A hero’s tale: In the summer of 1942, Germans murdered the last Jews living in the towns of Nieswiez and Mir, Poland. A handful escaped with nothing but the shirts on their back, but with Germans controlling the area, and their homes quickly occupied by their Jew-hating neighbors, the displaced Jews had nowhere to go. Homeless and friendless, they roamed the fields and forests outside of town, equally afraid of Germans, local police and the anti-Semitic partisans active in the area. Many Poles who resisted the Germans ironically shared their opponents’ hatred for Jews, and they banned Polish Jews from their resistance movement.
Finally the desperate Jews found an unlikely savior. Jozef Marchwinski was a partisan company commander who invited the Jews – urged them – to join his group. Many of the partisans in Jozef’s company fiercely opposed including Polish Jews but he ignored their protests and started training the Jews for battle. When the Jews were bullied, Jozef stopped the abuse quickly. He was accused of being a “Jew-lover” but he ignored the threats and insults, and kept the Jews now under his command safe, even while resisting the Germans.
Rumors began to swirl that Jozef himself was secretly Jewish. He wasn’t, but his wife may have been (the evidence is unclear.) At any rate he was dismissed from the partisan group he’d commanded and joined a group of Jewish resistance fighters led by Tuvya Bielski (played by Daniel Craig in the movie Defiance.) He was such an effective leader and fighter that he left Bielski’s group to join a larger company of Jewish partisans where he was promoted to the rank of deputy brigade commander. Jozef spent the rest of the war hiding in the forest with the Jewish partisans, emerging to wage guerrilla warfare on the German occupiers.
After the war, shockingly, Polish authorities continued to persecute the few Jews who remained in Poland. In 1946, Polish police and militia members started a pogrom against the Jews of Kielce. Just as the Germans did, they rounded up the Jews and encouraged townspeople to brutally attack them. Forty-two Jews were killed, including a newborn baby and a pregnant woman. Forty more were injured. Jozef spoke out against the violence and started to become a leader of a postwar human rights movement to protect the Jews of Poland. However Polish authorities hounded and persecuted him for his activism, and finally he was forced to leave Poland and move to Denmark, where he spent the rest of his life.
In 1968, Jozef Marchwinski was honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem. The Jewish fighters under his command invited him to Israel, and he visited in 1970, receiving a hero’s welcome.
For fighting Germans alongside his Jewish countrymen, we honor Jozef Marchwinski as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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