Julian Grobelny was a Polish human rights activist who saved hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust, most of them children he and his wife Halina rescued from the Warsaw ghetto.
Born in Brzeziny, Poland in 1893, Julian was one of many children in a poor farm family. At that time Brzeziny had a thriving Jewish community, and although Julian wasn’t Jewish, many of his neighbors and playmates were.
As a young man, Julian trained as an electrician. He fought in World War I on behalf of the Austro-Hungarian empire and after the war ended in 1918, he took part in the disarmament of the Germans. During the interwar period, Julian was an outspoken and prominent activist on behalf of Polish independence. He worked for the municipality of the city of Lodz, and organized factory workers in the city to obtain better working conditions and wages.
During the 1920’s Julian became increasingly ill from tuberculosis. He had to stop working full-time in 1930 due to his illness, but continued his activism on behalf of workers. In 1939, the Nazis invaded Brzesiny, and as a social activist Julian and his wife Halina were labeled “enemies of the Third Reich.” The couple immediately went into hiding, and then relocated to Warsaw where they kept a very low profile.
Meanwhile, the Nazis were busy forcing the city’s large Jewish population – over 375,000 – into a squalid ghetto where men, woman and children desperately fought to survive each day despite a severe lack of food, not to mention space, electricity, plumbing, medicine and other life essentials. Julian – a freedom activist who grew up around Jews – was horrified at what was happening. Sick and with a target on his own back, Julian could not have been blamed for staying home and letting others do the heavy listing. But embodying the Jewish adage “when there is no man, be the man,” Julian saw a problem and determined to do everything he could to solve it.
Julian’s wife Halina was in full agreement with his desire to help Jews, and together they brazenly walked into the Warsaw ghetto and offered to help the Jews who were suffering so badly there. The Grobelnys were especially affected by the plight of the ghetto’s starving Jewish children. Without kids of their own, they became obsessed with rescuing Jewish children. Parents in the ghetto, knowing they were doomed, entrusted their precious children to the kind Polish couple, who brazenly took them in hand and led them out of the ghetto as if they were their own. The Grobelnys also welcomed over a dozen Jewish escapees from the ghetto into their own humble humble, and created fake papers identifying them as “Aryan.”
In 1944, Julian was arrested by the Gestapo for his human rights advocacy before the war and imprisoned. Fortunately the Germans never found out about his work on behalf of Polish Jews, and Julian had several physician friends who pulled strings to get Julian released. Among Polish human rights advocates, Julian became a hero, and before the war ended he was elected Mayor of the town of Minsk in eastern Poland.
Sadly, Julian’s health continued to worsen, and he died of tuberculosis in December 1944, only a month before Poland was fully liberated. In 1987, forty-three years after Julian’s death, he and Halina (who outlived him by almost fifty years) were honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem. Halina died six years later, in 1993.
For saving hundreds of Jewish children, despite his own worsening illness, we honor Julian Grobelny, as well as his wife Halina, as this week’s Thursday Heroes.
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