The Janitor's Cellar

Robert and Johanna Sedul
Otilija Schimelpfening

Latvia

Robert Sedul (right) and David Zivcon (left) in the hiding place in the cellarRobert Sedul (right) and David Zivcon (left) in the hiding place in the cellar
Additional pictures

Roberts Sedul, a former seaman and boxer, worked as the janitor of a building in Liepaja. Before the war he was on friendly terms with a Jewish resident of the building, David Zivcon, and had promised to help him in time of need.

After the German occupation, Zivcon was put in the ghetto with the other Jews of the town. He was an expert technician and was therefore employed by the Germans as an electrician. It was during his work, while he was doing repair work in a German apartment, that he came upon photos of the killings of the Liepaja Jews on the seashore. With the help of a photographer friend in the ghetto Zivcon made copies and buried them in the ground.

In October 1943 David Zivcon decided that the situation had become too dangerous and that it was time to go into hiding. He fled from the ghetto with his wife. They were joined by another couple, and all four appeared on Sedul’s doorstep. Sedul welcomed his friend and the unannounced guests, and arranged shelter for them behind a concealed partition in the building's cellar. They were to remain there and not to see daylight until liberation 500 days later.

Eventually the hiding Jews were joined in the cellar by another three men. They were jewelers who had been left behind, after the ghetto’s liquidation, to work for the Germans. Sedul had offered them his help, thus bringing the number of Jews in his care to seven. Providing food for so many people in wartime was a great challenge. Since some of the Jews hiding in his cellar were expert workmen, they did different repair work, which enabled Sedul to earn additional money and pay for their food.

In April 1944 Sedul brought another three Jews to the cellar. They had been part of the work detail kept by the Germans for cleaning-up assignments in a military base in the Liepaja area. Aaron Vesterman, described how they knocked on Seduls door and were warmly received by the couple. They were offered food and Sedul gave them a gun and took them down to the cellar where they were surprised to find the other hiding Jews.

A week later Riva, David Zivcon’s sister in law, came along with her three-year-old child, Ada. Her husband had been killed as soon as the Germans had entered Liepaja, on 24 July 1941. Before he went into hiding, his brother, David Zivcon, told Riva that if she ever needed help, she could try Sedul. Probably for the sake of security, he didn’t reveal that he himself was planning to hide with his Latvian acquaintance. Riva, had survived in the Liepaja ghetto with her daughter, and was then sent to the Riga ghetto. She somehow managed to escape before the final liquidation of the ghetto, and returned to Liepaja. All the Jews had by then been killed, but she remembered the name her brother in law had given her, and came to Sedul. He took her in, and when he took her to the cellar to join the others, she was surprised to find David Zivcon.

Fearing that the child would give up their hiding place, Sedul decided that he needed to place here somewhere else. He found a safe shelter for her with Otilija Schimelpfening, a widow of German origin. Schimelpfening changed the child’s name to Gertrude and told her neighbors that the little girl was a relative that had lost her parents. It seems that Sedul did not tell Schimelpfening that the child’s mother was alive, and when the war ended and Riva Zivcon appeared to take her daughter back, it was painful for Otilija Schimelpfening to part from the child she had loved and cared for. As a result the two women did not keep in touch in the years to follow.

Sedul took care not only of the physical well-being of his wards, but also made sure to keep up their spirits. In order to alleviate Riva’s worry about her daughter and the pain of separation, he would visit the child, make sure that she was well taken care of and also took photos of her which he would bring to her mother.

Sedul did not live to see the day of liberation. On March 10, 1945 he was killed by a Russian shell. His wife, Johanna, continued to care for the hiding Jews until the end of the war. After liberation the eleven Jews emerged from the cellar. David Zivcon retrieved the copies of the photos of the massacre of the Liepaja Jews from where he had hidden them. Thus Sedul had saved not only the lives of eleven Jews, but also the evidence about the murder of the entire Jewish community of Liepaja.

In 1981 Yad Vashem conferred the title of Righteous Among the Nations on Robert and Johanna Sedul.

Twenty-five years later, and only after her mother died, Ada Zivcon-Israeli applied to have her rescuer, Otilija Schimelpfening, honored.

 

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.