Excited visitors overflowed a home in Cheswolde on Aug. 26 to honor and thank a descendent of a family of Polish Catholics who laid their lives on the line on behalf of eight persecuted Jews.
Dozens of people lined up to welcome Angieszka Wrobel, 29, at a reception, where they showered her with thanks and appreciation, many saying it was an honor to meet her. The crowd included three generations of the Reches family, plus many neighbors and friends.
In 1942, Genya Staszczak and her sister, Josefa Wrobel, and their families sheltered Saul and Clara Reches, their two little boys, Henry and Mark, Clara’s mother and her uncle and a brother and sister not related to them. For two years, all eight lived in a hole dug in the Staszczak’s barn on a farm in southeastern Poland.
Angieszka is Josefa’s great-granddaughter. Her grandfather and great-uncle, teenagers at the time, brought the hidden families food and an occasional newspaper.
Had they been discovered by the Nazis, everyone in both families would have faced near-certain death.
After the war, the Recheses made their way to the United States, eventually settling in Baltimore. Even as the years passed, the families kept in touch.
Henry and Mark Reches were only 3 and 5 when their family went underground. Mark died of cancer in 1989. Henry remembers bits and pieces of the ordeal.
“Most of [what] I know was told to me by my mother and father. They talked about it in the house, not outside the house,” he said. “They (the Staszczaks and Wrobels) saved our lives. Keeping in touch with them was the least we could do.”
“We have maintained this connection with them for almost 70 years,” said Henry’s daughter, Jodi Reches, who said handwritten letters in Polish have long since given way to English-language email exchanges.
It was Henry Reches who invited Angieszka Wrobel to come visit. He wanted her to see for herself how the brave actions of her family allowed the Recheses to survive and flourish in Baltimore.
Mark Reches’ son, Jeffrey, said he grew up hearing how hard it was for the hidden family and of the difficult conditions they endured.
Wrobel’s visit gave him a new perspective on ordinary Poles who also faced grave danger.
“Her family spent two years hiding the family, dealing with neighbors and store people who might be … questioning them,” Jeffrey Reches said. “You don’t realize the sacrifice they made. And meeting her, even a descendant, it just makes what went on so real. As Jews you always hear about the Jewish side, and it’s so wonderful to hear and appreciate the non-Jewish side and what her family sacrificed in order to save my family.”
Jodi Reches took Wrobel on a tour of Jewish Baltimore, showing her the Talmudical Academy and Ner Israel Rabbinical College. They dropped into the Bais Yaakov School for Girls, where all the teachers in a faculty meeting stood and applauded.
Reches family members have attended each of these schools, and Jodi Reches wanted Wrobel to see firsthand how, as she put it, “We were able to come and have a Jewish education here because of you.”
The rock-star treatment left Wrobel delighted although a little overwhelmed.
“It was amazing,” said Wrobel, an auditor who lives in Amsterdam. “I didn’t expect that standing ovation. It was really great.”
Jodi Reches presented Wrobel with a plaque with “shalom” in Hebrew topped by two doves. She said it’s a
fitting symbol “because they (Wrobel’s ancestors) did not have the hate that others had during the Holocaust. They had peace and love and felt it was their religious duty to save Jews.”
The Staszczak and Wrobel families are honored as Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Israel.
Amy Landsman is a local freelance writer.