17.04.2023 | Redaktor

Wojciech Kotfis from Uszew

In 2002-2004, stidents from the Public Secondary School in Uszew, under the supervision of their teacher, Mrs Teresa Czesak, carried out an educational project entitled “Memory Saves Nations”. Within this project, the students researched the story of Uszew resident Wojciech Kotfis and the Jewish Goldberger family who were shot in May 1944. The pupils then interviewed older Uszew residents in an attempt to reconstruct the events that had happened in their village during the war. Further text written in 2003 comes from http://www.gimnazjum.uszew.pl/prace/135-pami-ocala-narody

” According to the parish “Book of Baptisms” (Liber natorum volume X) Wojciech Kotfis was born on 30 March 1866 as the son of Martin and Wiktoria. According to the parish “Book of Marriages” (Liber copulatorum tom VII) he married Józefa Kowalczyk in 1894. The fiancée’s father gave his daughter permission to marry because she was a minor:

“I, the undersigned, father of my minor daughter Józefa Kowalczyk, allow her to marry Wojciech Kotfis. Being illiterate, I confirm it in front of the two below-mentioned witnesses, with the sign of the cross “.

Wojciech Kotfis, baptismal and marriage certificates

Wojciech Kotfis had seven children. In his youth he served in the Austrian army, where he learned German. He was distinguished by his tall stature (about 2 m) and, as his daughter-in-law Stanisława Kotfis recalls, “he was as straight as a candle”. He lived with his family in “Piskorka” (a hilly area with farmland). He was engaged in farming. He cultivated the fields that his father had once received from the Austrians for war merits. He also had a beautiful orchard. He was seen as “different” by the inhabitants of Uszew. Wojciech Kotfis’ otherness arose from his interests, which were unusual for a farmer. He possessed a very extensive knowledge. He was considered a wise man, a “philosopher”. He read books and newspapers and was interested in politics. Priests and officials visited him. He went to church infrequently, but when he did go, he was wearing a suit, white gloves, and took his walking stick and hat. As a husband and father, he was distinguished by his strictness. He liked order and discipline. He was a pedant in what he did. He instilled in his children a respect for their homeland and for humanity. Probably guided by these values, he decided to take the risky step of helping the Jewish Goldberger family who had been hiding in Uzew during World War II.

Chaskel Goldberger and his Dębno-born wife Toni née Unger arrived in Uszew with their son Janek (some say he was Chaskel’s foster son). Three more daughters (according to some, two) were born to them in Uszew. They lived where Mr Pawełek’s shop is now. Chaskel was a butcher. Toni, a beautiful and sympathetic woman, was very kind to the people of Uszew. 

After the outbreak of war, the Goldberger family and their relative Pinkas Federgrin were the only Jews who did not leave Uszew. At first, they were hiding in various places. Toni and her youngest daughter stayed for some time with Mrs Karaś in Kąty. Chaskel’s  family also lived in an empty house behind the cemetery. They stayed in the basement during the day and entered the house at night. They were helped by the parents of Mrs Alfreda Kotarba. Later they started hiding in a bunker in a forest called Grabaliny on the border with Piskorka. It was an out-of-the-way place far from the village. The bunker was 4 x 4 m and had a chimney to keep warm in winter. Chaskel’s family primarily used the help of Wojciech Kotfis as his house was the closest to the hiding place. They tended to come at night. They received food and could cook something.

The area in the Grabalina forest where the Jews were hiding.

From time to time they also appeared in the village. They went around the houses where they were given food. One Uszew resident recalls that one evening Pinkas called “Pinek” turned up at her parents’ house. He came to get some bread. While he was sitting in the kitchen, a German suddenly entered, admonishing him to cover the windows. Fortunately, he paid no attention to Pinkas. Our interviewee still remembers the paralysing fear of the household members. The bread for Chaskiel’s family was also baked by the mother of Mr Stanislaw Z. Chaskiel always came in the evening. As a young boy, Mr Z. often carried a sack of bread to the forest. The hiding Jews would also cut down trees in the forest, for which they would get puppets (sweet plaited buns baked in Uszew) from the people. In order to survive they dug potatoes from the surrounding fields. The people of Uszew were aware of the presence of Jews in the village, but no one talked about it. The Goldberger children aroused particular sympathy. Those who helped the family wanted to save them at all costs.

The Jews lived in the bunker for about 3 years. Unfortunately, someone betrayed them. The wife of Wojciech Kotfis’ son claims that it could have been the owners of the fields from which the Jews dug potatoes. However, there is no certainty as to the veracity of any hypothesis. The Germans visited Wojciech Kotfis twice. The first time they probably came to do reconnaissance. They talked to him in front of his house. He told them about his time in the Austrian army. One of the Germans even saluted him in farewell. Unfortunately, the second visit ended in his tragic death, preceded by the shooting of Jews.

On a Sunday afternoon in May 1944 (some say it was May or June 1944), German gendarmerie accompanied by Polish police went to Grabaliny, where the tragedy took place. There are several versions of this event. First, the Germans probably spotted a girl picking berries. She was the first to be murdered. Then Toni was shot with her youngest daughter in her arms and the older daughter by her side. The men tried to run away. Pinkas was grabbed by a dog and was shot dead. Chaskel and Janek managed to escape. Later Chaskel appeared in Uszew. The villagers welcomed him back into their homes, and he often even stayed with them overnight. He was later reportedly shot in Gródek. The information that Janek survived has not been confirmed. The bodies of the murdered Jews were first buried in a common grave. According to the account of the father of Mrs Alfreda Kotarba, the bodies of murdered Jews were later excumeted. According to the daughter-in-law of Wojciech Kotfis, they could have been buried in the Jewish cemetery in Brzesko. However, there are no traces of such a grave there.

The place where the Jews were shot. Photos by Anna Brzyska, 2018

German gendarmerie appeared in front of the Kotfis house. One of the Germans hid behind a pear tree, while others talked to the farmer. There was no indication that they came to shoot Wojciech. During the farewell, a gendarme standing behind a tree fired. Wojciech Kotfis was killed on the spot. The wife, reprimanded by the Germans, did not admit to helping the Jews, she put all the blame on her husband, knowing that he was already dead. It saved her life. She went to the village to ask for help. Mr Stanisław Kotarba and Mr Franciszek Kurtyka helped her take her husband’s body to the barn. The next day the body, wrapped in a sheet, was taken to the cemetery by Mr Jan Warkocz, among others, and buried probably by Jakub Bukowicz, Andrzej Pawełek and Karol Rabiasz. There was no coffin, no service and no record in the parish register. The funeral service was held a few days later. Wojciech Kotfis was undoubtedly an extraordinary individual in the Uszew community. Discerning to those closest to him, open to knowledge and the world, compassionate to his Jewish brethren.

Did he learn tolerance from books? It seems more reasonable to say that reading them helped him to shape his worldview, to see the mechanisms governing history. One doesn’t need volumes of publications to see a brother in a man of another nationality, to help him survive at the risk of his own life. You need a reflex of the heart and a sensitivity that cannot be learned, you can only be born with it. But in addition to his qualities of spirit, Wojciech Kotfis possessed another one – the courage to be a true human being in times of contempt for humanity.

After the tragedy that happened in “Piskorka”, the inhabitants of Uszew lived in fear for their own lives for several days. Those who helped the Jews were especially afraid. They presumed that the Germans had found out about them. At the same time, they could not come to terms with the fact that Chaskel’s family did not live to see the end of the war which was already so close.

There are no symbols of the tragedy at the site of the Jews’ death. Material traces of their presence in Grabaliny are no longer there. Human memory, however, has saved the facts from oblivion. The story of the hiding Jews is very much present in the consciousness of the Uszew older generation. The students of our secondary school are also familiar with it. May it survive for future generations.”

On September 25, 2003, a memorial commemorating Wojciech Kotfis and the executed Jews was unveiled in the Grabaliny forest. The ceremony was attended by representatives of the Jewish Community in Cracow, the Institute of National Remembrance, the Gnojnik municipality authorities, the family of Wojciech Kotfis, junior high school students and villagers.

Unveiling of the memorial commemorating Wojciech Kotfis and the executed Jews, 2003.
Students of the secondary school in Uszew participating in the project “Memory Saves Nations”, 2003. Photos from https://www.gimnazjum.uszew.pl/prace/135-pami-ocala-narody.
The grave of Wojciech Kotfis at the parish cemetery in Uszew. Photo from brzesko.ws website

Having learned this story, I tried to find some documents on the Goldberger family. It seems that human memory is not perfect after all, and the older Uszew residents got some of their memories wrong. Here is what I have been able to establish:

– Pinkas Federgrun (born in Uszew in 1900) was the nephew of Kalman Goldberger.

– Uszew residents Kalman Goldberger and Doba Scheindel née Ebner had six children: Leser (1888), Hersch (1890), Liebe (1892), Chane (1894), Isaak (1896) and Chaskel (1898). Kalman died in Uszew in February 1933 at the age of 84. Their sons Isaak and Chaskel got married and lived with their families in Uszew

– Isaak Goldberger married Tauba Ungar from Dębno in 1933, they had at least 3 children, all born in Uszew: Sprinca Leja (1934), Kalman (1935), Leon (1937)

– Chaskel Goldberger married Rachel Ebner/Sandel from Łąkta Dolna in 1936, they had at least 3 children born in Uszew: Lea (1935; she was born while her mother was not legally married; later comment in her birth record states that Chaskel Goldberger married the mother of Lea in 1936 and confirms that he is the father of the child), Helena (1940) and Kalman Leiser (1942)

It is now difficult to say whether it was Isaak Goldberger who was hiding in the forest with his wife Tauba (“Toni” in the residents’ memories) and children, or Chaskel with his wife Rachel and children. They might have been hiding all together, and since they never showed up at the same time, the residents were simply not aware of it….

Either way – may the memory of all the victims be an eternal blessing. And special respect and eternal remembrance are due to Wojciech Kotfis, who was shot for helping the persecuted.

Uszew residents remember. On March 24, 2023 the members of Uszew voluntary fire brigade lit the candles by the memorial in Grabaliny forest. Photo from the Facebook page of OSP KSRG Uszew.

Anna Brzyska, 2023