Authors: Karolina Korwin, Hanna Pajor; Wojakowa grade school.
The main prize in the 5th edition of the project “We know your names. Commemoration of the pre-war Jewish community of Brzesko and vicinity”.
“We lived through really evil times. Fortunately, they didn’t find any refugees who would have been murdered,” – Maria Biel
A few words about me…
I was born in 1949 in the village of Wilczyce near Wroclaw. My grandparents moved there around 1946, hoping for a better life. My parents joined them in 1949, so I was the first child born in the recovered territories.
In 1958, we moved to Nowy Sącz. I was lucky and honored to be the granddaughter of Maria and Tomasz Biel, who were people of great modesty, diligence and even greater heart. I was born in the “pre-television” era, but my childhood was by no means boring. My mother worked, so grandparents had a big influence on us, five grandchildren. I don’t remember boring winter evenings. Our house was open to people. For as long as I can remember, people came to my grandparents for advice or wanted their opinion on various matters. My childhood was filled with stories from a very interesting and eventful life. Their stay in France, the war, the formation of the new Polish society in the recovered territories. My grandparents put their whole heart into everything they did. I was never bored with these stories. My only regret is that I didn’t write them down, because I no longer remember many of them accurately.
Zygmunt Rygiel (Riegelhaupt) visited us often, we called him “Zygmuś”. Over time, Zygmuś became a member of our family, he came on vacations, at Christmas, was at my wedding and organized the celebration of my grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary. After my grandparents died, he came to visit my mother, whom he treated like a sister. I enjoyed his company, because he was a very cheerful man despite his terrible war experiences. When I moved to Krakow (1967), I was often a guest at his house. Now I am retired, living with my family in Krakow, but I spend more and more time in Wojakowa. The stories that unfolded here and the wonderful people who lived here have made this my place on earth.
Maria and Tomasz Biel
World War II was a period of constant struggle for life. “Righteous Among the Nations,” an honorary title bestowed by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Institute, is awarded to heroes who endangered themselves and their families to save Jews from extermination.
Yad Vashem, Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Institute, is an institution established to document the history of the Jewish people during the Holocaust and to commemorate the victims of this period. It was first suggested to establish such an organization at the Zionist Congress in London in 1945, but the Institute was formed in Jerusalem on August 19, 1953 under the Memorial Law passed by the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. The Institute is located on Herzl Hill, in the Jerusalem Forest. It consists of the Holocaust History Museum, the Hall of Names (which stores data on Holocaust victims), the Memorial Chamber and the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations. The Institute also houses two galleries, synagogues, archives and libraries. The International School for Holocaust Studies and the International Institute for Holocaust Research also operate there.
Since 1963, one of the Institute’s main areas of activity has been honoring non-Jews who provided selfless aid to Jews during World War II. Yad Vashem has got a Department of Righteous Among the Nations, which accepts applications for the title. The submitted documentation is analysed by a special committee, which issues a decision. The documentation for each of the cases is kept in the Institute’s archives.
Several thousand olive trees have been planted since 1963 in honor of the Righteous among the Nations on the hill where the Yad Vashem Institute is located. Many of them were planted by the Righteous themselves. Each tree bears a plaque with the name of the Righteous and their country of origin. Among the trees there stand commemorative plaques with the names of all the Righteous engraved on them – more than 28,000 people from over 53 countries. Since 1996, due to lack of space in the Garden, the planting of more trees in it has been discontinued. The Righteous, either during their lifetime or posthumously, are honored in ceremonies held around the world, usually in the place of residence of the honored or their families, or in Israel, at the headquarters of the Yad Vashem Institute.
The subject of the Righteous among the Nations is important for us, as they lived next door to us in the small municipality of Iwkowa. Three of those awarded with this title are buried in the parish cemetery: Stefania and Tadeusz Zapiór and Andrzej Piechnik, while the Biel couple, who are the heroes of our paper, rest in the cemetery in Nowy Sącz.
Maria and Tomasz Biel got married on January 17, 1927 in Erenzwald, France. Tomasz worked abroad as a miner in a coal and iron ore mine. Their daughter Bronislawa was born there. After returning from France in 1935, the couple purchased a farm in Wojakowa from Moses Riegelhaupt. The Biels established friendly contacts with the Riegelhaupt family.
During the occupation, when the persecution of Jews started, the Biels helped the family they were friends with. In July 1942, Moses’ son Zygmunt, together with Izaak Tauger (brother of his brother-in-law), escaped into the woods the day before being taken to the Zakliczyn ghetto. Both men began hiding in the forest. In October 1942 Mojżesz, along with his daughter Regina, daughter-in-law Rywka and her two daughters (Pesia and Ita), with the help of the Biels, managed to escape from the Zakliczyn ghetto. This occurred shortly before its liquidation. For two months, at the end of 1942 and beginning of 1943, Zygmunt and Mojżesz were hiding in the Biel’s barn.
Zygmunt recalled after the war: “The Biels wanted our survival and they did not spare their generosity in providing help. They helped in every possible way: they sheltered us, fed us, provided us with encouragement. Tomasz Biel, as a man full of human dignity, a declared anti-fascist, not only gave information from the fronts of the German-Soviet war (…), but also warned of the roads by which death walked here.”
The granddaughter of Thomas and Maria recalls the stories of her mother, who was instrumental in keeping the Jews undetected. She recounts how the young Mrs. Biel carried baskets of food and newspapers covered with vegetables. In this way, Zygmunt and Mojżesz were able to follow the events of the war while being undetectable to the authorities. There were times when the hiding Jews were in danger. On some evenings, Mojżesz would come to Mr. and Mrs. Biel’s room to immerse himself in a political discussion with his host. In the spring of 1943, Zygmunt and Mojżesz returned to the forest, but they often visited the Polish family, and the family provided them with food and sometimes gave them shelter for a few days. Due to the distance between the forest hideout and the Biels’ home, the men’s visits became less frequent, but they were not discontinued.
The Biels continued to provide information and food until the end of the occupation. In March 1944, the Biels’ house was raided. Tomasz was then severely beaten, two of his ribs were broken. Maria wrote: “We lived through really evil times. Fortunately, they didn’t find any refugees, who would have been murdered.”
Unfortunately, despite the family’s efforts, Isaac perished while hiding in the basement in the house of a peasant family. They knew that Tauger had some gold. One day they informed him that fruit merchants were coming and he needed to hide his valuables. The night before their arrival, Isaac had a bad feeling. He asked Regina’s brother to stay with him because he was afraid of something. Unfortunately, his premonition proved to be coprrect. The merchants turned out to be bandits, and the whole maneuver was aimed at getting Tauger to point out where the gold was hidden. They took his valuables, put him on a cart and drove him to a German post. When he tried to escape, they captured him, stabbed his hands with knives and dragged him, tied to the cart, into the town. They dragged the bloody shreds of a corpse.
Those who remained alive often suffered more than those who were murdered. One such example is the story of Regina, daughter of Mojżesz. Her eyes stare at us from a faded photograph. Who was she? Regina – a medical student in Łódź, where she met her future husband Roman Kępiński. Together with her husband she had one child, daughter Anna.
Most likely, she gave birth to her in the basement of the Jachna family’s house. Regina survived the war, but her husband was not so lucky. The village leader of Drużków Pustu warned Regina’s father that the time of the ghetto’s liquidation was approaching. They decided to flee. However, escaping together was not possible, as the roads were lined with peasant patrols. The first to escape was Regina with her child, helped by Wincenty Tucznio, an acquaintance from Wojakowa. Mojżesz also managed to escape. Roman did not make it. Along with two-three thousand other Jews, he had to go to the railway station in Gromnik. From there the road led to Belzec… Regina, while hiding in the woods, had to take care of herself and her child. As recalled by Biel’s granddaughter Jadwiga Brończak, Regina used to make noodles for the child in a forest stream of flour, which she carried with her in a bundle. When she was driven from her previous hiding place, she decided to turn to her brother for help. Zygmunt came across honest people, so he asked Andrzej Piechnik to help. Mr Piechnik took Regina and the child and placed them in a bunker built by Franciszek Jarosz under a shed in a forest near Stańkowa.
There were 14 Jews hiding in the forest hideout: Regina with her father and daughter, her sister-in-law Regina Riegelhaupt with her two children, the Volkmann family of four, and four other men. Stefania and Tadeusz Zapiór and their children also showed heroism. One of the bandits-robbers prowling the area put a gun to the child’s head, threatening to shoot him if they did not turn over the Jews. They did not yield but assured him that they knew nothing. The bandits believed them. One can only guess what kind of the fear both Poles and Jews experienced.
In the basement at the Jaroszs’ house, the Jews spent two years hiding. After the war ended, Mojżesz emigrated to Israel. Zygmunt remained in Poland with Regina, and the Biels maintained good contact with the survivors.
Regina seems to have been unable to free herself from the war trauma until the end of her life. She hesitated between her decision to leave for Israel and to remain in Poland. She did not work. She supported herself by selling the remnants of her father’s remaining estate. She appeared quite often at family celebrations of people helping her and her family. For the last six years of her life, she never left her room, although she was physically healthy. Regina passed away in July 1996. She is buried in the cemetery in Nowy Sacz. Her daughter Anna lives in Poland, she married an army officer, and after his death became involved in business. Anna’s daughter lives in Israel, but visits Poland quite often.
This is how the fate of Mr. and Mrs. Biel and the Regielhaupt family turned out. War changes everyone no matter what country they come from or who they are. The great generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Biel and other families from Wojakowa was recognized. On September 15, 1991, Tomasz and Maria Biel were awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
These are the people who were hiding with the Biel family: Mojżesz Riegelhaupt, Regina Kempińska (daughter), Anna Kempińska (granddaughter), Rywka Riegelhaupt (daughter-in-law), Ita Riegelhaupt (granddaughter), Pesia Riegelhaupt (granddaughter), Zygmunt Riegelhaupt (son).
- Tokarski Stanisław, Znani i nieznani z parafii Wojakowa, tom 2, Mała Brzeska Oficyna Wydawnicza, Dobrociesz 2017,, s.7-8,36-37,
- Pałosz Jerzy, Odyseja 1942,”Gazeta Krakowska”, 6 października 2006, s.12,
- Pałosz Jerzy, Twarze z wyblakłych fotografii, „Gazeta Krakowska”, 8 grudnia 2006, s.11.
- Tokarski Stanisław, I i II wojna światowa na terenie Gminy Iwkowa, Brzeska Oficyna Wydawnicza, Dobrociesz 2006, s.29-64, 129-158.
- Relacja ustna Jadwigi Brończak, wnuczki Marii i Tomasza Bielów zamieszkałej w Krakowie dnia 15 listopada 2021 r.
We would like to express our gratitude to Mrs Jadwiga Brończak for her kindness, patience and help in writing this paper.
© K.Korwin, H.Pajor 2022