Jan Szubiac grew up in Poland hearing the stories from his grandfather and his mother, Danuta Renk-Mikulska.
Szubiac’s mother came to the United States in 1970, where she settled in Detroit and supported herself primarily by baby-sitting and doing housekeeping. In 1984, Szubiac himself came to the United States, and two years later he was joined by his family.
Once in the U.S., he shared the stories he had heard from his mother and grandfather, but the tales were often met with lack of interest.
Eventually, Szubiac settled in Fort Wayne and his mother came to live with him and his family. But the events his family had experienced back in Poland during World War II continued to attract little attention.
Until, that is, last week, when, in a special ceremony at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Chicago, Danuta Renk-Mikulska was honored as Righteous Among the Nations for the role she and her parents played in rescuing Jews during the war. It is the highest honor that can be bestowed by the country of Israel.
Szubiac’s mother, who is visiting her daughter in Chicago and plans to visit Poland before returning home, couldn’t be reached. But Jan Szubiac related the family story.
Szubiac’s family, who were Catholics, lived near Bilgoraj, which had about 12,000 people at the start of World War II. About 60 percent of the people in the town were Jews.
After the war began and Germany overran Poland, though, the Germans isolated all Jewish families in a few houses in one part of the town, where they were used as forced labor, sewing uniforms for the German army, making boots, whatever the Germans needed.
At the same time, people simply began to vanish, Szubiac says. Those who weren’t useful were being killed.
By 1942, the German plan to eradicate all Jews was going full bore.
Jews were loaded onto trucks or marched to railroad stations where they were taken to death camps.
Some Jews, recognizing what was happening, fled into the forest, digging bunkers and literally living underground, coming out at night to seek food from people in a world where no one knew whom they could trust.
Szubiac’s grandfather, though, was in a good position. He was a forest ranger, spoke perfect German and lived in a small compound about 3 1/2 miles outside the town. He was allowed to keep his position after Poland was conquered.
As Jews were taken away to death camps, though, the rare person would escape and find their way to Mikulski’s compound on the main road.
Occasionally, a family living in the forest would send their children to Mikulksi, saying that he was a good man and would take care of them.
Mikulski knew that if he was caught harboring Jews he and his family would be executed.
Poland had the most severe penalties for harboring Jews, Szubiac said, and there were plenty of German SS and other units around to notice, launching attacks against partisans hiding in the forest and using the road past the Mikulski compound as a main route.
But Szubiac’s grandfather dug a bunker underneath a stable in his compound. He disguised the entrance by stacking hay there, chaining a cow and stacking cages of rabbits over the entrance.
To keep curious German solders who were farmboys out of the stable, he chained a mean dog at the entrance.
For two years, from 1942 to 1944, five young Jews hid out on his property, living in a storeroom part of the time and retreating to the bunker for days at a time when German troops passed through.
The role of his mother, who was about 15 at the time, Szubiac said, was to wash their clothes, find food for the extra five people living there, something that could raise suspicion among the remaining people in the town, and keep everything an absolute secret.
Friends were never allowed to visit.
By 1944, when the Russians were advancing through Poland, the Germans fled and Mikulski’s guests were able to come out from hiding.
One joined the Russian army to fight the Germans and was killed within a month, but the four others survive until this day.
Szubiac’s grandparents were named Righteous Among the Nations in 1966, but it was only decades later that it was determined that the entire family, including the children, also put their lives at risk and were given the same honor, Szubiac said.