It was 1943 in Nazi-occupied Warsaw when an 18-year-old Polish girl slipped into a church with an elderly rabbi to teach him how to dip his hand in holy water and cross himself. They both hoped it would help him pass as Catholic.
Any mistake could cost him his life, and hers, too — the Nazis would have killed her for helping a Jew.
What she did not know back then was that she was a Jew herself.
Decades after she helped save the rabbi and about a dozen other Polish Jews, mostly children, by teaching them Christian customs as part of her work in the anti-Nazi resistance, Magdalena Grodzka-Guzkowska discovered documents in an old suitcase showing that her father and other close family members were Jewish.
Shared humanity, not ancestry, inspired her wartime heroism.
“I remember running with children through the city. It was horrible,” said the now frail Grodzka-Guzkowska, her hand trembling as she sat in a wheelchair.
“During the war I saved Jewish children while not being aware that I was Jewish. I saved them because that is what had to be done.”
Today, at age 86, she’s living out her last years waiting to be buried in a white shroud according to Jewish custom.
In July 2011, Grodzka-Guzkowska received the S.F.-based Taube Foundation’s Irena Sendler Memorial Award at a ceremony in Warsaw’s Nozyk Synagogue.
“Magda exemplified all that this award was meant to honor,” said Tad Taube, chairman of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture. “Her selfless bravery enabled thousands of Jewish children to survive. Who can count the descendants directly attributable to her heroism?”
The discovery of Jewish roots is a growing phenomenon in Poland, where increasing numbers of Catholic or secular Poles in recent years have learned, often from deathbed confessions or from chance discoveries of documents, that they are of Jewish descent.
Such knowledge often was repressed due to the trauma inflicted by the Hitler era and anti-Semitic persecution during the communist decades that followed.
Grodzka-Guzkowska learned of her heritage late in life. It led her to immerse herself in Torah study, dream of visiting Israel and ask Poland’s chief rabbi to bury her in Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery.
One landmark on her path to a new identity came during a dinner at the home of a Jewish friend in the 1990s, when she mentioned that she had a Jewish great-grandmother — her mother’s mother’s mother.
The friend explained to her that Jewish law traces Judaism from mother to child, meaning that she was Jewish, too.
After that evening, she began to cultivate a relationship with Warsaw’s Jewish community and to attend services at the Nozyk Synagogue.
Five years ago, she found out that her father was Jewish. This revelation, more than anything, caused a profound shift in her identity and made her finally think of herself as a Jew.
“I will be buried in the Jewish cemetery as a Jew,” she said. Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich confirms her wishes will be carried out.
Grodzka-Guzkowska’s gradual embrace of Judaism paralleled cultural shifts within Poland after the 1989 collapse of its Communist government, as it began its transition to democracy.
Amid Poland’s cultural changes, aging Poles with family secrets feel it is finally time to pass them on to the next generation. In some cases, such discoveries spark personal transformations, inspiring adult men to undergo circumcision or to take on new names.
Most of those who decide to live as Jews are in their 20s or 30s, with the older generations often still too fearful of anti-Semitism to want to live openly as Jews. Grodzka-Guzkowska is a prominent exception.
Rabbi Stas Wojciechowicz says he is struck by how many Polish Jews belong to the Jewish and Catholic worlds simultaneously. His synagogue, for instance, practically empties of worshippers around Christmas and All Saints Day, a major Catholic holiday when Poles visit the graves of ancestors.
“They say they are sorry but they need to be with their parents at those times,” he said. “Almost everybody has this story of a divided family.”
Not long after Grodzka-Guzkowska embraced her Jewishness, it proved an obstacle to her being honored for her wartime heroism.
A Jewish boy she had rescued petitioned Israel’s Yad Vashem to name her Righteous Among the Nations in recognition of her wartime heroism.
But Yad Vashem hesitated on the grounds the award only recognizes non-Jews.
Schudrich and other Polish Jews argued that she should be given the award because she had acted during the war with the consciousness of a Catholic, not a Jew.
“Magda decided in a moment to save Jewish children,” Schudrich wrote in a 2008 email to Yad Vashem. “Why are we taking so long?”
The Jerusalem-based institute ultimately honored her in 2009.