World War II Polish heroine to be honored

by Susan Berger, Pioneer Press

Fifty-eight years ago, a young Polish Catholic woman risked her life to save a Jewish mother and her two children and a 14-year-old Jewish girl who had become separated from her parents during the Nazi occupation. Her name is Marisia Szul and having witnessed the murder of so many on the streets of Zdorow, Poland, risked her own life to save Golda Schachter, her children Frieda and Martin and later Mania Birnberg. Szul was only 18 at the time.

Szul, now 76, will be honored at 2 p.m. Sunday at Temple Am Shalom, 840 Vernon Ave., in Glencoe. She will be at the event along with three people she saved, Martin Schachter of Highland Park, his sister Frieda Saperstein of Chicago and Mania Birnberg of Lincolnwood.

A short film will be shown depicting Szul’s heroic story and those attending will be able to meet Szul and those she rescued.

Admission to the program is a contribution of $50; there is no charge for children.

The program is sponsored by The Avenue of the Righteous, Chicago Friends of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous and the Interfaith Coalition to Honor Polish Rescuers.

Proceeds from this event will be donated to the Jewish Foundation of the Righteous, to benefit older heroes who risked their lives to save Jews.

Golda Schachter, fleeing the Nazis, met Szul as she worked in the fields of her farm. She stopped Szul and asked for water for her children. Szul provided much more than water. She hid Schachter and her children and later Mania Birnberg for two years.

In the summer an attic of a thatched barn was the hiding place. In winter she dug a bunker under the floor of the barn. Aware that the risk was certain death, Szul explains in a film of her story that she "believed in human dignity and decency" and regarded this as her "human obligation."

"For two horrifying years, she (Szul) was the only light in a world gone mad," says the narrator of "Courage," the film that tells Szul's story.

In 1944 Szul was brutally beaten by Nazi soldiers who suspected she was hiding Jews. In spite of the beatings she remained silent about the four she was hiding. Later, a sympathetic guard helped her to escape. Although the barn burned to the ground, the four managed to escape.

Rabbi Harold Kudan of Am Shalom, a founder of The Avenue of the Righteous, explains that over 5,000 of those recognized by Yad Vashem (a memorial dedicated to victims of the Holocaust in Jerusalem, which inspired the Avenue of the Righteous in Evanston) were from Poland, the largest group honored.

Kudan relates that Mordecai Paldiel, director of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem has said that while all rescuers deserve to to honored, greater honor should be afforded the Polish rescuer, because the punishment was more severe in Poland. Those who were caught were killed, their families killed and even their neighbors.

Kudan said that The Avenue of the Righteous, in addition to honoring heroic behavior, encourages people today to act in a way "that brings honor to humanity."

"We must each search our own hearts and see in what ways we can make a difference," Kudan said.

Kudan told of a saying in the Talmud, "Saving one life is akin to saving the whole world" and added that along with the individuals that the rescuers saved, they also saved the honor of humanity.

In 1991 Avenue of the Righteous and National-Louis University produced "Angel in the Night," which tells the story of Szul's heroism. Szul now lives in Ontario, Canada, and makes frequent visits to the Chicago area to visit those she saved.

To visit Jerusalem's Yad Vashem, a person walks through a grove of trees called the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles. At the base of each tree is a plaque bearing the name of those who helped save Jewish lives.

These trees were the inspiration for the Avenue of the Righteous created in 1987 in Evanston, located within Ingraham Park, adjacent to the Evanston Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Road.

The Avenue of the Righteous is the only park of its kind in the United States, created by an interfaith board to remember those who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

Kudan was instrumental in the inception of this symbolic replica of Yad Vashem along with Ruth Weisman Goldboss of Highland Park and Maureen Roin of Winnetka.