Former inmate recalls daring escape from death camp

Auschwitz romance
Last Updated 24 July 2010, 18:35 IST

His knees buckling with fear, he tried to keep a stern bearing on the long stretch of gravel to the sentry post.

The German guard frowned at his forged pass and eyed the two for a period that seemed like an eternity — then uttered the miraculous words: “Ja, danke” — yes, thank you — and let Jerzy and Cyla out of the death camp and into freedom.

The 23-year-old Bielecki used his privileged position as a German-speaking Catholic Pole to orchestrate the daring rescue of his Jewish girlfriend who was doomed to die.

“It was great love,” Bielecki, now 89, recalled. In September 1943, Bielecki was assigned to a grain storage warehouse. Another inmate was showing him around when suddenly a door opened and a group of girls walked in.

“It seemed to me that one of them, a pretty dark-haired one, winked at me,” Bielecki said. It was Cyla — who had just been assigned to repair grain sacks.Their friendship grew into love.

Cybulska, her parents, two brothers and a younger sister were rounded up in January 1943 in the Lomza ghetto in northern Poland and taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her parents and sister were killed in the gas chambers, but she and her brothers were sent to work. By September, 22-year-old Cybulska was the only one left alive. As their love blossomed, Bielecki began working on the daring plan for escape. From a fellow Polish inmate working at a uniform warehouse he secretly got a complete SS uniform and a pass. Using an eraser and a pencil, he changed the officer’s name in the pass and filled it in to say an inmate was being led out of the camp for police interrogation at a nearby station.

The plan worked, they escaped. They walked on to a road, then into fields where they hid in dense bushes until dark, when they started to march. For nine nights they moved under the cover of darkness toward Bielecki’s uncle’s home. His mother, a devout Catholic, however, she was dead-set against him marrying a Jewish girl.

To keep her away from possible Nazi patrols, Cybulska was hidden on a nearby farm. Bielecki decided to go into hiding in Krakow — a fateful choice they believed would improve their chances of avoiding capture by the Nazis.

After the Soviet army rolled through Krakow in 1945, Bielecki left the city where he had been hiding from Nazis and walked 40 km along snow-covered roads to meet Cybulska at the farmhouse. But he was four days too late.

The parting

Cybulska, not aware that the area where she had been hiding had been liberated three weeks before Krakow, gave up waiting for him. She got on a train to Warsaw, planning to find an uncle in the US. On the train she met a Jewish man, David Zacharowitz, and the two began a relationship and eventually married. Zacharowitz died in 1975. In Poland, Bielecki eventually started a family of his own. He had no news of Cybulska and had no way of finding her.

While talking to her Polish cleaning woman in 1982, Cybulska related her Auschwitz story. The woman was stunned. “I know the story, I saw a man on Polish TV saying he had led his Jewish girlfriend out of Auschwitz.”

She tracked down his phone number and one early morning in May 1983 the telephone rang in Bielecki’s apartment. “I heard someone laughing — or crying — and then a female voice said “Juracku, this is me, your little Cyla,” Bielecki recalls. A few weeks later they met at Krakow airport. “Cyla was telling me: leave your wife, come with me to America,” he recalls. “She cried a lot when I told her: Look, I have such fine children, I have a son, how could I do that?” She returned to New York. They never met again. Cybulska died a few years later in 2002.

“I was very much in love with Cyla, very much,” Bielecki said. “Sometimes I cried after the war, that she was not with me. I dreamed of her at night and woke up crying.”

(Published 23 July 2010, 16:05 IST)

Follow us on