Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Soldier of Conscience

 On Veterans Day we salute and remember those who served with bravery and valor but also those in active duty.  In Australia and in some parts of Europe, on the 11th day of November at the 11th hour, teachers stop their lessons, students bow their heads and citizens with red poppies pinned at their chests stand in city squares with closed eyes, for a minute of silence, to remember the end of hostilities of World War 1.
       Today I remember a shopkeeper.  Roman Talikowski sold leather gloves from his small store on Nowy Swiat Street, a grand boulevard in Warsaw.  According to my grandfather, Roman was a humble man who regularly smuggled food and money into the Warsaw Ghetto to at least seven members of our family to keep them from starving.   When the roundups to Treblinka began, a month or more after my mother was born in June 1942, he helped orchestrate my mother’s escape.
       While thousands were being chased from buildings into the streets and herded toward the trains to Treblinka, my grandfather took two sleeping pills from his pocket. He crushed them and mixed them into a paste.    With my mother in his lap, he coaxed her to swallow - the Doctor who had given him the drugs had told him that two pills could kill her. When my mother was asleep and limp in his arms, he gently tucked her  into a rucksack, making sure there was a tiny opening for her to breathe, although one cough or whimper from her could see them shot.  He said farewell to his in-laws and headed for a checkpoint at the Leszno Street gates. When he was close to the gate, he handed a bribe to the leader of a group of workers who crossed to the Aryan side to labor each day. He slid into their column and marched through the gate.
         On the other side of the ghetto wall, hawkish eyes of blackmailers scanned the street for startled, thin escapees with dark hair pushed under their hats. My grandfather passed another bribe. He glanced to the opposite side of Leszno Street to see Roman's slender empathetic face and kind eyes. He crossed the street toward Roman  and fell in behind him as he walked, as if headed to work. Instead, Roman led him to a secret hiding place.

It must have been difficult for my grandfather to keep up the fa├žade on the other side of the wall.   He told me that without his Catholic-Polish friends he would never have survived, but I wonder how he knew who to trust? One friend helped him to secure papers and Roman found him a job with a Polish contracting firm constructing warehouses for the Germans.    Through his underground contacts Roman also found a place for my mother and her parents to live; a small room in a large house on the outskirts of Warsaw where my mother was hidden for nine months, far away from the septic smell of the ghetto and far away from five members of my family whom Roman tried to save, four of whom were hauled off to Treblinka.
          Next week Roman’s family will receive a medal in honor of Roman’s efforts to save my mother and other members of our family. Seventy-one years after he ignored the death penalty for helping fellow Poles who were Jews, we will finally be able to say ‘thank you Roman’.
Roman Talikowski