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Short Takes

A Con Man Who Became War Hero

September 24, 1989|DICK RORABACK

"We were 345 in a prison administered by the Gestapo. On June 13 they shot 115. They just took them out in the morning and shot them. Three weeks later they transported 160 more to Auschwitz. . . . Of the 345 caught in 1939, I know of only one other who survived."

John Damski survived by his wits. A Pole arrested by the Germans in '39 while trying to flee his country to join the Polish Forces in Exile, he ad-libbed his way out of the prison. He pretended to be German.

"I lied like crazy to the SS interrogator. I asked him, 'Did you ever see a Pole who speaks German--this marvelous language, this beautiful mother tongue--like I do?' I didn't tell him I'd been born in Germany. It didn't seem essential at the time."

Having escaped, did Damski lie low for the duration? Not exactly. For the next six years, Damski, a Roman Catholic, worked with the Polish Underground helping Jews escape the Warsaw ghetto or remain hidden behind forged documents. Three more times he was imprisoned. Three more times he escaped.

Last week, Damski, 75, of Van Nuys, was tapped by the Israel for its Righteous Among Nations award, given to Gentiles who rescued Jews from the Holocaust at the risk of their own lives.

"It wasn't just me, it was a whole network," says Damski, one of the war's more splendid con men. "We'd fix the papers for them, give them nice Aryan identities. Once I went into the ghetto and got a dozen Jews out--including some children--with the help of two German soldiers. They weren't collaborators. They just weren't too sure what they were doing."

Damski, retired from Lockheed and still an active high- and triple-jump medalist in the Senior Olympics, lives relatively quietly in the Valley, still in contact with a number of the Jews he rescued. One who sticks in his mind was the former Sarah Rosen. "We made her papers under the name of Christina Paderewska. We thought the 'Christina' was a nice touch."

Today, she goes by the Americanized name of Christine. Christine Damski, as a matter of fact.

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