For the Zaklikovsky family, daughter Mattil’s becoming a bas mitzvah was more than an affirmation of faith. It was an affirmation of life.
Celebrating her coming of age as a Jewish adult, Mattil, 12, helped uncover the story behind her great-grandmother’s survival during the Holocaust. With help from her parents and a Polish researcher, she found the family that hid her “Bubby Mattil.”
Bubby Mattil died at age 80, a few months before her great-granddaughter was born in 2004. Never one to shy away from the past, Mattil Rozensztajn Zaklikowski would speak of her experiences during the war, but there were many questions left unanswered. Born in 1923, she was a teenager during the war. It was known that she hid in the woods and in an attic of a neighboring family. That was all.
But who was the family in the tiny town of Tomaszowice to save her? Who were these “Righteous Among the Nations”? Why did they do it?
“She did talk about it, but never spoke of the family in detail,” Rabbi Eliezer Zaklikovsky, father of the Bas Mitzvah and the first grandson of Mattil Rozensztajn Zaklikowski, told a website “They were happy that they had the opportunity to hide. How many tens of thousands didn’t have neighbors that would take them in? It was extremely humbling. Most of her family was lost and to have to live with that for the rest of your life is a very humbling experience. She tried not to delve into it too much and to move on, but here and there it always came up.”
“She liked to focus more on how quiet and peaceful life was before the Germans invaded rather than the period of the invasion,” he added. “How they got along with their neighbors and they were friends and how they looked out for each other and helped each other.”
During World War II, Mattil Rozensztajn — the youngest of nine — survived the Holocaust along with her brother Yechiel Rozensztajn and father Avraham Rozensztajn. Seven siblings, her mother and countless relatives were killed. Some were sent to concentration camps, but others never made it out of the village the Rozensztajn’s called home. Neighbors turned on each other — reporting the Jews, reporting those that helped the Jews and taking matters into their own hands.
And that family — the ones that hid them — apparently never spoke of their deeds either. To this day, they decline to claim the title of being “Righteous Among the Nations” and connect with the Zaklikovskys. They have spoken briefly to researcher Agata Radkowska who helped find them.
“I did not expect that it would be so difficult,” Radkowska said. “Could be that they don’t want people to talk about it. We don’t know. But they are ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ — the family is entitled to be ‘Righteous Among the Nations.’
“Righteous Among the Nations” is the term used by the state of Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis.
“They might be concerned about repercussions,” said Zaklikovsky, leader of Chabad of Monroe. “There are still those that are still in that mentality. Living in the same place for generations. Not having much contact with the bigger world and they still have the history carrying with them — whether it be what went on in the village where neighbors of theirs were killed for hiding Jews or neighbors who killed Jews themselves.”
As she approached the year of her Bas Mitzvah, Matti, as she is known by family and friends, became more interested in her namesake’s life before she became “Bubby Mattil.” She learned that her name meant “powerful and mighty.” She was told she resembled the first Mattil, with her curly blond hair and blue eyes. She learned Bubby Mattil liked to sing and keep things neat and tidy.
Matti also began to research her great-grandmother’s background connected to the Holocaust and life in Poland.
“I started looking things up and then I got connected to Agata,” Matti said. “That was about half a year ago.”
“I had always wondered who was this righteous family that saved my grandmother,” Zaklikovsky said.
Matti’s inquiry reached Emil Majuk, a staff member at Grodzka Gate — NN Theatre Centre in Lublin, Poland ,and friend of Radkowska. Grodzka Gate is a government-run cultural institution based in Lublin whose activities center around the symbolic and historical significance of its residence, the Grodzka Gate, also known as the Jewish Gate, and the Jewish history of that region. The Grodzka Gate used to be a passage from the Christian to the Jewish part of the city. Lublin housed 45,000 Jews before World War II. The Nazis murdered the Jewish inhabitants of Lublin and destroyed the Jewish district. Majdanek, a German Nazi concentration camp, sits at the outskirts of Lublin.
In turn, Majuk contacted Radkowska, who has a longstanding interest in the stories of the Jews in the war. Not Jewish herself, she has studied and researched the topic for other families and her own personal interest for nearly 12 years. Radkowska, who lives and works in Lublin, owns and operates Rootka, an agency that specializes in creating personalized Jewish heritage tours for people looking for connections to their families in Eastern Poland. As Grodzka Gate has a large oral history project, Radkowska also is involved in collecting the testimonies from witnesses, survivors and neighbors.
“I got an email from Emil and he told me about this family that wanted to find information about their grandmother, their survivor, and the family that sheltered them,” Radkowska said. “I got interested in that story. Emil started looking in the archives and I started in the field.”
Radkowska was able to tie Mattil Rozensztajn definitively to Tomaszowice, the small village outside Lublin, by chance. Radkowska thought that was the correct town but needed proof. A school had a display of items and papers from before the war. On one of these papers — a roster of students — was the name Mattil Rozensztajn.
“We knew the name of the village and the name of the survivors and basically, that was it,” Radkowska said. “Nothing else. It wasn’t easy to start to find her, but Tomaszowice is not a big place. It’s a village of about 500 people.”
“We weren’t even really sure that this was the village,” Zaklikovsky said. “But there was the display of old manifests of students before the war. It was sheer coincidence. There was Mattil Rozensztajn. That was the first thing that confirmed it was the right town.”
This led Radkowska to further research, going door-to-door, talking to residents and asking at local churches to see if anyone remembered the Rosensztajn family, who were one of only five Jewish families in the village. In her travels to Tomaszowice, Radkowska was sent to a retired teacher. The teacher, who lived in Tomaszowice her whole life, knew many people and was touched by the story. She wanted to help.
A month later, Radkowska received a phone call from the teacher. She found a family and didn’t know if that was “the” family, but there was a woman who was about 90 years old and she had been alive during the war. The woman’s name is Genowefa.
“The teacher said maybe she — the woman — knows something,” Radkowska said. “She described where they lived and I went there. But this was part of a process.”
It wasn’t until Radkowska and Majuk found court documents dating back to 1948 that they knew they had the correct family. The documents were of court cases filed by Avraham Rozensztajn after the war. While many in the documents were named who stole from, harmed and killed members of the Rozensztajn family, one man was named as a witness to the atrocities in the documents. One man was named who helped and hid the Rozensztajn family for three years.
That one man was Josef Paluch. And his daughter is Genowefa.
In those documents Paluch was listed as a witness who testified that he helped the family during those years so that they would survive.
“His own family was at literal risk of death should the Germans find this out,” Zaklikovsky said. “He testified that his own neighbors were shot to death by the Germans for the terrible sin of hiding a Jew in their home.”
Long dead, Paluch cannot be thanked by the generations of the Rozensztajn family who came after the war — the generations that were made possible because of his and his daughter’s bravery. But, Paluch’s daughter, Genowefa, is still alive. At 91, she lives on the land with her son and daughter-in-law that once held the house with the attic that hid Mattil Rozensztajn and her family. During the war, Genowefa, a teenager at the time, lived there with her father. Her mother had died years before.
The original house that hid the Rozensztajn family is long gone. A newer house stands on the same land.
At her first visit to the Paluch homestead, Genowefa herself answered the door. In their discussion, which lasted about 20 minutes, Genowefa had vivid recollections of Mattil Rozensztajn from before, during and after the war. Genowefa called her “Mattla.”
“When I started asking questions about the Rozensztajn family, in two seconds she said she knew them and remembered them,” Radkowska said. “She said they were their neighbors and when I asked if she knew how they survived the war time, she told me that they were the ones that hid them in the attic of their house. I couldn’t have any doubts because she knew the details. It matched. Everything clicked.”
However, Radkowska said, Genowefa’s family cut short the conversation, which took place in front of the house. At subsequent visits, they refused Radkowska access to Genowefa. They wanted nothing to do with Mattil Rozensztajn’s family, nor any involvement or recollections of that entire period of history, Radkowska said.
Radkowska sent letters explaining the situation. She sent them a book about the “Righteous Among the Nations” as “they deserve to know.”
“Maybe they do not understand what does it mean,” Radkowska said. “It was both visits and letters and we hoped they would think about it.”
Radkowska has a few theories as to why Genowefa’s family shies away from the “Righteous Among the Nations” moniker.
“Either they got scared or they didn’t want her to talk to me,” Radkowska said. “It’s hard to explain this, but in small places people still have some stereotypes and prejudice.
“The whole Jewish-Polish dialogue is important,” she added. “People should not be afraid to look into their history, their heritage. This is something deeper, not like a regular tour to come to Poland. In this case, we were lucky, we found a witness. That is harder these days. It is still possible, but it is becoming the last moment to find witnesses.”
Just before boarding a flight to the United States to attend Matti’s Bas Mitzvah, Radowska delivered flowers, letters and a Bas Mitzvah invitation to Genowefa and her family.
“On June 17, they allowed us to deliver a bouquet of flowers to her and to express our gratitude for saving our family,” Zaklikovsky said. “It is a start.”
“I was trying to explain to them about ‘Righteous Among the Nations,’ believe me,” Radkowska added. “It is something to be proud of. But, they are simple people — farmers. They have been there their whole life. … I do believe that it is a matter of time — that they will understand it is something to be proud of and not to be scared of.”
While Genowefa’s family didn’t allow her to talk too much, she was able to share some details from pre-war and war times. In turn, Radkowska showed her photographs that Zaklikovsky sent her.
“She recognized ‘Avram’ and ‘Mattla’,” Radkowska said. “She said she remembered them quite well. She said ‘Mattla’ was the prettiest of all the siblings. She said that the Rozensztajns had a small store in the village. She remembered one story in particular that when the family was in the attic, two German soldiers came and when they saw them, they thought it was discovered that there were Jews hiding in the attic. They thought they were going to be killed. She said she almost died from fear at that point. But, this time, the soldiers just came to ask for food, for eggs. They were collecting food from peasants for the soldiers. They gave them whatever they had and they just left. So they didn’t know about the family and they didn’t check.”
“When I asked Genowefa how she felt about it, she said ‘We were poor people. They were poor people. They needed help so we helped,'” Radkowska said. “She didn’t treat it as something huge or something brave. It was the right thing to do. We helped them because they needed help. From our perspective, because we know the huge risk they took on themselves, the greatness. From her perspective — while I am sure they were aware of the risk — they couldn’t not know — that was what we did. And life goes on.”
After the war, Mattil Rozensztajn met her husband and, in 1951, as a married couple with a new baby — Zaklikovsky’s father, Moshe — came to the United States. Two more children — Miriam and Avrohom — were born and from there, dozens of descendants followed. Zaklikovsky and his wife, Chanie Zaklikovsky, are the parents of eight, with Matti the third-eldest.
Avraham Rozensztajn died in 1951 and Mattil’s brother, Yechiel, emigrated to Israel and raised a family there. Between the two surviving siblings, there are more than 100 descendants — and most made it to East Windsor on June 21 to celebrate Bubby Mattil’s legacy and the Bas Mitzvah of Mattil Zaklikovsky.
On that day, the Zaklikovsky family celebrated. They congratulated Mattil the Bas Mitzvah, praised Mattil the survivor and honored the family whose bravery allowed for the celebration.
A video telling the story of Mattil Rozensztajn Zaklikowski was shown and Radkowska spoke about her adventures researching for the younger Mattil.
“I do hope that I will have the opportunity to interview Genowefa the way I would like to,” Radkowska said. “I will work on that for sure. I do believe that we will succeed in the end.”
For Zaklikovsky, the Bas Mitzvah reunited the past of Mattil Rozensztajn Zaklikowki with the family who saved her 72 years ago.
“It was our family’s turn, in the presence of four generations and close to 100 descendants, to say thank you,” Zaklikovsky said. “Truly the embodiment of ‘One who saves a life has saved an entire world.'”
“As soon as the family allows, I will be there to thank them in person,” he added.
At her Bas Mitzvah ceremony, Matti spoke of the Jewish tradition of lighting candles every Shabbat, every Friday evening. This is something that Matti has done personally since she was three years old. She reflected on this mitzvah and connected it directly to the story of her great-grandmother, “Bubby Mattil.”
In her speech, Matti said that “a candle’s flame always rises to the top, no matter which way it is turned.”
“To me, the message is clear,” Matti said. “As I go through life, I always have to strive to the top — to do my best, no matter what challenges I will face. My namesake, Bubby Mattil, is an example of that. As I prepared for my Bas Mitzvah, I realized that having the strength to live life properly, to hold onto roots and be a mentsch — are all values from Bubby and her incredible journey. They are values learned from Josef Paluch and Genowefa, who, during a very difficult time, withstood the challenge and kept the values of humanity, kindness and love. They were a flame in the darkness.
“When I light candles Friday night, I will always think about their message of courage, strength and integrity,” she added.
At the event, which took place at the Holiday Inn in East Windsor, Matti gave her guests a parting gift — two candles. She asked them for a gift in return.
“That is because I am asking for a real favor — and a mitzvah too,” she said. “Use those candles this Friday night. Please join me by lighting Shabbat candles. As you light the candles and say the blessing, please remember my Bubby Mattil’s story, my Bas Mitzvah and the message of the flame.”