It’s a thank you that has lasted 55 years. In 1944, the Niedziolka family, Catholics, who lived on a small farm in eastern Poland, took in four members of the Charatan family and two other escapees from a nearby concentration camp, all Jews. For 14 months, until the Russian Army came, the Niedziolkas fed the six and protected them in a hidden bunker under a barn.
Ludwig Charatan, a child during World War II, has maintained contact with the Polish family since moving to the United States in 1949. A retired meat and poultry dealer, now a resident of the Mill Basin neighborhood in Brooklyn, he has sent the Niedziolkas food and money and lifesaving medicine over the years.
In 1963, he brought Katarzyna Niedziolka, widow of the man who opened his farm to the endangered Jews, to the United States as an honored guest at the bar mitzvah of the Charatans’ son, Nat.
And this week, Charatan brought Wladek Niedziolka, the couple’s son, to Brooklyn for the Charatans’ 50th wedding anniversary. Wladek, 69, a retired cab driver who lives in Germany, joined 50 friends and relatives of Ludwig and Dora Charatan at a party Saturday night at The National Restaurant in Brighton Beach.
"I feel about them as my family," Ludwig Charatan says of the Niedziolkas. "They saved my life."
Wladek and his wife Anna are spending a month at the Charatan home, sharing memories with their hosts and touring New York.
"We can never repay our debt," Charatan says.
He and his parents and sister and brother were inmates at the Janovska concentration camp, near Lvov (now Ukraine), in 1943. His sister was killed by the Nazis before they started clearing the camp in May.
"We knew the liquidation was coming: everyone knew it," Charatan says. "The time was burning. Every hour was a death sentence."
With the help of a Ukrainian policeman and a Polish cattle skinner, Charatan’s family and two other Jews escaped from the camp, fleeing to the isolated Niedziolka farm, about six miles from Janovska. Leopold Charatan, Ludwig’s father, and Stanislaw Niedziolka were business acquaintances.
Stanislaw and his sons fashioned a bunker (six-feet-by-six feet, and three feet deep) at the edge of the barn, covered by wooden planks and thorny plants. The Jews sat silently during the day in the dark hiding place, where they could hear Nazi executions in the nearby woods and the barking of guard dogs looking for escaped Jews, and they could smell Jewish bodies being burned.
The Polish family, "good religious Catholics," shared their food with the Jews, opening their kitchen at night for some warmth and conversation.
Stanislaw, Charatan says, "was a sweetheart." Wladek "was very helpful: whenever we needed something, he always went and got it for us."
"Of course they knew the danger: they were simply good people," Charatan, 73, says.
"We understood it was very risky," Wladek says, Charatan interpreting his words from Polish. "We knew the consequences: if we talked, we would be shot."
Neither the six Niedziolka children, nor their grandmother, who offered refuge to a Jew in her home, surrendered their secret.
Why did Wladek and his family risk their lives? "We listened to our parents," he says.
Why did so few Poles act like the Niedziolkas?
Wladek is silent. "I’m getting tears in my eye," he says."He’s embarrassed to say" anything against his countrymen, Charatan explains.
The Niedziolkas’ secret became known when the Russians liberated the area in August 1944 and the Jews were free to openly walk through the streets. The local Poles and Ukrainians, Charatan says, were not pleased with the Niedziolka family.
"They were afraid," Wladek finally offers in their defense.
He came here, as the Charatans’ guest, once before, in 1978.
Stanislaw died in 1953; Katarzyna in 1987.
At the party this week, the Charatans shared a meal and offered thanks "that we’re still here."
And Ludwig’s thanks to the Niedziolkas goes on.
More members of the family will come to the U.S., he says. "The next time will be my granddaughter’s bat mitzvah in two years."