By Daniel I. Dorfman
More than 70 years may have passed, but Danuta Renk-Mikulska still gets choked up describing what she and her family did to protect five Jews for two years amid the horrors of Nazi-occupied Poland in the early 1940s.
Her family of five frantically tried to save the five from German troops, who were stationed at their home, by hiding the group underground on their farm near Bigoraj, Poland.
One day Renk-Mikulska’s father had to think fast when dogs came seeking out any people on the run.
“My father put rabbits in the cages so he hoped the dogs would be interested in rabbits,” Renk-Mikulska recalled Tuesday, occasionally bursting out into tears, during a talk at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie.
This was just one of the striking anecdotes brought up as Renk-Mikulska received the “Righteous Among the Nations” award, the highest honor the State of Israel presents. Her parents received the same tribute in 1966.
A family effort to save 5
During a Q&A session at the museum with her grandchildren, Renk-Mikulska talked about Rivka Weinberg, one of the people they hid. At times they had to put her in the woods in the back of the house.
“She was so scared of the woods, but we couldn’t see any other way,” Renk-Mikulska recounted.
It was an entire family effort to keep the people safe. The three siblings helped out their parents with every task.
“My job was peeling potatoes, enough for 10 people to eat,” Renk-Mikulska said. Meanwhile, when the Jews were hiding underground, it was her sister’s obligation to carry out the human waste once a day.
The Jewish community sought out the Mikulskas because there was a friendly relationship already established in the pre-war days.
So when the German occupation began, many Jews came running out to the Mikulskas hoping to be saved. They were able to shelter five of them, including Weinberg, whose daughter, Chany Kotlarsky, was in attendance Tuesday.
The Mikulska family did what it could for the five they saved, but they could not help everyone. “There were so many Jews coming for help and we did what we could. But we didn’t have much food either,” Renk-Mikulska said.
“It was two years of this terrible German occupation,” Renk-Mikulska described. “But somehow we survived.”
Renk-Mikulska remembered one time her father was able to save a complete stranger when a German soldier was in their home and a man they believed to be Jewish knocked on the window. The soldier inquired, but her father was able to ease the situation by saying, “Don’t worry it is some crazy man in our village.” The man was able to get away.
Finally the five they’d hidden were smuggled out and headed in different directions. One joined the army and was subsequently killed in the war, two moved to Israel and two others, including Weinberg, came to North America.
With dignitaries present, including representatives from Poland and Israel listening, Renk-Mikulska talked with her grandchildren about the experiences with some rarely seen photographs of her family, their house and the five individuals as they hid underground displayed overhead.
“I never recalled seeing pictures, so (the) pictures are very powerful,” Kotlarsky noted.
Kotlarsky spoke admiringly of the entire Mikulska family and their efforts toward the people they saved, including her mother. “They treated them with such dignity,” she said.
Following the war, Renk-Mikulska stayed in Poland until 1970, when she moved to the United States. Today she lives in Ft. Wayne, IN with her son and Tuesday was the day for the entire family to learn firsthand about her efforts.
“This is a big story and a story that carries many, many messages to the next generations to understand the common human history of everybody in the world,” said her son, Jan Szubiak.
The broader picture of the efforts of what the Mikulska family can be viewed through the prism of the history of the war as three million Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust, representing half of the total number of Jews who died.
“The sacrifice of the Mikulska family should be seen against the anti-Semitism before the war, during the war and sometimes after the war,” said Roey Gilad, the Consul General of Israel to the Midwest.
Several generations of the Mikulska family took Tuesday as a day to embrace — both physically and emotionally — their matriarch. It was also a chance for everyone else to say thank you.
Rick Hirschhaut, the Holocaust Museum executive director put it this way. “I think if we ever wanted to experience what it is like being near pure goodness, we have experienced that today.”