Durach, Germany

Andrzej Sitkowski was 15-years-old when his mother told him that she had been asked by a neighbor to hide a little Jewish girl from the Nazis at their home.

“It was a short conversation, and then, yes, we decided to take in Hadassah and she was brought over to our house in 1943,” Sitkowski says, looking back at those difficult years during World War II when he lived with his widowed mother Helena and younger sister Magda on the outskirts of the Polish capital of Warsaw under German occupation.

“Of course, we were afraid, but fear was our daily dish during those years anyway,” Sitkowski told The Associated Press at his home in the Bavarian village of Durach where he settled 10 years ago with his German wife.

Germany Durach Andrzej Sitkowski

The 93-year-old Polish citizen Andrzej Sitkowski, who was named "Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem in 1995 talks to the Associated Press during an interview in Durach, on Tuesday, 18th January.PICTURE: AP Photo/Alexandra Beier.

Almost eight decades after Hadassah Kosak's rescue, the 93-year-old Polish man is still regularly in touch with Kosak, now 84, who after the war immigrated via Israel to the United States where she became a professor of history in New York.

“One of the amazing thing about the rescuers is that not only did they rescue the specific person who was hidden, but all of their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren - an entire family tree...It says in the Jewish tradition that if you save one person it is as if you save the whole world."

-  Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference.

For their efforts to help save the lives of Kosak, her sister Marion and their mother Bronislawa, who later also came to stay with the Sitkowskis, Andrzej and his mother were given Israel's highest honour in 1995. They were named “Righteous Among the Nations” - a title bestowed on non-Jews who took great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust by Yad Vashem, the country’s official Holocaust remembrance organisation.

This year, as the world commemorates the 77th anniversary of the liberation of the German Nazi Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp on 27th January, 1945, Yad Vashem and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany have teamed up to highlight the stories of "Righteous Rescuers" like the Sitkowskis who risked everything, even their own lives, to save Jews from getting slain by the Nazis and their henchmen.

As part of a social media campaign called #Don'tBeABystander, the Claims Conference and Yad Vashem are releasing several videos and launching a website about people who saved Jews during the Holocaust in which six million Jews were murdered across Europe. 

“One of the amazing thing about the rescuers is that not only did they rescue the specific person who was hidden, but all of their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren - an entire family tree,” said Greg Schneider, the executive vice president of the Claims Conference.

“It says in the Jewish tradition that if you save one person it is as if you save the whole world," Schneider told the AP.

Over the past 60 years Yad Vashem has recognised about 28,000 individuals from some 50 countries as “Righteous Rescuers". The organisation still receives hundreds of applications each year to honor others, mostly posthumously. Of all the rescuers still alive today, most helped their parents as children or teenagers.

“We believe about 200 of them are still alive and most of them are living in Europe,” said Dani Dayan, the chairman of Yad Vashem. “As anti-Semitism is growing again on all five continents, we need to stress again the moral stature of these persons and their actions.”

In Poland, home to Europe’s largest Jewish community before the Holocaust, the Nazi occupiers punished those who helped Jews by executing not only the helpers, but their entire families.

Poland Warsaw Polish Jews being deported

In this 1943 file photo, a group of Polish Jews are led away for deportation by German SS soldiers during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by German troops after an uprising in the Jewish quarter ghetto by German soldiers on 19th April, 1943. PICTURE: AP Photo, file photo.

Still, when you ask Sitkowski about why he and his mother decided to help Jews despite the huge personal risks, he shrugs and says it simply was their duty as human beings.

“When my mother told me about the request from the neighbor there were no long deliberations. The approval was somehow obvious,” Sitkowski remembers, tucking in his red scarf.

“It was just an impulsive decision of a Mensch," he adds, using the German word for human being that in Yiddish also refers to a particularly good person.

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Sitting in his living room overlooking the snowy foothills of the Alps, he smiles when he thinks of Hadassah.

“She was a beautiful little girl, very smart, with sort of darkish hair and black eyes - I grew very fond of her.”

Jerusalem Yad Vashem Andrzej Sitkowski

Andrzej Sitkowski, centre, attends with Marion Kozak Miliband, left, and Hadassah Kozak, right, a ceremony in Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, on 19th February, 1996. PICTURE:  Yad Vashem via AP.

Even today, there's still a strong bond between them. In the past, they would visit each other and nowadays they talk on the phone and exchange letters.

In their conversations, their memories often wander back to those months of hiding when the Sitkowskis shared their meager food rations with Hadassah, when Andrzej taught five-year-old Hadassah how to read and write, and when they made their neighbours and acquaintances believe a fabricated story in which Hadassah was not a Jew, but a Christian-Polish girl whose mother had been taken to Germany as a forced labourer.

In reality, Hadassah's mother was hiding as a maid with another family and her sister Marion was hiding at a Catholic convent. But when those hiding places were no longer safe, the two joined Hadassah at the Sitkowskis.

In September, 1944, however, the Nazis first burned down the Sitkowski home and many other houses on their street and then later expelled all people who had lived there. So they needed to escape again and eventually the Sitkowskis and Kosaks had to split up and survived the last months of the war in different places across Poland until the Soviet Army liberated Poland in January, 1945. 

While Hadassah Kosak first moved to Israel and later to the United States, her mother and sister ended up in Britain, where Marion married Ralph Miliband and where their two sons Ed and David, two well-known politicians with the British Labour Party, were born. 

The decision of Andrzej and his mother to offer a shelter “was a true act of humanity,” Hadassah Kosak told the AP. “Thanks to their bravery, and at a great risk to themselves, we survived the Nazi horrors.”