Just a loaf of bread. That’s all the four members of the Slawin family wanted when they knocked at the door of a farming family in the Polish countryside one night in November 1942.
"We were cold. We were hungry. We were afraid of being discovered," says Leo Slawin, who was then 11, fleeing for a week with his parents and older sister since their shtetl, Dunilowicze, was liquidated by the Nazis. "We wanted to ask for a piece of bread."
Instead, Celina Anishkewicz, a devout Catholic, took the four Jews into her home.
"She grabbed us," recalls Slawin, now 68, a dentist living in Valley Stream, L.I. "She cooked us a hot meal." And for several months, Anishkewicz, a widow, and her three children (Wanda, Bolesia and Jozef) protected the Slawins.
Last week Leo Slawin and his wife, Gloria, welcomed Wanda.Now 75, a retired nurse living in Minsk, she was invited to the United States by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, an independent organization that provides financial assistance to 1,600 aged and needy non-Jewish Holocaust-era rescuers in 28 countries.
Wanda and her 38-year-old daughter Anna, guests of honor at the JFR’s annual dinner, were hosted for a week by Slawin, who closed his dental practice for the duration of the visit to show his guests around New York City. Then it was off to Miami Beach for two weeks with Basia Jesin, Slawin’s sister.
Speaking in Russian and Belarusan the two families, who had not seen each other for 55 years, shared photos and memories on Long Island. Wanda brought a small album with an old black-and white picture of her mother.
"She was a very devout Catholic," Slawin says of Anishkewicz, who died in 1974 and along with her children was designated as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem."
We were taught by our parents to respect all people and help everyone," Wanda said one morning at the Great Neck home of Brenda Grieff, Slawin’s daughter. Sonia, Leo’s mother, now 95 and living in Toronto, came for the reunion; her husband Jeremiah died in 1988.
Jozef Anishkewicz, who died in 1996, dug a hole for the Jews in the Anishkewicz home in Zosen, a northeastern village, under floorboards in the bedroom. Wanda and Bolesia, who is ill and lives in Minsk, stood guard at night looking for German patrols or suspicious neighbors.
And everyone shared the meager rations of food: potatoes, an occasional piece of chicken, some bread. "Whatever they had," Slawin says. "They were very poor."
The women knitted sweaters, socks and mittens to exchange for money or grain. The Jews helped out. "I learned how to knit," Slawin says.
The Slawins took turns coming out at night, using an outdoor bathhouse to wash up, eating a few bites in the house. They were never spotted, but there was a close call.
"There was a rumor that the Anishkewicz women were hiding Jews," Slawin says. A Pole who turned in Jews would be rewarded; someone caught sheltering them would be killed.
The Anishkewiczes, Wanda says, were "very much" scared.
"We knew that if they caught us, that would be the end. We couldn’t sleep day or night," she says.
Why were there so few people like them?
"The risk was too great," Wanda says.
Slawin’s name became changed in hiding, from Israel to Lonka, Leo in English. "They were afraid to call me Israel," he says. "Too Jewish-sounding." A neighbor might overhear.
Now he’s officially Leo Israel Slawin. "I didn’t want the ‘Leo’ to disappear," he says.
By the spring of 1943, it was safe for the Slawins to leave their hiding place. The German army had suffered major losses in Russia, and Poles were reluctant to turn in Jews "because the partisans were taking revenge," Slawin says.
He and his parents and sister found refuge in the woods; the Anishkewiczes continued to bring them food.
The war in Poland ended in the summer of 1944. The Slawins spent some time in a German DP camp; they discovered that only 37 of Dunilowicze’s prewar Jewish population of 888 had survived. "We were four of the 37," Slawin says. His grandparents were among the victims.
The Slawins came to the U.S. in 1948. Over the years they sent food packages, clothing and money to their rescuers.
"We never forgot them," Slawin says. His daughter brings out a family tree that shows the people alive today because of the Anishkewiczes: nine children born to Slawin and his sister, 30 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Wanda passed the story of her family’s wartime exploits to her daughter Anna. "Mother told us everything ó how they saved the Jews," Anna says. "I was proud of her."
Each time Slawin tried to thank Wanda, she returned the thanks, saying that the Slawins’ packages had provided immeasurable help during times of communist shortages.
Did Wanda or her siblings expect a reward for their efforts?"Nyet," no, she says with a shrug. "Only God," she says, would reward them.
During her time here she visited St. Paul’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, and the Coney Island Aquarium in Brooklyn. "The most important thing was the reunion," Wanda says, wiping away a tear. "I was so happy to see them. It’s like a fairy tale."
Wanda brought some simple gifts for her hosts: fir branches from the forest where the Slawins had hidden, and an off-white linen blanket like the one draped over Sonia Slawin’s shoulders when she turned up at the Anishkewicz door.
And a loaf of bread.