Over the Ghetto Walls

Wladyslawa Wierzbicka-Kostanska and her son, Jan Kostanski

Poland

Jan Kostanski (left) and Jakob Wierzbicki ride in a rickshaw on a street in the Warsaw ghetto. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)Jan Kostanski (left) and Jakob Wierzbicki ride in a rickshaw on a street in the Warsaw ghetto. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Jan Kostanski (left) and Ajzyk Wierzbicki pose on opposite sides of the barbed wire fence on Krochmalna Street. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) Jan Kostanski (left) and Ajzyk Wierzbicki pose on opposite sides of the barbed wire fence on Krochmalna Street. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
The Wierzbicki and Kostanski families in the Warsaw ghetto. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)The Wierzbicki and Kostanski families in the Warsaw ghetto. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Ajzyk and Jakob Wierzbicki climbing the ladder at the ghetto wall overlooking Mirowski SquareAjzyk and Jakob Wierzbicki climbing the ladder at the ghetto wall overlooking Mirowski Square

Wladyslawa Kostanska lived in Warsaw with her son Jan and her two daughters. In 1940 they moved to an apartment building where they formed a deep friendship with a Jewish family by the name of Wierzbicki. When the ghetto was created, the apartment house was divided into two parts by the wall that was drawn through the city and that was to separate Jews from non-Jews: the part where the Kostanski's lived in was in the part outside the ghetto, with the wall running through the courtyard, leaving the wing where the Wierzbickis lived within the ghetto walls.

When the ghetto was sealed in November 1940, 15-year-old Jan, helped by his mother, began smuggling food into the ghetto. The very meager food rations allocated by the Germans to the ghetto condemned its inhabitants to starvation. Survival depended on the ability to supplement the official provisions by smuggled goods. Jan and Wladyslawa's smuggling activities constituted a lifeline for the incarcerated Jews.

Jan's help was not limited only to his smuggling activities. Despite the walls that now separated them, he also took great pains to continue his contacts with the Wierzbickis. Unlike others who passed by the ghetto and remained unmindful of the fate of those who had been locked behind the walls, Jan kept up his friendship with his neighbors. This was not without danger, and in 1941, Jan was arrested inside the ghetto. The Jews in his company were executed, and he was interrogated and beaten for five days, only to be released thanks to a bribe paid by his mother.

When the deportations from Warsaw began in the summer of 1942, Jan managed to enter the ghetto and smuggled Aizik Wierzbicki and his children Noach and Necha out to safety. The threesome found shelter in an apartment belonging to Wladyslawa’s brother, who was in prison at that time. After four weeks, they were taken out of Warsaw to a friend of Wladyslawa’s. Then, they went to the Otwock ghetto, which at the time seemed safer than the Warsaw ghetto. When the roundups in Otwock began, the family was caught, but managed to escape and return to Warsaw. Since the deportations from Warsaw had temporarily stopped, they returned to the ghetto while Wladyslawa was searching for a new apartment, where she could hide her friends. In March 1943, Jan took them out of the ghetto and brought them to the new place, where a hideout had been prepared. They also took in another Jewish family friend, Walter Cykiert. One month later the Germans proceeded to liquidate the Warsaw ghetto and the uprising broke out. For six weeks the Wierzbickis, Cykiert and their protectors watched the suppression of the revolt, as one house after the other were torched down and the remaining Jews were taken away.

Wladyslawa and her children continued to take care of the hiding Jews, shouldering the burden of feeding the extended family despite the war shortages. They continued to protect their wards during the Polish uprising in late summer 1944. After the suppression of the resurrection in October 1944 all Warsaw residents were ordered to leave the city. Jan decided to stay in the hideout along with the Jews. Together they awaited liberation, which came on January 17, 1945.

After the war, Wladyslawa married Aizik Wierzbicki and Jan married Necha Wierzbicka. In time, they all settled in Australia.

On February 10, 1983, Yad Vashem recognized Wladyslawa Wierzbicka-Kostanska and her son, Jan Kostanski, as Righteous Among the Nations.

 

This online story was made possible with the support of:

Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany works to secure compensation and restitution for survivors of the Holocaust.

Since 1951, the Claims Conference - working in partnership with the State of Israel - has negotiated for and distributed payments from Germany, Austria, other governments, and certain industry; recovered unclaimed German Jewish property; and funded programs to assist the neediest Jewish victims of Nazism.