Every Spring for the past 23 years, Adas Israel Congregation, Washington DC, has honored a “righteous gentile”, someone who, during the Nazi period, had worked to save Jews. Each honoree has an unbelievable storage – of moral strength, of courage, of luck. This year was no exception. Honored were Alicja Schnepf and her late mother Natalia Szczepaniak of Warsaw.
The selection of this year’s two honorees actually began last year, when another Pole, the late Irene Sendler (who passed away shortly before the ceremony) was honored. A participant in the ceremonies was the Polish Ambassador to the United States, Ryszard Schnepf. At some point that morning, Ambassador Scnepf casually mentioned that his grandmother had hidden Jews in her Warsaw apartment during the war. That remark led to the research trail than ended up honoring Ambassador Schnepf’s grandmother and his mother, who was a young teenager during the Nazi years.
The Germans invaded Poland on November 1, 1939. Natalia Szczepania’s husband was killed during the early days of the attack, leaving her a widow with children, living in a small apartment. We know what happened to the hundreds of thousands of Jews who lived in Warsaw; some hid or escaped, most were murdered. By mid-1943, after the destruction of the ghetto, Warsaw was basically free of Jews. But some slipped through the cracks, including a mother with two teenage daughters and a young niece, who had fled Lvov and wound up in Warsaw. In 1944, Natalia was asked if she could take these Jews into her apartment, to stay with her and her children. The two older girls had fake Aryan papers and were able to get work; the mother and the young niece had to remain in hiding.
Natalia took in the visitors, and later took in others. Her young daughter Alicja helped, and help divert the Germans when they came to look for Jews in the building in which they lived. Their punishment for hiding Jews would have been death. They were never caught, and were eventually “liberated” by the Soviets. All survived.
There are many stories like this. Yad Vashem has honored 6.454 Poles for the work protecting Jews during the Holocaust – including Alicja Schnepf and Natalia Szczepaniak.
The program every year is an absolute inspiration – the remarks, and the musical presentations. The name of the honorees is added to the memorial in the garden outside the synagogue. For this first time this year, a buffet lunch was served for all. The weather was beautiful.