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I went searching for a relative who escaped the Holocaust. I found a secret some want to forget.

My decades-long quest to find the lone survivor of a massacre that wiped out a branch of our Jewish family in Poland — and the hidden truth about the killers.

Greg Klee/Globe staff photo illustration

Eighteen months in hiding had honed Hena Rozenka’s awareness to sounds of danger from Germans or anyone who would betray her and her family. The hideout, at a farm in Zagórzyce, Poland, lay a few kilometers and a world away from the house and shop where she had spent her life nestled among so many relatives.

Hena’s apprehension grew on this night in 1944 as men carrying long guns headed directly toward the farmhouse, where her parents, sisters, and brother were instead of in their usual cramped hiding places in outbuildings. This late in the war, with liberation by the Red Army expected any day, they had dared to seek refuge from a raw spring rainstorm.


The dark forms encroached on the house. But 16-year-old Hena could not warn her family without revealing herself in her hiding place outside.

Pan (Mr.) Radziszewski, a farmer and customer from the family’s hardware store, had rescued them in September 1942. Otherwise, they would have been forced onto wagons and trains with the rest of the Jews of her town, Kazimierza Wielka. The Germans had shipped nearly 200 Jews off to Belzec, the nearest death camp, in the first roundup. No one heard from any of them again. A second roundup happened not long afterward. Throughout that fall and winter, Radziszewski brought back news of Nazis scouring the countryside, murdering any Jews they found and terrorizing townspeople with threats of punishing whole villages if they dared harbor their Jewish neighbors.

That night, the men massed at the door. “Give up your Jews!” they shouted in Polish. “We know you have Jews. Hand them over!”

A bleary Radziszewski appeared, cradling a small child. Gunmen stormed into his house, shouting and beating him with the butts of their rifles. “What are you talking about?” he protested. “What are you doing here? Who are you?” The child screamed.


The gunmen stormed the house, ransacking everything. Their noisy assault and accusations in Polish — no German, no Russian — reverberated across the fields to surrounding farms. After moments of quiet came exultant shrieks. “We got them!” someone shouted. Windows at the top of the house were thrust open. Gunmen inside yelled to others swarming below.

Hena saw her sister Frania. The gunmen laughed while shoving her out the window. Bullets sprayed upward. She landed with a sickening thump. Hena’s sister Frymet was next.

Their mother’s haggard face appeared in the window. Ita was in her 50s and had calmed them over so many frightened days and nights. Then came the push and a barrage of shots. Hena saw her family murdered one by one. Her brother, and then her father, were pushed into a hail of bullets, their bodies falling onto the others.

The gunmen warned the farmer they would be back.

Hena was alone in the world. She couldn’t approach Radziszewski. What if the gunmen found out she was alive and tortured him? She slipped off in search of someplace safe from the murderers and the Nazis.

The cherry tree outside the house, now freighted with wet blossoms, would become the burial site of her family. But the location of the Rozeneks’ remains would not stay secret; the tree itself refused to conceal the crime. Each spring, though it blossomed as usual and the flowers gave way to promising little lime-colored fruits, they never turned the blushing orange-red of Poland’s famed sour cherries. Instead, they turned black and rotted.


Over time, people heard of the cherry tree. Murdered Jews, the Rozeneks from Kazimierza, were buried under it. Was it cursed?

And word trickled out that someone had escaped.

That Hena Rozenka walked away from her family’s massacre and survived the war had come as a surprise to the walking encyclopedia of our once-large extended family, Sam (Rakowski) Ron. A Holocaust survivor and my father’s first cousin, Sam hailed from a town of 3,000 near Kraków, where, during a 1989 visit from his Ohio home, he got the tip about the surviving Rozenek (Rozenka is the feminine case of Rozenek). It launched him on a quest to find Hena, the last of 28 cousins from his hometown.

I joined him as a young reporter eager to seek a living relative in a land of mass graves and unending grief. The drive to deliver a reunion with Hena for Sam would propel me over a three-decade, nine-trip journey chasing uncooperative witnesses and unwilling government officials. To even ask about her officially in Poland, I first had to prove I was a close relative. When I was finally able to show she was my great-grandmother’s grand-niece — no easy feat itself — the government rejected my application. Not close enough.

My inquiries struck the third rail of national politics in Poland and, as time went on, would run up against a 2018 law prohibiting people from implicating Poles in the Holocaust. Hena had witnessed wartime atrocities by Poles. That means everyone who supplied information and all the records I tracked down are being swept into this erased history.


But all that was yet to come.

My connecting flight from Amsterdam to Warsaw in 1991 was delayed. Looking around, I noticed some rough-looking men waiting to board. They leaned on plastic grocery bags held together by bungee cords. Other travelers, wearing smart suits and fancy watches, were Western businessmen, swooping into Warsaw to help jump-start capitalism after five decades of Communist rule.

I was eager to retrace Sam’s footsteps in his birth country. He looked like a leaner, subdued version of my late father, his American cousin born only one year but worlds apart. During World War II, Sam spent five months living in the part of the Kraków ghetto for those healthy enough for slave labor. In March 1943, the Germans stormed the ghetto, killing 2,000 Jews. Sam’s odyssey in concentration camps started at nearby Plaszow, which decades later became known worldwide in Schindler’s List, and ended with a death march from Sachsenhausen outside Berlin, with no food or water for two weeks. The prisoners ate bark off trees and drank from puddles. One morning, the guards were gone.

After liberation in 1945, Sam returned to Poland and discovered that both his parents had miraculously survived concentration camps. He tracked down his uncle — my grandfather — who sponsored the handful of survivors to immigrate to the United States. Sam, who in Israel changed his surname to Ron — Hebrew for Joy — later joined them with his wife and children.


As a young adult, I’d gotten to know Sam and later wrote about his remarkable survival in a 1987 story published in The Providence Journal Sunday magazine, where I was a reporter. Four years later, Sam had agreed to let me accompany him on his next trip to Poland, and now I was finally en route.

I’d been reading about Poland, where my family had lived for hundreds of years. A place where kings, in centuries past, had welcomed Jews and granted them civil rights unequaled anywhere. By World War II, Jews comprised the largest minority in Poland (though still less than 10 percent of its population), and long before Israel existed, lived in higher concentrations than anywhere in the world.

Without rugged mountains to slow troops or tanks, conquerors have steamrolled Poland’s defenses and carved up its lands. Germany and Russia savaged Poland repeatedly, leaving a deep imprint of victimhood and grievance. Long stretches without autonomy have limited Poland’s experience with independence and holding itself accountable for its own behavior.

But what nation could have withstood an invasion like Hitler’s blitzkrieg of 1.5 million troops, 2,000 tanks, and over 1,000 bombers and fighter planes? Two weeks after Hitler launched World War II from the west on September 1, 1939, the Soviet Union invaded from the east. Germany quickly claimed victory and occupied the country, turning Poland into its prime theater for history’s most systematic extermination of humans. The German Reich established 44,000 concentration camps across the occupation but confined its six killing factories to Polish land.

By the mid-1930s, antisemitism was already making life hard for Polish Jews. The legislature implemented laws and regulations that shut Jews out of academic, legal, and medical work, and also denied them credit. Polish nationalists called for Jews to be evicted from the country, insisting that Poland was traditionally Catholic. They led widespread boycotts of Jewish businesses, as Germany had modeled earlier.

None of these facts diminishes the egregious losses and suffering of Poland, whose government never turned collaborator despite enduring the longest German occupation of any nation. Throughout the war, Poles suffered incomparable destruction and deprivation, and the country lost 6 million of its citizens, half of them Jewish.

The decades of Communist rule that followed offered no relief. Besides quashing personal expression, the Soviets suppressed religion, hoping to deny the influence of the Catholic Church and push the society toward atheism. The Communist government also whitewashed Jews out of the war’s narrative: Polish monuments and textbooks did not mention the Nazis’ systematic extermination of Europe’s Jews, leaving generations to grow up with little awareness of the Holocaust or that Jews once populated the landscape.

In March 2022, the writer looks on as her cousin Sam (Rakowski) Ron translates a Polish account of the murders of their relatives.Sam Mendales

My room at the Grand Hotel in Warsaw seemed like a time capsule from when the Red Army kicked out the Nazi brass. It put me in the mind-set for traveling with Sam to his hometown, where relatives died far from barbed wire and gas chambers.

The next morning, Sam nosed the rental car through Warsaw traffic, whistling his way into the countryside. A few hours later, we approached Kazimierza Wielka, named for the king who centuries before had cemented the rights of Jews as citizens in Poland. Sam beamed at the rolling landscape where horses still did the heavy lifting. “You see that rich soil?” he said, pointing out the window. “People lived better here than other places in Poland during the war and even under Communism, because they could grow cash crops — tobacco and sugar beets.” Why was he so excited to be back in a place where he suffered so much?

“Sam,” I said, changing the subject to his cousin Hena. “What are the chances that she’s still alive?”

“She was from the Rozenek family,” he said. “We never knew where the Rozeneks went to hide. But we thought they did.” His mother’s sister Ita and her family had never turned up on any of the meticulous records the Germans kept from the camps.

On Sam’s previous trip to his hometown, Stefan, the husband of his old schoolmate, had revealed that Ita’s family was killed in hiding, but one member, a daughter, had survived. Stefan said, “She went west.” In Poland, “heading west” referred to the side of the country that had been part of Germany.

The possibility that a cousin had survived all these years and no one in the family had ever known about it was compelling. But I had no idea if such a pursuit was even possible. The trail had gone ice cold — for half a century.

Sam slapped his forehead and suddenly veered off. Our little white car scudded down a side road. I didn’t know our destination, but Sam knew this place. He had crossed continents and scaled inner walls of grief. Something was bringing him here, something pulling him back and also keeping him from letting go.

“We used to play here in these woods,” he said, peering at the trees. At a clearing, he stopped and jumped out of the car. By the time I got out, Sam was brandishing a new camcorder. He handed it over.

“We’re in these woods, beautiful woods,” Sam narrated. “It smells alive. And we’re trying to figure out where they buried two or three hundred people.” Staring into the camera, he pronounced, “We are near to the place where my friend Ari Mellor, who resettled in Winnipeg, Canada, put up something to remind people what happened here to the Jews of Kazimierza Wielka.” Sam turned on his heel. “We’re walking toward this monument.” I tried to keep him in the frame. “After the Nazi roundup in October 1942, the Germans were kind of disappointed. They didn’t get anywhere near all the Jews of Kazimierza Wielka.”

“How many were there?” I tried not to sound breathless.

“A lot of people thought that the Nazis might forget about the little villages and small towns, so they came here thinking they’d be safe,” Sam said. “You know your great-aunt Frymet; she did that. She ran away from Warsaw and left her husband there.”

The population of 350 Jews in Kazimierza Wielka before the war had swelled to 550. The trains to the Belzec death camp carried less than half that number. A week after the roundup, Jews filtered back to town. Nazi propaganda lured many with the promise that they would only be sent away by train for forced labor. But the Germans locked them in a school. One November morning, townspeople remembered, German soldiers walked a line of Jews out of town at gunpoint. Witnesses saw panic ensue when the Germans turned the line left, heading away from the train station. They came here to Slonowice. To these woods.

Sam approached a clearing. “They marched them out here, sturdy guys, tin benders and craftsmen, mothers and small children.” They forced the women to strip in front of men who were their neighbors, keepers of stores they visited, parents of schoolmates, Sam said, his voice fading. Mothers held their babies, standing by a pit that had been dug, waiting for the crack of their bullets.

Suddenly, Sam gasped.

I turned the camera to a bald, upright stone. Swastikas painted in black covered what had been a monument. Holes pocked the face, where letters that once told the story in English and Hebrew had been yanked out and left in a pile of twisted metal in the dirt. I panned the camera to Sam’s hunched form.

“Why do they have to destroy this one thing we have left here?” he asked, his voice cracking.

He picked up a sharp stone from the dirt and walked around to the back of the monument. An impish smile creased his cheeks. Ignoring the defaced front, he found a blank canvas on the back.

R-A-K — He scratched slowly in giant letters that showed white on the dark rock — O-W-S-K-I.

He beamed at the camera. “I’m back.” He laughed dryly. “They missed one.”

In 1991, the writer and her cousin found a monument to 300 Jews from Kazimierza Wielka defaced by vandals. In defiance, Sam scratched his family’s name on the back.from Judy Rakowsky

Walking back to the car, I shuddered. All these lives taken and forgotten.

Sam had known every Jew in town by name, age, and address. During the occupation, his father, a leader in the Jewish community, had put Sam’s year of high school education to use by having him track each able-bodied Jew and the work details to even out the burden of the Germans’ onerous demands on Jews for physical labor. He kept track of who was ill, who was widowed, and who had just shoveled snow or swept streets.

That was why Sam was certain that no one in his family had ever heard about a surviving daughter from his Aunt Ita’s family. Other related Rozeneks had appeared in displaced persons camps after the war, but not this family. They weren’t in the Germans’ records, and apparently no survivor in the Rozenek family had ever reached out to anyone from their hometown after the war.

Back in town, we drove along Sienkiewicz Street, where shops owned by Sam’s aunts and their husbands, the Dulas and the Rozeneks, once stood. Sam used to stop by the Rozeneks’ hardware store even when he didn’t need anything. They were always there: Frania, who was a few years older than him, minding the store and her little sister, Hena, playing or just hanging around.

Sam rounded a block and pulled up to a stucco house. Growing up, he knew it as the mayor’s house and the home of his classmate Sofia Prokop. It was Sofia’s husband, Stefan, who had heard and revealed to Sam that the Rozenek family had been killed during the war, but one daughter had escaped. Ever since that visit, Sam had been following up, seeking details from Stefan. His letters and calls had gone unanswered for two years.

Sam swung the car into the driveway, saying, “We’re going to the horse’s mouth. Let’s see if he’ll tell us more about this cousin.”

Just as Sam was climbing out of the car, Stefan, a bear of a man, barreled down the driveway, arms waving. He shouted in rapid-fire Polish, commanding Sam to pull up the driveway and into the courtyard.

Sam moved the car out of sight.

Stefan darted out to the street, scanning side to side like he was harboring a bank robber.

Were we welcome here?

Once we were out of view, Stefan gripped Sam’s hand warmly. Sofia emerged from the house, hugging him and exclaiming with delight at his suitcase full of gifts.

Sam had promised to translate for me, but in the moment, it was the last thing on his mind. He immediately brought up the Rozeneks. Stefan looked away. Not a promising sign. Seeming agitated, Stefan spoke for a long time, telling war tales. Sam occasionally turned to me with a roll of his eyes and said in English, “I’ve heard all this before.”

He tried to bring Stefan back on topic: What happened to Hena? What happened to her family? I didn’t need a translator for the phrase Stefan pronounced and repeated: “Nie wiem.” It means, “I don’t know.” If I had to guess, it seemed he was regretting ever telling Sam about Hena. Why?

The entire drive back to our hotel, Sam fumed. Why did they stonewall him? Why wouldn’t they help him with this search for Hena? What did they think he was going to do? Try to prosecute? That was not on his mind. He just wanted to see her. Not yet knowing about Radziszewski, he just wanted to thank whoever had hidden her.

The next day, the four of us were back in the car, rolling through the countryside. I sat in the back next to Sofia. Stefan rode shotgun. That morning, Stefan had told Sam, “Wait, I have something for you. We know who has your dinner table. Want to see it?” I wondered how the table fit into the search for the cousin.

We passed a sign for the hamlet of Chruszczyna Wielka. From the front seat, Sam said to me in English, “We are very near Zagórzyce” — the Rozeneks’ wartime hiding place. We pulled over in front of a large property. A brick farmhouse surrounded by fields was set far back from the road.

Off to the side sat a windowless gray building, a flour mill. A man in dusty coveralls emerged, peering at our car through thick glasses. Stefan jumped out and lumbered down the drive, and Sofia soon followed. After a furtive huddle with the man, Stefan motioned us over. Sam introduced himself and me in Polish to Maxwell Majdecki, who nodded and smiled formally.

Majdecki gestured for us to enter the house. Sofia led us down a dark corridor that opened into a room with five old televisions in dark veneer cabinets and a dining table. Suddenly at home, Sofia peeled back layers of plastic tablecloths from the table, while admonishing us “to look not to take.” Then she smiled grandly and said, “Prosze bardzo.” (“Please and welcome.”)

Sam stood frowning before the heirloom. He videotaped the scene of our hosts showing us the oak table. It had been stained walnut and looked worn and grooved. Sam knew those scratches and nicks. His hands navigated the weathered wood, fingering the surface as if reading braille. For a lumberman’s son, every grain in the wood table told a story from another lifetime.

His other lifetime.

In his mind’s eye, he saw Shabbat dinners and springtime Seders. The faces of his mother and grandmother sitting at this table. His brother, Yisrael, who always picked at his food, and his father, who led discussions of local Jewish leaders around it after curfew during three years of German occupation. At this table, the leaders had decided to pool money for food for hungry families in their community and cash for bribing the Germans, hoping to buy time and, maybe, lives.

Majdecki strode over to the table with the exaggerated gestures of a game show host, offering Sam a seat. Sam hesitated, then sat down.

Majdecki sat opposite him. “After the Jews were gone, the Nazis put all their furniture in the Rakowski lumberyard,” he said. “I was newly married, and I needed a table. I got such a good price for this,” he crowed. “Only two hundred zloty.” (The equivalent of less than $50 today.)

Sam turned to me. “He’s telling about his good deal,” he said, one eyebrow arched.

I watched Majdecki fold his arms across his chest in a self-satisfied way and wondered if it occurred to him that while he was scoring his bargain, the man sitting before him was stranded in the countryside struggling to stay alive. Majdecki seemed oblivious.

Sam asked him about the Rozeneks, the cousins Sam’s father had always believed found a hiding place in Zagórzyce. Did he hear that a daughter escaped their massacre? Majdecki shook his head.

Sam looked pointedly at Sofia and then at Stefan. They looked away. So we really were just visiting furniture.

Sam asked Majdecki about some other cousins, the Dula family. “Abraham Dula was my uncle,” Sam said. “He and his wife, Esther, used to run a fabric store in town. My father believed that the Dulas had found a hiding place nearby, someplace in this very village.”

“Oh yes,” Majdecki said, nodding. “Next door,” he said matter-of-factly. “They are buried in the root cellar.”

Finally a major breakthrough came when a former Peasants Battalion leader tells Sam that members of his group murdered the Rozeneks.from Judy Rakowsky

Crowing roosters and barking dogs announced our arrival at the neighboring property. A man appeared and Majdecki gave him a familiar nod, signaling that the strangers were with him. The aging farmer nodded back and surveyed us. He did not seem surprised by the sight of five people. Oddly, it seemed as though he had been expecting us.

Sam ambled over, extending his hand formally. “I am Szmul Rakowski from Kazimierza Wielka,” he said slowly in Polish.

The farmer tilted his moon-shaped face in puzzlement but said nothing.

Everyone seemed to be holding their breath, wondering how this guy would take our intrusion and inquiry about the remains of our relatives on the property. What had happened to them here, and what role might this farmer or his family have played in the events?

“I understand that my uncle and the Dula family were hiding here during the war,” Sam said. “I came really to thank you for hiding them.” Sam moved in very close, looking the farmer straight in the eyes. “Thank you,” he said in Polish. “For your generosity.”

The farmer nodded. He held Sam’s handshake for what seemed like a long time. His sad eyes turned and stared at the ground. “Sam,” the farmer said, “it is a tragedy for your family and for mine.”

The farmer, who identified himself as Wladyslaw Sodo, shook his head and sighed. On a May night in 1944, he told us, gunmen surrounded the house and banged on their door. They barged inside, shouting at his father and demanding that he turn over the Jews he was hiding. Sodo said his father had insisted, “There are no Jews here.”

The gunmen roughed up his father and ransacked the house. But his father kept denying he was hiding anyone. The attackers left. A few hours later, the men with guns returned and went straight to the barn. After a lot of shouting and scuffling, someone yelled that they had found the Jews.

Five adults emerged from the hiding place, prodded by gunmen aiming at their backs. It was the Dula parents and three grown children. The assailants forced them to walk single file up to the top of the hill overlooking the barnyard. Shots rang out.

The attackers beat Sodo’s father brutally, punishing him for putting the entire neighborhood in jeopardy; if Germans discovered the hidden Jews, they told him, the entire village would pay with their lives. The men made his father strip every personal item off the bodies of the people he had been feeding and protecting for 18 months. Then the killers forced him to dig a mass grave around the farm’s root cellar and toss the bodies in. They made him climb down in the grave and threatened to shoot him too.

Sam was shaking his head slowly, absorbing what Sodo was revealing. The people killed were cousins Sam saw almost every day growing up.

Sodo had more to share. For weeks, one particular killer kept returning to threaten Sodo’s father, accusing him of keeping for himself gold and jewels the gunmen presumed the Jews had left behind. Sodo said that no matter how many times his father protested that there was nothing, he couldn’t persuade them. For decades to come, suspicions would persist in the area that the Sodo family somehow profited from harboring Jews.

We stood in silence. Sodo bowed his head and sighed. He turned and led us past a brood of chickens, up an incline to an area where a curtain of drying tobacco leaves obscured what was behind it. I saw that a mound of earth rose behind the tobacco drape.

I swallowed hard, imagining the terror of that night.

Sam asked, “How do you live with this for fifty years? You never wanted to move these bodies from there?”

Sodo lowered his eyes. The murderous raid had traumatized his father. The family blamed it for his early death. “This is a tragedy for my family,” he said.

Both men looked away.

Sam asked, “These were Germans, hunting Jews so late in the war when the Red Army was so close?”

“No,” Sodo said. “The gunmen were Poles.”

“Stealers! Bandits!” Sofia chimed in.

Sodo nodded. “Yes, they were stealers, all right.” But someone had tipped them off to the presence of Jews. Twice Sodo called the gunmen partyzanci, or Polish partisans, and I watched Sofia wince at their mention.

It was shocking enough to happen upon a family of five buried in a working farmyard, not to mention discovering they were Sam’s aunt and uncle and three cousins. And here we were talking with a Pole whose father had rescued this family, only to have fellow countrymen murder them. Who were these partisans, and how was killing Jews part of their mission?

It turned out that we had just waded into one of the most controversial topics of wartime Polish-Jewish relations, which has only gotten hotter over time.

Later I would learn that in Poland, almost everyone claimed to have been a freedom-fighting partisan during the war. Dating from 1942, the largest clandestine organization was known as the Armia Krajowa (AK), or Home Army. It was the military arm of the Polish underground state and an umbrella of resistance groups, with ranks swelling to 400,000 by 1944.

The AK was best known for its role in the heroic 63-day Warsaw Uprising in 1944, and it provided significant intelligence to the Allies throughout the war. But despite support and connections with the government in exile, it was known to operate independently and without sharing knowledge of its activities.

The partisans label also applied to a network of groups, some with sizable ranks, whose units did not always submit to direction from the Polish government in exile and sometimes even clashed with other underground units. One of the largest, the Narodowe Sily Zbrojne (NSZ, National Armed Forces), formed in 1942, openly supported the German genocide of Jews. Some operations involved fighters from several subgroups, such as the Peasant Battalions or Bataliony Chlopskie, implicated in the Rozeneks’ murders.

Under Soviet Communist rule, only the Red Army soldiers were celebrated as the heroic liberators. When Poland reclaimed its independence, underground fighters finally got their due, with monuments and tributes abounding. In 2001, leaders of a liberal government would acknowledge hard truths about the behavior of Poles during the Holocaust. Afterward, the nation made a sharp right turn and ever since Poland has been ruled by regimes that have decried and then outlawed any suggestion that Poles did anything under Nazi occupation but save Jews at great risk to their own lives and security.

Standing in the Sodo farmyard that day, I had no knowledge of wartime partisan activities in the area. I just noticed that the farmer seemed to react to Sofia switching his reference to “bandits.”

After we dropped off Stefan and Sofia, I told Sam that Sodo struck me as credible — a good guy.

Sam was also impressed. “We met a good man today, young lady,” he said. “What a sacrifice. Such good people.”

But it was not enough to save the Dulas. Someone had betrayed them. “Sam, do you think the Rozeneks’ killers were Poles too?” I asked.

He thought it was possible. “Everyone in the countryside here was either in the partisans or helping them,” Sam said. “But they cannot stand to have that legacy of the underground tarnished. A lot of them were fighting Nazis and killing Jews too.”

We pulled up to the hotel, and the weight of the day’s discoveries hit him. “We went looking for one live cousin,” Sam said, “and instead we wound up with five dead ones.”

Danuta Sodo Ogorek and her son Dominik in 1996, just after hearing her uncle describe the murders of the Dula family.from Judy Rakowsky

In 2018, nearly three decades later, my husband Sammy and I landed in western Poland for the wedding of the son of old friends dating back to my earliest trips to Warsaw. Sammy was playing guitar in the wedding band, and the groom’s parents, who know of Jews in their ancestry, had asked us to add something Jewish to the festivities.

I thought of Hena, who sources — including Radziszewski’s daughter — said had settled somewhere near here in what was once Germany. From accounts of witnesses who knew details of the Rozeneks’ murders and Hena’s travels afterward, as well as some official accounts gathered over five trips with Sam here, I had assembled many pieces of the Hena mystery. I hoped somehow she was enjoying old age in obscurity.

The wedding venue, once a sprawling private estate, now served as the home of the Krzyzowa Foundation for Mutual Understanding in Europe, which invites groups of teens from Poland and Germany to learn together about democracy and human rights. Its purpose is to “inoculate” young people today against extremist ideology. It was an inspired choice in 2018 for the union of bright young people eager to make the world better at a time when Poland was searching for its footing under a right-wing populist government.

The lively vibe of the wedding fueled my hopes that Hena might have rebuilt a good life here. I had no fresh intelligence on her, and the mood trending out of Warsaw couldn’t be more discouraging. Why would anyone pipe up now and share new revelations on wartime murders of Jews by Poles? At the time, the right-wing government’s response to international backlash was only to remove the threat of jail time for violating its new Holocaust memory law, while leaving in place financial penalties for alleging Poles were responsible in any way for aiding the Germans in the Holocaust.

After the wedding, we headed east by train to Kraków. There, we picked up Gosia, our trusty translator, and headed into the countryside to visit Danuta, the niece of Wladyslaw Sodo, whom cousin Sam and I had met in 1991.

We passed undulating fields of ripening rye and cabbage. Feeling connected now to the land where many generations of my family had lived, a wave of familiarity washed over me. But even though we had dwelled in Poland since the 1100s, we were still officially identified as “Polish citizens of Jewish nationality.” Being Jewish was not a nationality. Our murdered relatives were not just visiting. After helping to build, nurture, and protect this country, why couldn’t we belong here?

In my mind, I heard the voices of Majdecki, Sodo, and a few others Sam and I had met during our many visits over the years, detailing how hidden family after hidden family did not survive because they were murdered by Poles. The voices of these people who offered unflinching accounts were quieted by their natural deaths in old age. In their absence, a national law against defaming the Polish nation walled off revisiting these murders.

At the same time, overwhelming evidence emerged in a massive study detailing so many incidents of Polish complicity in the wartime murders of Jews that the massacres of our relatives turned out to be among many intentionally covered up. The attack on the Sodo farm was the possible exception because the court records dating to the early 1950s that I had arduously obtained had also garnered the attention of Holocaust scholars and writers. It had become perhaps one of the better-known cases of an elaborately staged execution of a Jewish family by Polish gunmen.

At the Sodo farm, I greeted Danuta with a bouquet of freshly cut flowers. She had set her table for tea, draping a starched white-cutwork cloth especially for us. She asked after Sam. I told her he was still sharp at 94, delivering food to poor people and often playing poker with friends.

I’d first met Danuta when she was 33 — now she was close to 60. She said many of those years were a blur of back-breaking farmwork for little income. The first time we met she was holding close her young son, listening to her uncle describe the attack on the Dulas on camera for a US archive.

She told us she grew up not knowing that her grandparents had hidden Jews on their farm. But at school she had been taunted about the “Jews in the garden.” It was my first time sitting with her since I’d read a thick file of hard-to-get court records, learning in 2017 extraordinary details from testimony about the gunmen and their murderous military attack, and their brutalizing of her grandfather, all for financial gain. The court records included accounts about her neighbor Edward Koziol directing the attackers to the hiding place of the Jewish family on their property.

Danuta quietly told me, as Gosia translated, how she was still affected by the lingering resentment of villagers who had ostracized her grandparents, parents, and the kind uncle we’d met all those years ago. The views of people living in this hilly enclave of close-set houses and prying eyes had only hardened against the Sodo family over time.

The neighbors blamed the Dulas for getting killed, for “going outside at night when the war was almost over,” as Danuta put it. “People noticed,” she said, “but they kept that information for themselves. Farmers didn’t even talk with each other about it.” Somehow, she said, “that rumor found its way to these so-called partisans.” I was taken aback that she was still letting her neighbor off the hook even though he had been convicted and briefly imprisoned for informing on the Dulas. I took her “so-called partisans” reference as sarcasm.

“It’s interesting that everybody knew who did this but nobody was saying anything bad to them,” Danuta reflected. “People were mean to my family but not to the killers.”

"Jews in the Garden: A Holocaust Survivor, the Fate of His Family and the Secret History of Poland in World War II" is available for pre-order.from Judy Rakowsky

But beyond the facts of the Dula murders themselves, the Sodo family’s experience within their community undermines the official Polish narrative that Poles engaged in widespread efforts to help Jews during the Nazi occupation. The narrative has been pumped up and enforced in what is called polityka historyczna (historical politics), a backlash to the seismic revelations about the destruction in 1941 of the Jewish population of the town of Jedwabne in northeast Poland. Contrary to the accepted story, it was revealed that local ethnic Poles in Jedwabne, after plotting with the Nazis, beat, stabbed, and herded all the local Jews — hundreds — into a barn, locked the doors, and burned them alive.

Official accounts and memorials had always blamed German Nazis for the grisly massacre. The 2000 book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, by Princeton professor Jan T. Gross, recounted that Christian Poles, motivated by deep antisemitism and a desire to take Jewish property, were the perpetrators in the barbaric attack.

The murders of the Dulas likewise had become embedded and entwined in a frustrated community mind-set. Regardless of what any records or witnesses said, the local viewpoint of so many was that the partisans simply could not be considered responsible. The fault had to lie elsewhere. The Polish government had just officially outlawed saying otherwise.

Again and again, I had been showing up here on this farm over the years with Sam, and now with my husband, to visit Danuta. She was the rare person here who expressed empathy for our murdered relatives. She had melted my heart with her compassion, guided by her strong Catholic faith. Of the Dulas, she said, “They just wanted to live.”

Afterward, we walked as usual to the unmarked graves, now framed by a thick apron of lawn. Sammy and I said Kaddish. Danuta watched and nodded.

By the car before we left, I put my arm around her. She stiffened. A flash of paranoia shot through me. Was I the first Jew she had ever touched? Then she giggled. We were on display for neighbors in the close-set houses within view of the Sodo farm.

I spun around and waved, smiling and pivoting in each direction.

I felt fortunate, standing in the open.

Here I am. And I remember.

Judy Rakowsky is a writer in Boston. This story is adapted from her forthcoming book, Jews in the Garden: A Holocaust Survivor, the Fate of His Family and the Secret History of Poland in World War II, available for pre-order. Copyright 2023 by Judy Rakowsky. Reprinted by permission of Sourcebooks. All rights reserved. Send comments to

Rakowsky will be the featured author at a Brookline Booksmith event on July 14 at 7 p.m., moderated by journalist Carey Goldberg. On June 16, Rakowsky will do a Q&A after a short documentary, Jack and Sam, about her cousin and another Holocaust survivor, at the Provincetown Film Festival.