September 18, 2008

94-year-old Holocaust survivor reconnects with family that saved her life

Source:

Stanislawa Slawinska, the rescuer of businessman Yossi Maiman’s mother, is to be posthumously awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations following the intervention of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.

A 94-year-old Holocaust survivor, the mother of the prominent Israeli businessman Yossi Maiman, has reconnected with the Polish family who saved her life and that of her own mother by sheltering them from the Nazis in Poland during World War II.

The story of life and bravery amid death and destruction begins nearly a century ago in Poland.

Esfira Maiman was born in 1914 in the central Polish city of Lodz, where her family was in the textile business.

After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, she and her parents made their way to Warsaw, where they were incarcerated in the Warsaw Ghetto.

In 1942, she managed to escape the ghetto, where her father had died of a heart attack, due to her job as a steel laborer, which afforded her the rare privilege of leaving the restricted zone.

Abetted by her husband’s contacts with the underground, Maiman quickly connected with a Polish woman, Stanislawa Slawinska, who lived in the rural community of Grodzisk Mazowiecky, about 30 km. from Warsaw.

Slawinska, a Polish Catholic, vehemently opposed the Nazis even though her own father was German, and readily took Maiman in.

”From the minute we entered her home we became friends,” Maiman recounts from her home in an upscale retirement complex in Herzliya Pituach.

A week later, Maiman was able to get her mother smuggled out of the ghetto and into Slawinska’s home as well.

Her husband was caught and murdered by the Nazis on one of his underground missions.

Maiman and her mother spent the next two years in the safety of Slawinska’s home, which she also opened to other Jews hiding from the Nazis.

The home was situated in a rural area, with train tracks one side and a bloc of German soldiers on the other, she said.

”Every day I would see the trains going by, taking the Jews from their homes and villages to their death, and on the other side the German soldiers drawing water from a well,” Maiman recalled.

To avoid detection, Maiman rarely left the home for the next two years, too fearful to even venture to a small bathroom outside the house. The residents placed a piece of spoiled meat at the entrance to the hiding place to repel the dogs of the German soldiers if they ever searched the house.

Though at one point she was blackmailed by a Polish neighbor who knew she was hiding Jews, Slawinska, who was childless, never turned them out, despite the danger to her own life.

After the war ended, Maiman remarried, and spent the next year and half in a DP camp in Germany, where her son Yossi was born.

In 1948 she and her husband and mother moved to Peru, where she had a cousin who survived the war, and where they lived for the next two decades.

Over the years, she would send packages of rice and flour – along with some money – to her Polish savior, but never got a reply, she said, and contact between the two women was lost.

The Maimans moved to Israel in 1972; today, Yossi Maimon is chairman of the Merhav Group, which is known worldwide for project development, contracting and finance.

Despite the passage of time, the nonagenarian never forgot the woman who saved her life.

Two years ago, Maiman formally requested that Yad Vashem recognize Slawinska as a Righteous Among the Nations, but the request was put on hold as they investigated the case, she said.

”We felt helpless,” her daughter Michele recounted.

Six months ago, Michele approached an Israeli official with the New York-based International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and recounted her mother’s story.

The decade-old organization, which seeks to identify stories of Holocaust rescue that have not been previously uncovered, rushed into action.

Maiman was sure that Slawinska, who was about seven years older than she was, was no longer alive, but she remembered her nephew, Roman, who was a boy during the war, and who kept the secret of the hidden Jews.

Within weeks the Foundation was able to locate Roman Slawinska, who was still living in the same Warsaw suburb, and found documentation of his aunt’s courageous deeds. Copies of the documents – it turned out – had been in the Yad Vashem archives the whole time, according to Danny Rainer, the vice president of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.

Maiman and Slawinska were soon on the phone, sharing stories of their linked past, crying tears of joy.

Earlier this month, Yad Vashem agreed to posthumously bestow the Holocaust Memorial’s highest honor on Stanislawa Slawinska, Rainer said.

A Jerusalem ceremony in Yad Vashem’s Garden of the Righteous is tentatively planned for November, as is a separate event in Warsaw.

”We feel that the rescuers have to be recognized – especially by the younger generation,” Rainer said.

”I am very happy that my mother is with us to live this moment of joy,” Yossi Maiman said.

”Now she feels at peace,” her daughter Michele added.

”It is the realization of a dream,” Esfira Maiman said, adding, tearfully, ”She should have gotten the award herself.”