Bilecki was just a teenager when he and his family hid 23 Jews in an underground
bunker, saving them from Nazi death squads in war-torn Poland. In 1943, nearly
all the families of the Jewish community in Podhajce, Eastern Galicia, about
3,000 Jews, were slaughtered by the Nazis. A little group - several of them
children and teenagers - escaped from the Ghetto and survived the Nazi
extermination finding their way to the Bilecki farm.
In June of 1943 the Bilecki family members who lived near the ghetto heard a
knock on their door, opened it and saw not only some of their Jewish friends and
neighbors but also some strange faces - 23 in all. They had come to seek refuge
from the Nazis.
The Bilecki family took them in and decided that with the few young, strong men
in the group of escapees they would build a bunker in a cave in the woods and
camouflage it with leaves and branches. The biggest problem was providing food.
Food for the villagers was scarce during these times, but how do you feed 23
extra people without arousing suspicion? Somehow the Bileckis were able to
ration enough food for everyone.
However, this temporary shelter was soon discovered by passers-by in the woods
and, fearing for their friends' lives, the Bileckis were forced to look for
another location, to build another bunker. The second bunker was built very near
to the Bileckis' own home. It was winter and the snowcovered ground would leave
a trail of footsteps to the new hiding place. A survivor, Mrs. Grau Schnitzer,
later recalled how Julian Bilecki being a young, agile and very brave boy, would
jump from tree to tree to deliver his bounty to his Jewish friends in order to
avoid leaving tracks in the snow.
The Bileckis showed the desperate Jews where to hide, helped them move when they
were almost detected and brought burlap sacks of food - mostly potatoes, beans
and corn meal food - and clothes regularly for a year. Once a week, someone from
the family would come to sing hymns to the Jews and share news from the outside
world. "They gave us food for the soul - hope to survive," Schnitzer
said. "They deprived themselves. They endangered their lives."
Mrs. Grau Schnitzer, then 9, recalled how she left the ghetto with her parents
to bury a wagon full of dead bodies and then escaped. Her father and uncle, who
had known the Bileckis before the war, went to them for help."We knew that
they were believers and we knew that they were good people," she recalled.
"We had no choice, and we hoped that they would not report us. We said Here
we are, help us and they helped us".
Another survivor, Sima Weissman, later recalled, how they "not only hid us,
but spent time with us, reading the Bible and praying for our salvation .. three
times it was necessary to change hiding places, so that nearby villagers would
suspect nothing. It's impossible to describe what these people did for us. No
family member would have done more than they did."
Genia Melzer, another survivor, was 17 then and was left for dead by the Nazis
in a pile of corpses after a mass shooting. "I lay down on the floor with
my head down, and my little cousin, 9 years old, lay down on my right side. They
started shooting, but I wasn't shot. They thought I was dead but when a little
girl coughed, they came with an ax and started chopping." Genia survived
the second assault, too, still pretending to be dead. "They took us to this
mass grave and they threw all the people into it and I was on top."
Genia Melzer crawled out from among the bodies and ran to the woods near
Podhajce, where Julian Bilecki found her covered with blood and took her in. Her
brother, uncles, aunts, cousins and all her friends were killed - but she
survived. Today she is a greatgrandmother ...
After almost a year of living underground, one day the group heard shots above
the bunker. They knew that at last they had been liberated and freedom was just
beyond that thin layer of twigs and branches that had concealed their existence
from the world for almost a year. The Russian Army liberated the area on March
27, 1944, and the surviving Jews went their separate ways, some immigrating to
Over the years, many survivors sent packages of food and clothing to the Bilecki
family, who remained poor, and corresponded by mail. There are no telephones on
poor Ukrainian farms. They regularly send money to the Ukrainians. And they
arranged for all the rescuers to be honored as Righteous Gentiles by Yad
Vashem in Jerusalem.
More than a half-century later, a gray-haired Julian Bilecki, now 70, and five
survivors, all New York residents, were brought together by the Jewish
Foundation for the Righteous. A retired bus driver Bilecki was flown in from
Ukraine, his first airplane ride, first time out of his country. As he walked
into a reception room at Kennedy Airport, the five survivors, now gray and some
walking with canes, applauded and cried as they greeted with flowers, hugged and
kissed the man who, as a teenager, risked his life to help them escape the Nazis
and survive the Holocaust.
Tears welled up into his eyes. "I see you all have gray hair," Bilecki
said through a translator. "I too have gray hair. I thought I would never
see you again. I feel lost. I thought this would never happen. All I did was
help. It is very pleasant that people remember. Now I am getting paid back by
"If it wasn't for them, we would not be here right now. As Jews, we had no
right to live. When Jews were in need, these people were there for us," one
survivor said ...
In 1992, in the first ceremony of its kind in Ukraine, seven Ukrainian citizens
were inducted into Yad Vashem's Righteous Among the Nations for their
efforts to save Jews during the Holocaust. One of those honored was Julian
Bilecki. Attending were representatives of Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk,
the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Julian's brother Roman, a resident of upstate New York, had been similarly
honored for his heroic efforts to offer refuge to Jews by several organizations.