Rescuers of Jews

Mikulska Marija

I once saw swarms of people with yellow patches on their backs walking one after another. Men, women, children. Like shadows, barely moving, pale and exhausted. They were walking and falling right there on the ground. “Why am I not doing anything while seeing this? Why am I not helping them?” the thought had been nagging from that moment on. “I have to save at least one person from death!” / Juozas Stakauskas

Hideout on Šv. Ignoto Street

Priest Juozas Stakauskas, teacher Vladas Žemaitis and nun Marija Mikulska (sister Benedikta) rescued twelve jews from death during the war by hiding them in the premises of the Vilnius State Archive, Šv. Ignoto No. 5.

In 1941 J. Stakauskas was the director of the Vilnius State Archive. When the Nazis occupied Vilnius, the archive accumulated books and different papers from other occupied towns. The archive was in need of new premises. The Nazi authorities ordered that these be found, and J. Stakauskas decided that the former Benedictine monastery in Šv. Ignotas Street was the best and most suitable place for storing books and for rescuing people doomed to death.
“The plan of rescue was emerging slowly – when German authorities proposed a group of assistants and ordered me to find the premises... I decided that the former monastery was the most suitable place to shelter those people. I also saw that I could not manage it all by myself. Vladas (Žemaitis – R.S.) was to me like a walking stick is to a blind man...”
J. Stakauskas managed to exclude one room from the plans of the new premises. After concealing the room very carefully, a place for hiding people was prepared. After the liquidation of the Vilnius ghetto, Jews were sheltered here for almost a year. Doctor A. Libo and his wife Vera, Grigorijus and Lėja Jasunskiai, 10-year-old Samuelis Bakas and his mother, J. Jaffe and his wife Sofija and sister Fira hid in this room. The last resident of the hideout was Miriam Rolnikaitė (presently M. Lisauskienė), who Professor K. Jablonskis had brought there in March 1944. According to the rescuer, twelve people were saved in the hideout. It should be emphasized that nobody asked J. Stakauskas to do it. He himself offered his help to these people.
The fact that Germans worked in the room above the hideout speaks of the perpetual deadly danger looming over J. Stakauskas and the people who hid there. Tension dominated the hideout, and people spoke in whispers. The tension was increased by yet another detail; although the people in the hideout had reconciled themselves to their fate, according to M. Lisauskienė, they were very much concerned about the fate of their rescuer, J. Stakauskas. Residents of the surrounding houses were also a source of danger. If they found out about the hidden Jews, they could inform the Nazis. During the last months of their presence in Vilnius, the Germans encouraged any information about hidden Jews by distributing coupons for cigarettes and vodka; alas, many were tempted by it. M. Lisauskienė remembers how, a few days before the retreat of Germans from Vilnius, a resident of the hideout who was standing by the window was noticed by a passer-by. Once again grave threat was looming over all the people in the hideout and J.5takauskas. Fortunately, the man who saw the Jew at the hideout window was not tempted by the Nazi favours...
J. Stakauskas organized the escape from the Vilnius ghetto of J. Žirnauskas, the former senior lecturer of the Faculty of Chemistry of Vilnius University. When J. Žirnauskas passed the gate of the ghetto as he was being driven to work, he was handed personal papers and a plan of how to reach peasants who would hide him. It was extremely difficult to save a four-year-old girl, Aneta. The girl was hidden in a house in Teatro Street; small and very lively, she could hardly obey the requirements of safety, thus exposing herself and her rescuer to mortal danger.
J. Stakauskas did all he could to provide those in the hideout with food and to raise their spirits. M. Lisauskienė remembers how happy they all were when their rescuer brought flowers to the hideout; the flowers were a reminder both of vitality and of their tragic situation. During his visits to the hideout J. Stakauskas also informed them of the situation at the front.
Not everyone who J. Stakauskas wanted to help survived. An elderly woman who came to the hideout in the evening died there the following morning. It was not possible to remove her body from the archive without attracting the neighbours' and the Nazis' attention. The decision was made to bury her right there in the archive. A coffin was made out of floorboards. A heavy case at the end of a corridor in the archive to had be moved, the floor had to be lifted, a hole dug out, the earth removed from the premises, the coffin covered... All of this had to be done secretly, without anyone noticing a thing. That night J. Stakauskas and V. Žemaitis did it.

The following people lived in the hideout:

Aleksandras Libo
Vera Libo
Liuba Libo
Jakovas Jaffe
Sofia Jaffe
Monika Jaffe
Mita Markovska (Bak)
Samuel Bak
Grigorijus Jaszunskis
Irena Jaszunska
Ester (Fira) Jaffe (Kantorovič)
Miriam Rolnikaitė (Lisauskienė)

Twelve people with their unique stories of suffering in the ghetto and of the circumstances that had lead them to that hideout. The families of doctor Libas and engineer Jaffe had agreed with Stakauskas on the hiding before the liquidation of the Vilnius Ghetto. The Jaszunskis family was directed to the hideout by doctor Epšteinas. Mrs. Bak with her son Samuelis came to the hideout with the help of nun Mikulska after escaping from the HKP labour camp on Subačiaus Street. Ms. Rolnikaitė found her way to the hideout in a similar way. All of those people found humanism, nobility and generosity that are hardly possible during the times of peace. Three people risked their lives to save other people. The risk was not episodic, one-off or short-time, but daily. It lasted for ten long months that turned into eternity for the inhabitants of the hideout and obviously for the rescuers too. Everybody realised what would have happened if the Nazis, who were working in the same archive, would have found the hiding fugitives.

Samuel Bak writes in his memoirs:

“One needed ten miracles to survive the war. Nine were just not enough.” It is hard to tell, how many miracles were done by the three noble rescuers to the fugitives.
P. S. Priest Juozas Stakauskas rescued not only people but also valuable files from the archive. During the war, Germans would bring boxcars of archive files from Minsk, Vitebsk, Smolensk and other cities to Vilnius. Here, dr. priest Stakauskas and his staff had to look though them and pick the most valuable ones for transportation to the Greater Reich. Among those were files illegally taken by the Soviet officers from Vilnius before the war. Dr. priest Stakauskas opposed the orders of the Nazis: he selected worthless files to be taken to Germany and hid the most valuable ones by sending them to dioceses. Moreover, Jewish intellectuals helped him to screen the files.

Miriam Lisauskienė (Rolnikaitė) remembers:

Any hint of gratitude for their rescue was refused by J. Stakauskas. He was a very modest man. He used to say that by rescuing people he had not done anything special. Helping other people is a natural human state. A wish to help everyone he could was characteristic of him. Having saved the lives of seventeen people, he regretted he could not save more. J. Stakauskas was a saint even to non-believers. It is one thing to hide the doomed people in a village or in a cattle-shed; it is entirely different to do it in a town, in an office where people come and go, where there is movement all the time, where there are Germans around and the person who asked to rescue you is not there. J. Stakauskas was not guided by the plea of a particular person, he was led by his need to save others under any circumstances.

Slėptuvės aristokratai. Prisiminimai. Pasaulio Tautų Teisuoliai. Ed. Rimantas Stankevičius, Seimas publishing house “Valstybės žinios”, Vilnius, 2003.
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