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Julian Bilecki was a teenager from Poland whose family helped rescue 23 Jewish-Polish citizens during World War II and the Holocaust. The Bilecki family hid the Jews within an underground bunker to prevent their discovery by one of the many Nazi death squads. The family provided food for the escapees and built new bunkers when the first and second were compromised. Julian Bilecki and his family members were named Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

The Bilecki Family

Julian Bilecki and his family practiced Sabbatarianism, observing the Sabbath on Saturday rather than Sunday.

Julian Bilecki, sometimes spelled Biletskiy, was born in 1928 in Zawalow, Tarnopol District, Poland, now Zavaliv, Ternopil’ District in Ukraine. He grew up with his father, Yevgeniy Biletskiy, and his sister, Anna. The three shared a home with Yevgeny’s brother, Leon, and his wife, Mariya, and their two offspring, Yaroslava and Roman. Julian’s uncle Leon worked as a forest warden and the remaining Bilecki member tended the family farm in Zawalow.

Although the Bilecki family was Christian, they practiced Sabbatarianism unlike the majority of their Christian neighbors.[1] Sabbatarianism is a sect of Protestantism whose believers observe the Sabbath, or holy day of rest, on Saturday in compliance with the fourth commandment.[2] This differs from most Christians who celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday and connected the Bilecki family closer to their Jewish neighbors who celebrate on Saturday as well.[3]

Escaping the Holocaust

In early fall of 1943, Julian Bilecki sat at home with his family when a knock came at their door. Two Jewish men, Shiko Zisser and Hershko Grau, stood outside. Bilecki’s uncle, Leon, knew Shiko Zisser and their friendship began before the outbreak of World War II or Hitler’s rise to power. The two men informed the Bilecki family that they escaped from Podhajce, or Pidhaytsi, ghetto alongside 140 other imprisoned Jews on June 6, 1943, when the ghetto was liquidated.

Zisser and Grau described wandering through the countryside and being attacked by Ukrainian nationalists. The nationalists stole and murdered many of the Jews who escaped as well as the groups appointed leader, Israel Zilber. Only 20 members survived the attacks, including Sabina Schnitser, Izio Loeb, Mina Blumenfeld, Chaim Weintraub, the Ridkis family, the Feldberg family, the three Rozman sisters, and several more.[4]

Bravery in Hiding

Since Leon Bilecki worked as a forest warden, he knew the woods around the Bilecki farm very well.[5] He decided the family should build a bunker to shelter the escapees. He recruited the help of a few of the strong, young Jewish men and his son and nephew to build the first bunker in a forest cave. They hid the entrance by covering it with branches and leaves. The Bilecki family saved the Jewish escapees even though they could face imprisonment in a concentration camp themselves if caught, or worse, be placed in front of a firing squad.

The Bilecki family courageously found shelter and food for the 23 Jews escaping the Nazis during the Holocaust in Poland despite the consequences being put in a concentration camp or death.

Once the family hid the Jews away in the bunker, they needed to feed them. Many locals found it difficult to find food anyway and adding 23 more mouths to feed proved a struggle. They needed to not only secretively bring the food to the underground shelter, but also needed to find the food at all. The family managed, however, and continued to feed their hidden friends until the bunker was discovered by civilians walking in the woods.

The Bilecki family built a second bunker closer to their home in the dead of winter. The snow proved a new challenged since footprints in the fresh show clearly revealed the location of the hidden shelter.[6] Julian Bilecki took to jumping from tree to tree to avoid making any tracks in the snow. [7] Leon Bilecki discovered several more escapees from the same group over the next few months. He saved the three children of Israel Zilber and a woman named Gitla Fink. The second bunker was discovered and a third one built in December 1943.[8]

For more than a year, the Bilecki’s kept the Jewish escapees hidden away, built new bunkers, and moved the group when their discovery seemed possible. They brought giant burlap sacks stuffed with corn meal, beans, and potatoes, so the hidden Jews could feed themselves. Bilecki family members often remained in the bunker for short visits and always visited once a week to share news from outside and sing hymns.[9]

Reuniting with the Survivors

On March 27, 1944, the Russian Army entered the Tarnopol District and liberated the locals from Nazi control. The survivors saved by the Bilecki family went their separate ways, some returning to their homes in Poland and others relocating to other countries such as the United States or Israel.[10] Some even joined the Red Army before the war finished to fight for the freedom of other Jews in Poland.[11]

The Bilecki family remained poor for the rest of their lives, despite their heroic efforts during the Holocaust.

Many of the Jewish escapees kept in contact with the Bilecki family after their liberation. The survivors sent care packages of clothing and food to the still impoverish family and they corresponded back and forth by letter.[12] In December 1998, the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous organized a reunion for some of these Jewish Holocaust survivors with one of their rescuers, Julian Bilecki.

Bilecki, age 70 during their reunion, met with the escapees at Kennedy International Airport on December 8, 1998. Bilecki arrived at the airport for his first trip outside of Poland/Ukraine and was greeted by five Holocaust survivors and his son who lives in the U.S. One of the women who he saved, Mrs. Sabina Grau Schnitzer, recalled of the Bilecki family, “They had a heart. They were humanitarians, and we want to show the world there were people like this.” Bilecki stayed with his son in the U.S. for one month before returning to his job as a cab driver in Ukraine.[13]

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, recognized the Biletskiy family, including Leon, Mariya, Roman, Yevgeniy, and Julian, as Righteous Among Nations on January 3, 1990, for their brave rescue of 23 Jews during the Holocaust. Yad Vashem also recognized Anna Kifor Bilecki and Yaroslava Bilecki on January 14, 1996, for their participation in the rescue.[14]

References

Bibliography


The Associated Press (1998, December 10). Pole, 70, reunited with Jews he saved. The New York Times.[2]

Bülow, L. (2008). Julian Bilecki. Courage and Survival: The Holocaust.[3]


Yad Vashem. (2017). The Righteous Among The Nations. Yad Vashem: The Holocaust Martyrs“ and Heroes” Remembrance Authority.[4]

Footnotes

  1. Yad Vashem, 2017
  2. Merriam-Webster, Inc. (2017). Definition of SABBATARIAN. Merriam-Webster Dictionary.[1]
  3. Yad Vashem, 2017
  4. Yad Vashem, 2017
  5. Yad Vashem, 2017
  6. Bülow, 2008
  7. The Associated Press, 1998
  8. Yad Vashem, 2017
  9. Bülow, 2008
  10. Bülow, 2008
  11. Yad Vashem, 2017
  12. Bülow, 2008
  13. The Associated Press, 1998
  14. Yad Vashem, 2017

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