23.07.2022 | Redaktor

The story of Regina Riegelhaupt-Kempinska’s life and survival

Authors: Maria Prusak, Karolina Szewczyk; 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”.

Holocaust, Shoah –  these words have similar meanings and sound equally ominous. The consistently implemented plan to exterminate the entire population became a characteristic element of Nazi ideology. A planned, methodical, superbly organized genocide for which there is no explanation, let alone any justification.

World War II began with Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland in September 1939. It was a “total war”: in the occupied territories, according to prepared proscription lists, local Polish activists were hauled out and publicly hanged in marketplaces. In 1940 the Germans began to herd Jews and all those who qualified as Jews under the so-called Nuremberg Laws into separate parts of cities, called ghettos as in the Middle Ages. These Jewish quarters were surrounded by walls and barbed wire, and guards shot at anyone who violated the ban on contact. 

In the final months of 1942, the Nazis expanded the concentration camps to turn them into death factories. They also created special extermination camps, at Belzec, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka. In them, they successively gassed and burned in crematoria tens of thousands, and when their death machine took hold, hundreds of thousands and millions of Jews from Poland and all over Europe. Poland was the only country where the German occupier introduced the absolute death penalty for helping the Jewish population. Despite this, Polish society was involved in hiding and saving Jews from the Holocaust, often sheltering them in their own homes for years.

Wojakowa, view of Wola, postwar years, photo by S.Klimek; from the collection of F.Bodek.

This paper is dedicated to Regina Kempinska née Riegelhaupt, born on June 6, 1918, from Wojakowa. The inspiration for writing this work comes from the history lessons at our school, where we learned, among other things, about the Holocaust, as well as became interested in the occupation of our “small homeland” – the land of Iwkowa. During the classes, the name Regina – that of a Jewish woman – was often mentioned by classmates. Many families remember her, because in the post-war years she often visited the homes of Wojakowa and the surrounding area. I would like to mention that my family (Karolina Szewczyk – co-author of the paper) was directly related to Regina and her daughter during the occupation.

Before the war and during the occupation, in the villages around Iwkowa there lived many Jews: Chaim Leib Goldfinger, Koppel Glaubiger, Marya Damer, Chaje Goldfinger, Zlate Feigl, Anna Tauger, Leon Volkman, Abraham Tellerman, Samuel Tellerman, Feiga Glaubiger, Kiwa Glaubiger, Eliezer Volkman, Chaim Volkman, Ryfka Kempler, Chaja Kempler, Mojżesz Koppel Tellerman, Maudel Neugut, Sara Riegielhaupt, Jacob Mechel Volkman, Chaja Rosenblum, Israel Mendel Rosenblum, Dawid Glaubiger, Mendel Tauger, Kiwa Neugut, Zygmunt Riegelhaupt with his father Moses Riegelhaupt,  daughter-in-law Ryfka Riegelhaupt, her children Pesla and Ita, Regina Riegelhaupt (later surname Kempińska), two Geminder brothers, Leipzik, Isaac Trauger and many others.

Jewish birth record from Wojakowa. Scan from the website szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl

Regina Riegelhaupt was the daughter of Mojżesz Riegelhaupt, a wealthy landowner from Wojakowa. She studied medicine in Łódź and that’s where she met her future husband, Roman (Abram) Kempiński (born January 15, 1907). He was a painter and musician. They planned to leave for Palestine on September 18, 1939, but the war derailed all their plans.  In January 1940, they managed to escape to Krakow. There  they married on April 9, 1940, and then she and her husband left for her birthplace of Wojakowa, to Regina’s father, Moses.

Regina and Roman Kempinski, the photo was taken in Łódź or Krakow.

It was peaceful and quiet in Wojakowa. Regina wrote in her account that until 1942 she had not seen a single German. However, the cruel war also arrived here. One of the first actions of the German gendarmerie was the deportation of Jews in July-September 1942 from Iwkowa, Wojakowa, Dobrociesz, Kąty, Drużków Puste, Porąbka Iwkowska and Połomy Mały to Zakliczyn on the Dunajec River. Fifteen wagonloads of Jewish families left Iwkowa with all their belongings. 

Regina was in advanced pregnancy, when the carts arrived in Wojakowa to take the Jews to the ghetto. Her husband and father fled to the forest. She begged not to be deported, but the Gestapo were merciless, and she was forced to get on the carts with others. Then her husband returned and joined her. In Iwkowa, a neighboring village, they stopped because they were still looking for fugitive Jews. That’s when Regina jumped off the cart, mingled with the crowd of children walking home from school and fled toward her home village. She already had labor pains, which made her escape difficult and frightening. After an hour, she reached the home of Joanna and Ludwik Jachna (my great-grandparents – Karolina Szewczyk). Regina trusted them. Besides, Ludwik Jachna was a man who stood out among his neighbors. He spent several years in the French mines, so he saw a good chunk of the world. His late brother was the previous parish priest of Wojakowa and knew Regina’s father Moses Riegelhaupt, the owner of the estate and stud farm in Wojakowa. They were glad to see her and fed her.

Joanna and Ludwik Jachna, photo from the family archives.

Ludwik Jachna went to bring the midwife. That evening Regina gave birth to a baby girl. “The Jachnas were poor, but they did more than was in their power for me,” – Regina testified. The next day her husband returned and took care of them. Momentarily the entire village learned of their existence, but no one turned them in, and Father Leon Budacz exhorted parishioners to come to their aid.

Joanna Jachna on the right, photo from the family archives.
Ludwik Jachna, photo from the family archives.
In the background, the Jachnas’ house, where Regina gave birth to her daughter, post-war years. Photo from the family archives.

After a few weeks, Regina moved from the Jachna family to Maria Pajor, and after a few months to a new place. They were very poor people, they had seven children and were starving because it was an early spring. That’s how she survived until May. A decree came out that there was a death penalty for hiding a Jew. The family was afraid to continue hiding the Jews, so Regina with her child and husband went to the Zakliczyn ghetto.

And that’s how Regina and her family found themselves in the Zakliczyn ghetto. Life in the Zakliczyn ghetto turned out to be hell. About 3,000 people crammed into a small space, hunger, executions, fear of deportation. During Regina’s stay in the ghetto, she witnessed 5 executions. One Jew, together with his son, wandered off to a nearby village to buy flour – he was escorted by Poles to the police and shot there in the yard. An 11-year-old boy ran into an Aryan store to buy vinegar, no one paid attention to him, but some barber recognized him and called a policeman. The mother’s pleas did not help – the boy was shot. According to the account of Regina’s daughter Anna Grygiel-Huryn, the ghetto was surrounded by a wooden fence, and her father, while walking, loosened four boards to facilitate the escape of family members. Peasants from Wojakowa and the surrounding area brought food to the ghetto and organized the escape. In the fall of 1942, Drużków Pusty village leader Jan Jarzmik – a noble and righteous man who came to the aid of many Jews – warned Regina’s father Mojżesz that the liquidation of the ghetto was imminent, and they decided to flee. The ghetto was supposed to be liquidated at 3 a.m., but the Germans began the action at about 11 p.m., so some of the family members could not escape and were sent to Belzec. The escape was organized by, among others, Wincenty Tucznio and Andrzej Piechnik from Wojakowa. Jews hidden in special backpacks-baskets, reached Wojakowa. The roads were guarded by peasant patrols, so they had to escape separately. Regina and her daughter escaped first, they were followed by her father and some family members. Roman Kempiński and several others didn’t manage to leave the ghetto, they were deported to Belzec – a place from which there was no return.

For a year and a half Regina, with her daughter Anna in her arms, wandered around the various homes of good people between Drużków, Dobrociesz, Wojakowa and Iwkowa. The night Regina left the ghetto, the roads were lined with peasant patrols. The Germans expected that upon hearing the news of the ghetto’s liquidation, many Jews would try to escape. Such a patrol also stopped Regina, but the peasants either didn’t recognize the Jewish woman in her or didn’t want to recognize her. The way back to Wojakowa was very difficult, she was helped by Wincenty Tucznio, but she had to walk part of the way alone for fear of safety. She walked through fields, crossed the river, hid in moats and abandoned buildings. Along the way she asked people for food, especially milk for the baby. They suffered from hunger and a powerful fear, as Gestapo patrols and informers kept roaming around. Exhausted, she reached Wojakowa, and went to Wincenty’s sister Maria Tucznio, who fed her and the baby and hid them in a shed. After a few days, Maria escorted them to the Drużków village leader Jarzmik, a helpful and trustworthy man. The family hid them in the barn, gave them warm bedding and fed them. Regina was still afraid that the baby would cry, as this would betray them, and often Ania covered her mouth with her hand. However, during her stay in Wojakowa and the surrounding area, the tired mother and child kept changing their hiding places, for fear of being discovered in the houses, denunciations from neighbors, or searches by the Germans. At the Piechnik family she met her father Moses and brother Zygmunt Riegelhaupt, who also managed to escape the ghetto and were hiding with good people.

Andrzej Piechnik – Righteous Among the Nations – helped Regina’s family, organized the escape from the ghetto, and prepared a shelter in Stańkowa. Gravestone photo, Wojakowa, 2022.

For the next few months, she circulated between Wojakowa, Drużków, Iwkowa staying with peasants indicated by Maria Tucznio – Wincenty’s sister and village leader Jarzmik. Wandering around the area, Regina hid in barns, cellars, sheds, during the day she hid in the woods, various moats, bushes. She got food and clothing from people, most often fed on potatoes, bread crusts, sometimes milk, flour. There were times when she wanted to leave her daughter with good people, but she would go back and take her out of fear of denunciation or in case the hosts gave up the help for fear of their own lives. She lived in a stable, where they slept on rotten bedding and rats ran around them. Both fell ill with scabies. “The daughter was all battered, pus was pouring from the scabs, her shirt stuck to her wounds, she was stiff, like a shell. My body was also one wound,” – Regina testified.

A fragment of Regina Kempinska’s testimony before the Jewish Historical Commission in Cracow, ref. 301/3733.

After some time, she reached Władysław Mleczko, asking him to buy them medicine for scabies. He went to a pharmacy 16 kilometers away, brought them the ointment, and again she went in search of a safe place. The winter was the hardest for them, as it was freezing cold. They suffered incredible cold and hunger, but she also had to think about not leaving footprints in the snow, because then she would be an easy target. She experienced moments of horror when she fell into the hands of her executioners. They wanted to take her to the police station, took away her leftover food, money. Miraculously she survived, escaping into the forest. That was a cruel time of wandering, changing places, fighting for survival. Fear for the health of the daughter was very difficult, there were moments when she gave up, she did not have the strength to continue hiding. The Piechnik and Zelek families from Drużków, Jozef Figiel, unnamed peasant Biel, the former maid of her family Rózia , Wladyslaw and Julian Mleczko, Katarzyna Kołdras, Bronislawa and Julia Skrężyna, the Pajak and Pajor families – these are those who did not refuse help.

We managed to reach the granddaughter of Mr.Tomasz Biel and his wife Maria, Jadwiga Brończak, who lived in Wojakowa during the war and helped persecuted Jews. They were honored with the title of Righteous Among the Nations in 1991. Mrs. Brończak personally knew Zygmunt Riegelhaupt and his sister Regina Kempińska. She recalled that Regina and little Ania used to hide at their house, in the woods, got food and clothing from the locals, made noodles out of flour and by soaking them in a stream fed her daughter. She lived in constant fear, afraid for her child’s health.

Jadwiga Brończak, granddaughter of Tomasz and Maria Biel, who hid Regina, her father and brother. Meeting with students of the Wojakowa grade school, November 15, 2021.
Uuthors of the paprer, Karolina and Maria with the granddaughter of M. and T. Biel, Jadwiga Brończak. Wojakowa grade school, November 15, 2021.

Marianna Waligóra (born in 1929, daughter of Stefania and Tadeusz Zapiór, honored with the Righteous Among the Nations title), while being a teenager, also personally helped Regina and her child during the war. She recalls: “I remember how my dad brought home the Jews: “Mosiek” with his daughter-in-law Rywka and her children Pesia and Marysia. Then Zygmunt came, and some time later he brought his sister Regina with her tiny child. I remember how tiny Ania cried. Her mother covered her mouth with her hand so that she wouldn’t be heard. Then Regina agreed to give Ania to our aunt in Połom, who promised to raise her as her own. I went with the child to our aunt. I walked through streams and ravines so that no one would see us. Unfortunately the neighbors started gossiping that it was a Jewish child and we had to take her back. My mother could not go to get her, so I was sent again. I walked at night, crossing the river twice, but I brought Ania safely to her mother.

Marianna Waligóra, daughter of Stefania and Tadeusz Zapiór. During the war she helped hide Jews together with her parents. She brought help, among others, to Regina’s daughter Ania. December 2021, Nowy Sącz
Stefania Zapiór, next to her on the right, Zygmunt Riegelhaupt, brother of Regina Kempińska, who was saved by her and her family. The Zapiórs also helped Regina and her daughter.

However, the hideout was already unsafe, so Regina let her brother Zygmunt know to come get her. Zygmunt was lucky because he ran into good people. He sent Regina to a friendly peasant, Andrzej Piechnik, and the latter placed her in a bunker built by Franciszek Jarosz under a shed in a forest near Stańkowa. Fourteen Jews were hiding in this hiding place, including Regina’s father and aunt with her children. Jaroszs’ 16-year-old son, Jozef provided the hiding people with food. He showed particular heroism. The large quantities of food he bought aroused suspicion, so he had to go to great lengths to make sure no one suspected anything. This was not always successful. There were gangs roaming the area: half robbery, half guerrilla. Piotr (or Grzesiek, the sources provide both names), the son of one of the farmers, spotted the hideout and wanted to reveal it. There was no way out. Zygmunt, Regina’s brother, went to Piotr’s mother. She called her son and said briefly: – If you turn them in, as I am standing here, I will pierce you with pitchforks like this. Piotr resigned. 

The basement in Stańkowa at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Jarosz, where 14 Jews were hiding and survived, including Regina and her daughter.

Regina’s daughter, Anna, recalled the beginnings of liberation after staying with the Jarosz family. When they came out of hiding she saw the sun for the first time. She used to see it sometimes only through a crack in the hiding place. During the period of their stay, some of those in hiding could go outside, but Ania was not allowed to. Regina was afraid that if she saw the sun, green grass and colorful nature, she would not want to return, and she was too young to explain to her, why she had to live in a dark bunker. After liberation, photos were taken for documents. After several years her mother (Ania was maybe in the fourth grade) asked her if she wanted to see a photograph of what she looked like when they left the hiding place at the Jaroszs’. Ania took the photo. She looked awful: squinty, bald, big belly, crooked legs. She tore up the photograph. She was even angry that she looked at it, because the painful memories came back. Little Ania still had difficult times in front of her. The teacher didn’t want to admit her to school because she didn’t have a birth certificate. Regina always said that the girl was born in the ghetto. But from Regina’s own testimony to the Jewish Historical Commission and the Jachno family, the girl was born in Wojakowa. A birth certificate was needed when the girl was enrolled in school and probably  it was easier to provide Zakliczyn ghetto as the place of birth. It is likely that we will never be certain about the place of Ania’s birth.

Regina Riegelhaput-Kempińska with her granddaughter Wioletta
Regina Riegelhaupt-Kempińska

The Jews spent two years in the basement at the Jarosz home. After the war Regina’s father Moses emigrated to Israel and died there; he never returned to Poland. Regina was unable to free herself from the war trauma. She kept hesitating between going to Israel and staying in Poland. She did not work and supported herself by selling her father’s remaining property. Regina was often a guest at family celebrations of people who had helped her during the war. Since 1990, she had not left her room, although she was physically healthy. She died in July 1996. She was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Nowy Sacz. Regina’s daughter, Anna Grygiel-Huryn, lives in Poland. She married an army officer. Her daughter lives in Israel, but often visits Poland.

Anna Grygiel-Huryn, Regina’s daughter, 2019.
Regina Kempińska’s tombstone in the Jewish cemetery in Nowy Sącz.

The memory of Regina Kempińska is still alive among the older generation of our local community. Thanks to this, our generation could learn the history of the Second World War and the fate of the Jews who used to live in the lands of our small homeland. We believe that we will continue to remember the people who opened their hearts to save others, and the memory of Regina will live on. However, we can’t but ask ourselves the question: how could a human being inflict such a fate on another human being?

Bibliography and other sources:

  1. Tokarski Stanisław, Znani i nieznani z parafii Wojakowa, słownik biograficzny tom 1, Mała Poligrafia Redemptorystów w Tarnowie, Dobrociesz 2004, s.190-191.
  2. Tokarski Stanisław, Znani i nieznani z parafii Wojakowa,  tom 2, Mała Brzeska Oficyna Wydawnicza, Dobrociesz 2017, s.7-8, s.36-37, 62-63,90-91,98-106,
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© M.Prusak, K. Szewczyk, 2022