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 last week, 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 prays 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 18 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 stresses in the living room of her Forest Hills, Queens, home where her kin have 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 adds.
Julian Bilecki handpicked the mushrooms this month 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 says.
Pre-war neighbors in the town of a few thousand residents, she remembers 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, 70, is portly, with silver caps highlighting his shy smile. The retired bus driver and his son Jaroslav made this trip to the United States for the first time under the auspices of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, a 12-year-old organization 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.
"I never thought I would see you again," Bilecki told the Jews he had not seen for 54 years.
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 says. 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 colors, aiding in beating Jews, he says.
The Jews spent a year in Podhajce, "waiting to be liquidated," some doing forced labor for the Nazis, before rumors 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 kilometers away, covering the earthen pit with pine branches and beams of wood.
He or Julian or Julian’s sister Hanya, and Genko’s brother Levko and his two children, Roman and Slawa, would bring burlap sacks of food (mostly potatoes and beans and corn meal) to a spot in the woods every day; to be picked up by a Jew who slipped out of the bunker at night. In winter, the Bileckis would swing from treetops and ski backwards to avoid leaving traceable prints.Once a week, someone from the family would come to sing hymns to the people squeezed in the bunker and share news from the outside world.
"They gave us food for the soul: hope to survive," Schnitzer says. "They deprived themselves. They endangered their lives."
"We were afraid, of course," Bilecki says, Schnizter interpreting his words from Polish. "I was a young boy. I listened to my father."
We were God-fearing people. Only God has the right to take a life," he adds. "We knew the Jewish people were the chosen people."
The Russian Army liberated the area on March 27, 1944. Some of the protected Jews managed a brief reunion with their saviors a few months later. "We shared the little we had," Schnizter says. Then they went their separate ways, she and her relatives immigrating to the U.S. by 1951.
Over the years, Schnitzer and her relatives here sent packages of food and clothing to the Bilecki families, and corresponded by mail; there are no telephones on poor Ukrainian farms. They regularly send money to the Ukrainians. And they arranged for all the rescuers to be honored as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
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."
"I never expected thanks," Bilecki says. "All I did was help. It is very pleasant that people remember.
"Now," he says, "I am getting paid back by God."
The survivors who live here, all of whom lost immediate relatives in the Holocaust, have told their children about the bunker and the Bileckis.
As Bilecki has told his son.
"Everything, from beginning to end," Jaroslav says. "I was in that place," where the Jews hid.
Does his father consider himself a hero?
"No," Jaroslav says.
"I think so. My grandfather and grandmother too."
Bilecki’s father and uncle are dead, and Bilecki now lives in another part of Ukraine. He won’t say exactly where.
"There are in Ukraine," explains Jaroslav, "people who don’t like Jews."
Father and son, staying with the survivors, are spending their month here on sightseeing tours and looking at the survivors’ old family photographs. They visited Roman, who moved to Rochester seven years ago, and were honored the JFR’s annual dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria.
And last week, during Chanukah, Schnizter made a pot of mushroom-barley soup for her family and the Bileckis.
The mushrooms were imported.