Rescuers of Jews

Maria Fedecka

Maria Fedecka (1894–1977)

Jan Bruner and Barbara Bruner (Fedecka)

Maria Fedecka and her husband Stanislaw were known for their strong opposition to anti-Semitic practices in pre-war Vilnius.
Everybody who needed help knew the address of Maria Fedecka. Art historian Józef Sandel, who had escaped from Hitler’s terror in Germany, found shelter and committed friends at Mrs. Fedecka’s place.
So it is not surprising that a person like Maria Fedecka began saving people who were under threat from the very beginning of the German occupation. All her efforts were focused on saving the lives of people who were being pushed towards inevitable death and towards defeating the ones who had announced capital punishment for mankind.
Maria always acted without the support of any organisation. As her son Ziemowit recalls: “...During the occupation my mother waged war, a private one, against the Gestapo...” She was helped by her husband Stanislaw and their children, occasionally by her sister Emilia Krzywiec-Pogorzelska and a few friends. The main problem was to find resources to rescue the Jews – Maria’s daughter Barbara remembers how her mother used to sell things from their home in the market in Vilnius.
Erna Podhorizer-Sandel, a research worker at the Warsaw Jewish History Institute, wrote: “I wish to tell you about a person who is defending everything that is humane and progressive, I wish to tell you about Maria Fedecka, who became famous in Vilnius even before World War II. Mrs. Maria was a Pole with a sensitive heart who did not tolerate a single manifestation of violence and injustice.
Not a single night went by without a Jew being sheltered under the roof of Maria Fedecka and her husband. Maria Fedecka used to bribe the employees of the Passport Office in order to get false “authentic” documents for people who were under threat. Many of them pronounce the name of Mrs. Maria with respect”.
The following people are grateful to Maria Fedecka for their rescued lives: Volodia Zalkind, Rosa Chwoles and her daughter Anna, Mrs. Szabad with her daughters Amy Szabad Navaro and Irena Szabad Pruzan, Dr. Szadowski with his family, lawyer Mire Brand, Mrs. Kaczerginska and many others. During the entire occupation Maria Fedecka was hiding little Adlena (Dala) Smilg, the daughter of a Vilnius lawyer. Those who have survived this nightmare can imagine the risk involved for the one who was rescuing the Jews. However, Maria Fedecka never doubted what she was doing when in those difficult times the Jews entrusted her with their children.
Alexander Sedlis and Emilia Sedlis, during one of the actions in the Vilnius Ghetto in 1941, escaped and found shelter at Maria Fedecka’s place. Later on Maria sheltered them at her friends’ place.
Gabriel Sedlis lived at Maria Fedecka’s place in September 1941 and in 1943 and then he joined the partisans.
Maria’s son Ziemowit was to recall decades later that: “ night a Jew shot through the chest and a woman who had already been covered with lime during a massacre of Jews in Paneriai slept in my bed”.
The Fedecki family owned an estate near the city of Lida about 150 km from Vilnius, which was known as Lebioda. The estate played a very important role in Maria Fedecka’s rescue plans for Jews. She used Lebioda as a hiding place for the people whom she succeeded in bringing from Vilnius. The trip to the estate was extremely dangerous, the Germans used to carry out frequent checks in the trains and on the roads. People helping the Jews (as well as their families) were sentenced to death.
These persecuted people used to stay in Lebioda till Maria managed to find places in the area where the owners were willing to accept them, usually without knowing that the people involved were Jews. A few like Noemi Szylanska, stayed on in Lebioda until the Soviet army came in the summer of 1944.
Maria Fedecka managed to save the Jews because of her exceptional ingenuity and the ability to find an appropriate argument or solution in the case of unfavourable circumstances, and for her exceptional ability to convince the people that she needed to achieve what she had set out to do.
A friend of the Fedecki family, Rosa Chwoles, and her daughter Anna (a teenager at the time) were forced to live in the ghetto. Maria Fedecka had a plan how to get Rosa out of there. She put on one of her most valuable things, which was a fox fur coat in order to look like a “noble lady”. This way she managed to be received by the head of the ghetto service. Maria explained to him that her dressmaker was making a dress for her at the time when the Jews were forced to go into the ghetto and took the material with her, “a thing so precious during the war”. So, she asked the head of the ghetto for permission to enter the ghetto to be able to find the Jewish “dressmaker” and to get her material for the dress. The permission was granted and Maria was able to meet Rosa and to give her a forged pass, or szajn (a work permit issued to the Jews that enabled the recipient and 4 members of the recipient’s family to live and work). This document helped Rosa to join a group of Jews who used to go the “Aryan” part of the city to work, and in this way she escaped form the ghetto.
Rosa and her daughter (who was already on the “good side” of the city) were taken in by the Fedecki family. Later Stanislaw took them to Szejbakpol, an estate close to Lebioda, where they lived with forged documents until the arrival of the Soviet army.
Maria Fedecka’s ingenuity and gift of persuasion was revealed in another, even more striking and dangerous episode, the story of a little Jewish child called Dala (Adlena Smilg – photo who was hidden in Maria’s house in Vilnius during the whole of the German occupation.
Maria’s daughter Barbara, a teenager at the time, remembers that after somebody turned them in, the Lithuanian Gestapo agents came to their house. Her mother immediately understood who these three people were approaching the house across the garden and reacted with lightning speed. She told the young girl who lived in her flat to wake the child, who at that moment was sleeping on the veranda, and take her to the next street and ask someone she knew there to keep the child for the time being. She herself hid in a neighbour’s apartment (these neighbours were Austrians who worked for the railway security (known by the name “Bahnschutz”). Barbara was the only one left in the flat. The Gestapo agents searched the flat and interrogated Barbara who denied the existence of the child they were looking for. In order to account for the presence of toys and other “compromising” items, she kept repeating assertively: “there is a little German girl, our neighbours’ daughter, who often comes to see us and play in our flat”. After a long interrogation the officials ordered that Maria be present the following day, and then left.
The lorry which was waiting to take the Fedecki family and the Jewish child to the Paneriai went back empty.
On the assigned day a young agent came to interrogate Maria Fedecka. She asked her family to leave the house, and received him alone. After four hours somebody from the family could not wait any longer and came back and saw “a miracle” with his own eyes. Maria and the young agent were saying farewells and shaking hands.
The young Lithuanian had joined the Gestapo after being disappointed in love. He was very moved by the story of Maria and her philosophical and ethical approach. Erna Podhorizer wrote: “/.../ she proceeded to have a discussion with the Gestapo agent. At the end of this long "conversation" she asked the agent whether he would be capable of embracing his own child if his hands were stained with the blood of other children...”
Maria had acknowledged the presence of a little girl in her home. In explanation of her semitic features Maria had told the agent that she was the illegitimate child of her husband and a Karaïm woman.
At the end, the young Lithuanian promised Maria that he would quit the Gestapo! He kept his promise and a few days later he brought the list with the names that had to be detained, asking her to warn them. Little by little, he became a family friend, though he was “difficult”, as he was also a person who needed to be cared for and comforted. Later on he left the city.
It is impossible to tell everything that Maria Fedecka did while rescuing the Jews, what has been written, talked about and passed on by word of mouth...
After the war Maria Fedecka refused to testify (is this “openly” or publicly?) on her actions. She would say: “I do not want to recall now in detail what I did for the Jews during the occupation”.
Elzbieta Grabska-Wallis wrote: “Maria Fedecka remains in the memory of those who knew her in different periods of her life as a person of great courage and of great moral vigilance. Having no affiliation with any political party, always noticing injustice that was imposed, she was never guided by stereotypes. Maria Fedecka always acted according to her own principles. When her help was needed, she reacted quickly and effectively.
When asked if she was conscious of the danger that her actions posed to her own children during the occupation, she answered: "How could I do otherwise when alongside other children Jewish children were being murdered?.
The name of Maria is honoured in Yiddish poetry. Just after the war Abraham Sutzkever, the well-known poet and former partisan, wrote a poem entitled “Maria Fedecka”, about the rescue of a young Jewish girl named Dvoyrlen. This poem was recently re-introduced and partially translated into Polish by Daniel Katz. He also recalled that Jews from Vilnius used to call Maria Fedecka “The Jewish Virgin Mary”.
In 1987 Maria Fedecka was recognised as a Righteous Among the Nations and in 2003 she received a Lithuanian state award, the Life Saviour’s Cross.

From the 4-th book Hands Bringing Life and Bread.
The Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum
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