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Seeking Jewish Family's Fate in Rural Poland

Gitl Lerner and five of her children hoped to find refuge with farmers from Nazi occupiers.

May 14, 2006|Laurie Copans | Associated Press Writer

HIBAT ZION, Israel — It was a crime that unfolded on the sidelines of the Holocaust: Farmers in Nazi-occupied Poland murdered six members of a well-to-do Jewish family for their possessions.

And there the story might have stayed, swallowed up in the enormity of Hitler's genocide, had a biotech company owner in Israel not decided at age 57 to find out what happened to his grandmother, Gitl, and her five children who would have been his aunts and uncles had they lived.

As Rony Lerner would discover, the wounds are still raw more than 60 years later.

In a Polish village to which his search led him, he confronted a 92-year-old man alleged to be the last surviving suspect.

"Apparently trying to reconcile, he opened his arms as if to hug me," Lerner recalled. "I shoved him aside out of disgust and revulsion."

The story began in 1942 at the height of the Nazis' persecution of Jews in Poland, when the Lerners were forced into a ghetto. A Nazi officer shot Gitl's husband, her sister and one of her sons.

Another son, Yitzhak Lerner, was hiding in Warsaw, posing as a gentile. He persuaded Polish farmers in the eastern village of Przegaliny to save most of the family from the ghetto, apparently after bribing the Nazi authorities. After World War II ended he submitted a complaint to Polish authorities in which he said the farmers took "a large payment" for hiding the family, then started pressuring Gitl Lerner to hand over her other belongings, knowing the family owned a bakery and sold sewing machines.

When the 45-year-old mother had nothing left to give, the complaint said, the farmers raped her two daughters, ages 22 and 20. Eventually, it said, they stabbed one of the daughters to death and shot the rest of the family, as well as two unrelated boys who had come with them from the ghetto.

The slayings were committed at a time when Poland's German occupiers were rapidly annihilating its 3.5 million Jews. Although Poles were not directly involved in the Nazi death machine, "The cases of murders of Jews by their Polish neighbors was quite widespread," says Jan Gross, an expert on Polish history with Princeton University who has written extensively on the subject.

"It was a unique phenomenon that was taking place in the countryside," and was particularly common in the Lublin district, where the Lerners' hometown of Komarowka Podlaska is located, Gross said in a telephone interview.

After the war there were several hundred court cases over the murder of Jews, but the evidence often was insufficient, he said.

On the other hand, he said, there were many Poles who saved Jews, as evidenced by the large number honored as "Righteous Among the Gentiles" by Yad Vashem, a Holocaust remembrance institute in Jerusalem.

After the war, and after filing his complaint, Yitzhak Lerner emigrated to Palestine and had a son, Rony. In 1948 Israel won statehood.

Like many children of Holocaust survivors, Rony Lerner didn't like dwelling on the family history and didn't ask his father many questions. His curiosity was aroused after his father died three years ago and he visited Warsaw. There he discovered the complaint his father had filed. It contained villagers' testimony and named five suspects, of whom only one, Jozef Radczuk, was still alive.

Lerner hired investigators posing as Polish historians to interview and film Radczuk and other villagers in Przegaliny, near the Lerners' hometown, and made a documentary, parts of which were shown on Israeli TV in April.

He said that in his presence, Radczuk told of being present at the rapes and murders on the property of a farmer named Franciszek Uzdowski.

In the film, Radczuk condemned the murders and showed the cameras where the bodies had been buried near a pigsty, then reinterred at the edge of the village cemetery.

When Radczuk was told that Rony Lerner was sitting next to him, Radczuk tried to hug him.

"Don't you do it," Lerner said, speaking English, angry tears in his eyes as he pushed Radczuk's hand away. "You killed my grandmother and you killed five of my uncles and aunts."

Off-camera, things turned even nastier, with Lerner alleging that Radczuk showed him and the investigators the second burial site and spoke of the "Jewish dogs" buried there.

Since Polish media reported the story in April, after its publication in Israel, Radczuk's family has refused to let him be interviewed. His daughter barred an Associated Press reporter who approached his home from seeing him. The daughter, who would not give her name, confirmed that she had heard of Jews being murdered at Uzdowski's place but said: "My father did not take part in it."

Uzdowski was arrested for the crime but apparently not convicted, and died a long time ago. His nephew, Kazimierz Uzdowski, who still lives in Przegaliny, said that after the war people did not discuss the killing because they were ashamed of it.

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