslava and Roman. Julian’s uncle Leon worked as a forest warden and the remaining Bilecki members tended the family farm in Zawalow.

Although the Bilecki family was Christian, they practised Sabbatarianism unlike the majority of their Christian neighbours. Sabbatarianism is a sect of Protestantism whose believers observe the Sabbath, or holy day of rest, on Saturday in compliance with the fourth commandment. This differs from most Christians who celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday and connected the Bilecki family closer to their Jewish neighbours who celebrate on Saturday as well

Zawalow, Poland… June 1943 – During the war, Julian Bilecki and his cousin Roman, both teenagers, lived with their families in Zawalow, Poland (now Ukraine). The Jews from the surrounding villages were rounded up and brought into Zawalow. Then in 1942, the Jews from Zawalow were transported to the Podhajce ghetto. In June 1943, on the eve of Shavuot, the ghetto was liquidated. Only a handful of Jews managed to escape. Seeking shelter in the woods they realised that they could not survive alone. Help was sought from the Bilecki family whom they had known before the war. Julian and Roman’s fathers, Genko and Lewko, agreed to help these Jews. The Bilecki family could not stand idly by in the midst of the evil they witnessed.

“They were afraid. (They) came to my house and asked for help,” Bilecki said. “We dug a hole in the ground and made a roof with branches and covered it with dirt. We burned wood and cooked only at night. It’s hard to believe we all lived through that terrible time.” When the Bilecki brothers visited the dark bunker “it was like heaven,” Genia said.

Another survivor, Sima Weissman, later recalled how,

“They not only hid us, but spent time with us, reading the Bible and praying for our salvation. Three times it was necessary to change hiding places, so that nearby villagers would suspect nothing. It’s impossible to describe what these people did for us. No family member would have done more than they did”.

At the height of the Holocaust, 23 Jews arrived at Julian Bilecki’s home seeking shelter. He didn’t have the room, so he made it.

Melzer, like many other Jews living in the village of Zawalow in eastern Poland, was a primary target of Nazi extermination squads. Between 1942 and 1943, Nazis rounded up approximately 3,000 Jews in the area and brought them to Zawalow. The Nazis eventually transported them to the Podhajce ghetto, where nearly all of them were slain.

Around 100 people survived, Melzer among them. And they all needed a place to hide.

Sabina Grau Schnitzer and her family were among those in search of safety. Following the ghetto’s liquidation, the then-nine-year-old accompanied her family to bury a bag of bodies. She and her family never returned. Instead, they — along with dozens of others — sought the help of the Bileckis, a poor, Christian family living in present-day Ukraine.

Of the Bilecki clan, whose patriarchs many of the refuge-seekers knew before the war, teenager Julian played the largest role in accommodating these desperate guests.

“They were afraid,” Bilecki recalled. “They came to my house and asked for help.”

Since Leon Bilecki worked as a forest warden, he knew the woods around the Bilecki farm very well. He decided the family should build a bunker to shelter the escapees. He recruited the help of a few of the strong, young Jewish men and his son and nephew to build the first bunker in a forest cave. They hid the entrance by covering it with branches and leaves. The Bilecki family saved the Jewish escapees even though they could face imprisonment in a concentration camp themselves if caught, or worse, be placed in front of a firing squad.

A family of modest means, the Bileckis did not have the space to house these guests, of which there were 23 in total, in their home. Fully aware that not coming to their aid would almost certainly spell their deaths, the gangly teen thought on his feet: What if he built them a sanctuary in the woods?

The biggest problem was providing food. Once the family hid the Jews away in the bunker, they needed to feed them. Many locals found it difficult to find food anyway and adding 23 more mouths to feed proved a struggle. They needed to not only secretively bring the food to the underground shelter but also needed to find the food at all. The family managed, however, and continued to feed their hidden friends until the bunker was discovered by civilians walking in the woods.

Satisfying the Jews’ hunger was a challenge in itself for the Bilecki family had to ration the shortage of food they had for themselves too. How they kept under the radar is a mystery. The Bilecki household not only kept them from harm’s way but they would keep their spirits soaring by warbling Jewish psalms, reciting the Bible’s hopeful message, prayed for the redemption of the Jews and above all treated them as worthy humans. Though it may seem just like a mindless observation, it was one of the most amiable acts they could’ve performed.

After the bunker was discovered by those passers-by, scared for their friends lives the Bileckis were forced to look for another location to build another bunker. The Bilecki family built a second bunker closer to their home in the dead of winter.

In the winter, the ground was covered with snow on the ground would show prints to and from the hiding place. A survivor Mrs Grau Schnitzer, recalled how a young Julian Bilecki would jump from tree to tree in to deliver necessary items to his Jewish friends in order to avoid leaving tracks in the snow.

For almost a year they provided them with food. That winter the snows were so deep that to keep the Germans from finding the bunker, they brought food to the Jews by jumping from tree to tree so as not to leave footprints in the snow. Leon Bilecki discovered several more escapees from the same group over the next few months. He saved the three children of Israel Zilber and a woman named Gitla Fink. The second bunker was discovered and a third one built in December 1943.

And that Bilecki did. “We dug a hole in the ground and made a roof with branches and covered it with dirt,” Bilecki recounted. “We burned wood and cooked only at night. It’s hard to believe we all lived through that time.”

Unbelievable is right: Events that transpired over the year or so that the Jews stayed in the makeshift bunker make Bilecki’s story hard to fathom. Indeed, even though Bilecki made every effort he could to render the bunker undetectable — such as climbing tree tops when dropping off food so as to not leave tracks in the snow — Despite all the precautions, the bunker was discovered not once but twice, forcing the Jews to flee. Each time the Bilecki family showed them where to build their new bunker, and they helped to move the desperate Jews to another part of the forest.

The Bileckis did not just bring food and rush off, Mrs Grau Schnitzer said. They stayed to visit. ”It meant so much,” she said. ”It was like food for the soul.”  They brought giant burlap sacks stuffed with corn meal, beans, and potatoes, so the hidden Jews could feed themselves.

Nearly all the Jews of the Podhajce ghetto in the town of Zawalow were killed by Nazis.

The group’s survival — along with the Bilecki family, who could face major repercussions for hiding Jewish people from Nazi pursuit — was all but assured. Survivors later recalled how in one tense instance. While they awaited the arrival of the Bileckis to their third bunker, they ventured above ground, emaciated and fearful. Amid the wintry chill, they found a field of just-sprouted mushrooms, which they consumed for a week while they awaited the Bileckis’ aid.

In 1998 the JFR reunited Julian and Roman with six of the Jews they saved. Bilecki, age 70 during their reunion, met with the escapees at Kennedy International Airport. Bilecki arrived at the airport for his first trip outside of Poland/Ukraine and was greeted by five Holocaust survivors and his son who lives in the U.S. One of the women who he saved, Mrs Sabina Grau Schnitzer, recalled of the Bilecki family, “They had a heart. They were humanitarians, and we want to show the world there were people like this.” Bilecki stayed with his son in the U.S. for one month before returning to his job as a cab driver in Ukraine.

This was not a typical occurrence, however. Each day, Bilecki or one of his family members would bring sacks of food — typically potatoes, beans, and cornmeal — to a pre-specified spot in the woods. One of the people hiding in the bunker would pick up the delivery each night. Each week, a member of the Bilecki family would visit those living in the bunker in order to sing hymns and offer updates about the world beyond their earthen confines.

To the 23 individuals living in the bunkers, the Bileckis offered more than sustenance.

“They gave us food for the soul: hope to survive. They deprived themselves. They endangered their lives.”

“It was like heaven,” Melzer, whom Julian Bilecki rescued himself when he found her wandering alone in the woods, added.

One day after almost a year of living underground the group heard shots above the bunker and they knew that at last that they had been liberated.

And that freedom was just beyond that thin layer of twigs and branches that had concealed them from the world for almost a year!

In March 1944, it all came to an end — at least in one sense. The Russian Army arrived on March 27, liberating the remaining Jews under the Nazi chokehold. The men, women, and children in Bilecki’s bunker were finally free to rise, and they did.

After the Bilecki Jews were liberated some of the protected Jews managed a brief reunion with their saviours a few months later. “We shared the little we had,” Schnizter says. Then they went their separate ways,  some immigrated to the US such as Julian’s cousin Roman, and some stayed in Europe as Julian himself did. Over the years, the survivors sent packages of food and clothing to the Bilecki family who remained poor in Ukraine as well as corresponds with them by letters.  Schnitzer and her relatives corresponded by mail; there were no telephones on poor Ukrainian farms.

But they never forgot Bilecki. Despite the years and distance, the people Julian Bilecki and his family saved would continue to correspond with and send money to Bilecki, who remained poor.

Bilecki would go on to work as a bus driver and remain in his hometown. That is until the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR) sought to reunite Bilecki with those he had saved in 1998.

The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous brings a rescuer, sometimes accompanied by a family member, to the U.S. each year for a few weeks. Usually, it is someone, in good physical condition, who has not seen the rescued since the war, says Stanlee Stahl, executive director of JFR. “It lets people catch up,” Stahl says. “It brings closure for the survivors and the rescuers. It lets people say hello and goodbye at the same time.”

When the organisation, which offers moral and financial support to the known individuals who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, flew Bilecki across the Atlantic Ocean and to New York City, it marked a number of firsts.

It was the first time Bilecki, then 70 years old, had ventured outside the country. It was also the first time Bilecki had flown in a plane.

But it also marked a return.

“Julian walked in, and he stopped, and he was in shock,” JFR executive director Stanlee Stahl said. “He couldn’t believe that they were all there. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he looked around stunned. He was overwhelmed.”

“He said, ‘I remember you when you were young and didn’t have grey hair,’” Stahl added. “’You have grey hair, and so do I. Look where we are now. Did we ever think we could be here?’”

Bilecki never considered himself a hero for his actions. Rather, and even through his later years, he considered himself to be simply a Christian and a servant.

That can perhaps be most plainly seen in the items he carried with him on his transatlantic trip. On the plane to New York’s JFK Airport, Bilecki brought two things. One item was a bible. The other was a bag of mushrooms — just like those the 23 men and women he helped save consumed in a bitter Polish winter — as a reminder of survival.

Mrs Grau Schnitzer said the Nazis would have killed the Bileckis if they found out that they were helping Jews. ”They had a heart,” she said of the Bileckis. ”They were humanitarians, and we want to show the world there were people like this.”

In 1992, in the first ceremony of its kind in Ukraine, seven Ukrainian citizens were inducted into Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations for their efforts to save Jews during the Holocaust.

One of those honoured was Julian Bilecki. “I never expected thanks,” Bilecki said. “All I did was help. It is very pleasant that people remember.

Attending were representatives of Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Julian’s brother Roman, a resident of upstate New York, had been similarly honoured for his heroic efforts to offer refuge to Jews by several organisations.

Julian Bilecki, A Holocaust Hero

Julian Bilecki – Wikipedia

Bilecki Family – The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous – The Jewish …

Nazis – Julian Bilecki And Family Hid 23 Jews From The Nazis!

Julian Bilecki – Holocaust Forgotten

Pole, 70, Reunited With Jews He Saved – The New York Times

ActsofCourage – Julian Bilecki

Julian-Bilecki – The Gallery of Heroes

Holocaust Hero Julian Bilecki – Julian Bilecki


‘All I Did Was Help’ | Jewish Week

Julian Bilecki – Alchetron, The Free Social Encyclopedia

Essay about The Bilecki Family Risked Themselves to Save… | Bartleby

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