Sisters Reunited With Jews They Saved From Nazis : World War II: Unlikely protectors were youngsters when they hid 13 people in a cramped Polish apartment.
Cesia Miller looked at the pages of Reader’s Digest and realized almost immediately that the story in front of her was about the two sisters who had saved her life all those years ago.
There were the names, Stefania and Helena Podgorska, and the story of how the young girls had saved so many during the German occupation of Poland. It told of how they had hidden 13 Polish Jews for two years in a single room and a cramped attic, of how they had scrounged for food and risked their lives so often to keep them all alive.
It had to be them, Miller thought, the ones she had been seeking for almost 50 years--the teen-ager and her 7-year-old sister who somehow hid the 13 until the Russian army arrived near the end of World War II.
“It has been like trying to find a rock in the ocean,” Miller said. “But it was a thrilling end. I read the story on Sunday and couldn’t wait for Monday so I could call Reader’s Digest.”
Miller read the story of the Podgorska sisters late last summer. What has happened since then is a story of reunion, joy, memories and tears.
The culmination of all this will occur today when the two sisters--one now living in a Boston suburb, the other a doctor in Poland--will be honored at a luncheon sponsored by the Martyrs Memorial of the Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles.
It will mark the first time the sisters have been honored together, the first time Helena has ever been to any kind of ceremony dedicated to her. And it will bring together six of the 15 people who for two years were crammed into the sisters’ tiny apartment with no running water.
The story of the Podgorska sisters is well known to Holocaust scholars. In the late 1950s, a tree was planted in Israel in their honor. Stefania, the older sister, last year shared a podium with President Clinton at the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
The story begins in 1942 during the German occupation. Stefania, then 16, found herself working in the Polish city of Przemysl. Her father had died before the war began, and her mother and brother had been pressed into German labor camps.
Stefania started by smuggling food into the city’s Jewish ghetto to the family that had once been her employer. Then came the day she decided to hide the first of the Jews, a young man who had escaped from a train headed for the death camps. His name was Max Diamant. In later years, he would change his name to Josef Burzminski and he would become Stefania’s husband of 50 years.
As time passed, Diamant asked Stefania to hide others, and still others heard about the haven and showed up at the doorstep. German nurses were in the apartment next door, and there were long periods of absolute silence among those hiding in the cramped attic. Each knock at the door brought another surge of fear.
Stefania’s task each day was to gather enough food for her wards without arousing suspicion. Helena often acted as a courier because a young child was less likely to draw attention to herself.
When money ran out, Stefania and others took to knitting sweaters as a way of raising cash. When the Russians finally entered Poland near the war’s end, all 13 left their hiding place for the first time and scattered to points around the globe.
In 1957, Stefania and Josef immigrated to Israel, where he opened a dental practice in Tel Aviv, while Helena remained in Poland to study medicine. In 1961, the couple moved to New York and later to the Boston suburb of Brookline, raising two children along the way.
Cesia Miller went in another direction but eventually found her way to New York, and then Los Angeles. Though a child at the time of the German occupation, she never forgot the two sisters. When she traveled to Israel in 1970, she tried to find them there. But Diamant was by then Burzminski and there was no trail to follow.
When she was in Poland a decade ago, Miller again launched a search, but found nothing. Helena by then was married and working as a radiologist in Warsaw.
There were two times when Miller, who lives in West Los Angeles, could have have seen Stefania on television. The first was at the dedication of the Holocaust museum; the second was an appearance by Stefania and Josef last year on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show. Miller missed the first event and never watches daytime television.
Ironically, her daughter, Sharon, did see the “Oprah” show but did not make the connection. Neither the town nor the number who had been saved were mentioned, so she had no reason to think the people on the screen had anything to do with her mother.
Meanwhile, in Brookline, Stefania began working on her memoirs, which would eventually grow to 350 typed pages.
“I wanted people to know about helping one another, not to kill but just to be human beings,” said Stefania in recalling why she began writing the memoir. “People should learn to live together.”
On the Monday after Miller saw the article in Reader’s Digest, she did, indeed, find Stefania in Brookline.
“That’s you, really you?” asked Miller.
“Yes,” Stefania replied.
“I found you,” said Miller.
“You found me and I found you,” she replied.
Since that time, one thing has led to another. An anonymous benefactor donated a round-trip ticket from Poland to the United States, and Helena has been here for the last three weeks.
The Burzminskis, both now retired, have been here as well. Their son, Ed, lives in Los Angeles and they will visit for the next two months.
Another of the group flew in over the weekend from Germany for the occasion.
On Monday, Stefania and Josef were having lunch, talking about the past. The only thing they didn’t want to discuss was the actual time of hiding. They had done it enough, including telling their story in detail as part of research for a proposed movie about the sisters.
Then Josef spoke fondly of Stefania, of all the years they had spent together.
“She put her life in jeopardy to save my life. That was a good test,” he said. “She’s not only a good wife, she’s a friend.”
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