Krystyna - Poland / Righteous of the Nations
Krystyna is from a small town in Poland. Her family, the Kielans, consisted
of her father Franciszek, her mother Maria, and her sister Zofia. The family
lived in Warsaw since 1935. Her father worked at the Central Office of the
Farmers Cooperative; he was an inspector and consultant. He did a lot of
traveling around Poland. Her mother had a high school diploma and worked as a
Krystyna's family lived in a Northern
district, Zoliborz, in an apartment complex of 120 families. They lived on the
fifth floor of a six-floor building. The apartment had five rooms. The school
Krystyna attended was similar to schools we are familiar with. Elementary school
was first through sixth grades, followed by six years of lysiam (middle and high
In the summer of 1939, Krystyna went to a
girls scout camp. This camp was not fun and games, it was meant for building
character. The girls had to perform tasks like setting up their own campsites.
They also took care of children and attended to people with minor injuries in a
nearby village. This camp was designed to make a self-reliant person out of a
girl, and build her confidence.
The camp lasted a month. Soon after,
Krystyna's parents went on a vacation. Krystyna and Zofia didn't go with them;
instead they went to stay with their aunt and her family in Nowogrodek, a small
town near the eastern border of Poland. They spent the rest of the summer in the
countryside, far from any town.
During August, signs began appearing telling
young men to join the Polish Army. When it came time for the girls to go home,
their aunt was hesitant. She was afraid to send them alone on a train to Warsaw.
Then their aunt discovered two boys she knew were also going to Warsaw to sign
up, and so they were entrusted with watching over Krystyna and Zofia.
On August 30th 1939, the sisters boarded the train for Warsaw. They were
anxious and excited to get home to their parents. Before they reached Warsaw,
the train was stopped. Everyone on the train had to get off and show their
identification before the journey was allowed to continue. Instead of the twelve
hour train ride they'd planned on, it ended up taking twenty four.
The next day, Krystyna woke up in Warsaw. The
weather was beautiful, with no clouds in the sky. But soon she realized
something was not right. She heard loud noises all around, but she just imagined
that after so long a stay in the quiet countryside, the normal city noises were
strange to her. Then someone told her it was the German planes attacking Poland.
Germany was invading. Like many people, Krystyna couldn't fully comprehend what
was really happening, but she realized that if she had not been on the train to
Warsaw, she would not have been able to return at all. After the war started,
the Kielan family had to get up in the middle of the night and leave their fifth
floor apartment for the basement when the air raid siren would sound. The
Germans hadn't actually occupied Warsaw, but they were close. One colonel
ordered that all men should leave the city immediately. Many did go, including
Krystyna's father. Warsaw was a dangerous place. Food supplies came in
irregularly, and when they did come, it was still hard to get. People had to
present identification and ration cards in order to obtain anything. Krystyna
and her family practically lived in the basement of their building, out of the
constant fear of new bombardments.
The seige of Warsaw lasted about three weeks.
In October Germans entered the city, and the progessive terror began. A curfew
was ordered and it lasted all the time of the German occupation. All news from
the outside world was cut off; radios were confiscated, and the official
newspaper, edited by Germans and published in Polish, published only false
information. Everybody had to get an identification card, and anyone caught
without the ID would be arrested. The terrorism included the mass executions of
groups of arrested people, usually preceeded by routine interrogation and
torture, and rounding up many others who would be transported to concentration
camps or deported to Germany as forced labor. Eventually, because there were few
educators left, the High schools were closed and children were only allowed to
attend the six primary grades and later a vocational school. Therefore some
teachers and parents organized illegal schools in private homes. If such a
school was discovered, everyone there would be arrested.
Through school, Krystyna met a girl named
Jana. Jana was of Jewish background, and was at the time living in an efficiency
apartment with a woman who offered her temporary shelter. Jana's mother and
brother were staying at a convent outside of Warsaw. Jana's father had been
evacuated with the Polish government to England; most government officials had
fled the country at the beginning of the German invasion.
Krystyna asked her parents if Jana could live
with them, where she would be better cared for. They agreed, and the Kielan
family put up an extra cot in Krystyna's room. Jana was more secure with the
Kielan family, and was able to remain in good health while she lived with them.
Jana became like a sister to Krystyna and Zofia. They were all taught together,
and although everyone knew that Jana didn't belong to the Kielan family, not one
person in the 120 family complex reported them. On September 19th 1940, the
Nazis came to their complex and ordered all the men there to be taken to a
concentration camp called Auschwitz. Two of Krystyna's friends had their fathers
taken away where they eventually perished. Before Auschwitz was a death camp, it
was a labor camp. The Jewish population in Warsaw was not yet segregated from
the rest of the population.
In October 1940, the segregation began. This was the beginning of the Warsaw
Ghetto. The residents were able to leave the ghetto at first because it was not
yet closed off. No one could anticipate what was going to happen.
In the summer of 1942, Krystyna and Jana went
to a school of agriculture. Krystyna's father knew the director, and he invited
them to go, even though it was mainly for peasant girls. This school was
intended for girls from rural areas, but for Krystyna and Jana it was the best
When the summer was over, it was decided that it was too dangerous for Jana
to return to Warsaw, so she remained in the country. She spent that fall working
on the farm. One day, early in the morning after she had been sick, Jana went to
the fell to fetch some water. She had just woken up, so she hadn't had time to
arrange her "peasant" appearance, the braided pigtails and peasant clothes that
disguised her. A Nazi driving by saw her, and told her they would be back for
her. This is when she returned to the Kielan family.
While Jana was still at the farm, Krystyna had returned home to find another
young girl staying at their home. Her name was Roma Milax. She had been living
in the Ghetto but she and her family had escaped. She planned on going to a
convent somewhere, but in the meantime she was staying with the Kielan family.
She was there for about a month. She was very nice, and when she left, Krystyna
was crying and upset. Her mother told her that it was too dangerous for Roma to
stay, especially because Roma looked very Jewish.
The entire Kielan family, including Jana, worked for the underground.
Krystyna delivered newspapers put out by the underground. She went into a store
and said a certain password in order to get these newspapers. She expected a
small bundle but instead she received two big baskets full. Krystyna knew she
could never conceal these on public transportation. If she was found out, she
knew she would probably be shot. She had to walk several miles to another store,
and say another password; then she could drop off the papers, and her job was
Krystyna was told to go to a school in another part of the city. In this
school, Krystyna slept on a gymnasium floor. Soon after she arrived, she heard
shooting. She had no idea what was happening. All the houses were closed up, and
the streets were deserted. The Warsaw Uprising began on August 3 1944, as the
Russians approached Warsaw. The leader of Krystyna's resistance cell told them
that someone was needed to go to Vistula to get information. There was a
silence, and then finally someone volunteered. This person was Krystyna. She was
scared, but she felt it was her duty. She had to walk down the empty streets,
not knowing when a German guard would stop her. On the way, she saw many dead
bodies. On a small secluded street she saw people staring at her from behind
tiny windows. At one of the houses, someone stopped her and asked where she was
going. They told her that at the next corner there was a German on the roof who
was shooting people as they passed by. They told her not to go any further if
she valued her life. Krystyna hesitated, and finally decided it was not worth
getting killed. She returned, and her leader was glad she had decided to be
prudent. The uprising was poorly organized, and soon ended.
After the failure of the Uprising, all the people had leave and were sent to
a big camp in Pruszkow, outside Warsaw. They were allowed to bring with them
only what they could carry. The Nazis were still sending young people to Germany
for their labor camps. Zofia got out of this by having a doctor write that she
was sick. Jana, who alwayshad rosy red cheeks, was made out to be pregnant.
On September 11th, Krystyna awoke early in the morning to loud noises. People
said that the Germans had left and they were blasting out all the bridges. Most
everyone was relieved that it was over. Krystyna saw a few of the Russian
soldiers enter. She noticed that some of them had a red star on their hats,
while others had an eagle. Some of them were part of the Polish Army, which no
one had guessed still existed. Stalin, the Russian leader, had ordered his
troops not to enter Warsaw until the fighting had ceased, but the soldiers
Krystyna had seen did not obey. The rest of the Russian forces entered the city
on January 17th 1945, and Warsaw was at last liberated.
Warsaw was completely devastated after World War II. The Germans and the
Russians had destroyed the city. All of Krystyna's family survived the war. Jana
found her mother and went to live in Crakow.
Krystyna lived in Buffalo, New York for many years. She is a doctor of
biology. Jana lives in Boston, Massachusetts, and is a medical doctor. Jana and
Krystyna both left Poland around the same time.
Krystyna says that there was no particular reason that the Kielan family took
in Jewish people, except for the normal spontaneous human reaction to another's
Because of her actions in helping to save Polish Jews, Krystyna, along with
her father, mother, and sister, were all honored at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem for
being "Righteous of the Nations." This award is given to non-Jews who helped
save the Jewish people during the Holocaust.
Related Resources for this Speaker:
Rescue: The Story of How Gentiles Saved Jews in the Holocaust
Meltzer, Milton. HarperCollins, 1991.
The Avenue of the Just
There is a garden at Yad Vashem in Israel where each tree bears the name of a
non-Jew who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Ten of these individuals
and some of those they helped save recount their personal experiences during the
dark years of Nazi genocide.
The Courage to Care
The Academy Award-nominated film on the ordinary people who refused to
succumb to Nazi tyranny when many others were bystanders to apathy and
complicity. A classroom guide is available.