The Museum’s Behind Every Name a Story project gives voice to the experiences of survivors during the Holocaust.
TWO FRIENDS: SIMA AND POLA, 1939–1945
Sima Gleichgevicht-Wasser was born in Warsaw’s Henryków district in 1923 and grew up in a traditional Jewish home. Her father, Joshua Gleichgevicht, was a manager in a cork insulation factory and the proprietor of a clothes-pressing business. The family was not wealthy but lived comfortably. Everything changed after the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.
On November 15, 1940, the Germans opened the Legionowo ghetto, 16 miles northeast of Warsaw, and soon Sima and her immediate family were forced to leave their homes and move there. Meanwhile Sima’s grandparents, uncles, and aunts moved into the Warsaw ghetto, where they lived together in a crowded apartment. There was little or no food in either ghetto, so all the inhabitants were hungry all the time. Sima, who was blonde with a light complexion, was able to pass as a non-Jewish Pole and managed to work as a smuggler to get some food to her family.
Many times police stopped her and confiscated the food she was carrying. Once, a German guard at the Legionowo ghetto stopped her. He tried to force Sima to admit she was Jewish and then he ordered a German Shepherd to attack her. Even when the dog bit off pieces of her flesh, Sima insisted she was not Jewish. She bore scars from the dog’s severe bites the rest of her life. Another German guard, whom Sima had never seen before, took pity on her and vouched that he knew her and that she was not Jewish.
Eventually, the Germans discovered all the secret passages so it became very dangerous to get in and out of the Legionowo ghetto to get food. One day Sima managed to sneak out; as she was returning an acquaintance stopped her and told her not to return because the ghetto had been liquidated. After that day, October 4, 1942, Sima never saw her family again. But she had no time for tears or other emotions; she went into survival mode. She was exhausted, starving, and infested with scabies. She had to find a place to stay, but people refused to take her in.
Finally, she went to some people whom she knew through her smuggling days, and they let her sleep in their apartment for one night. Through the thin walls, she overheard them saying they would report her to the authorities in the morning. She slipped out of their apartment and fled from Legionowo.
In the Dąbrówka suburb of Warsaw, a Polish couple, Stanisław and Maria Gorzkowski, took Sima into their home. On and off for the next two years, Sima stayed with the Gorzkowskis and their daughter, Apolonia (Pola), who later married and became Pola Nikodemska. Eventually Sima went into hiding at the home of Pola’s uncle and aunt, Jan and Franciszka Wójcicki, who were well-to-do farmers. Before the war, Jan Wójcicki had been a friend of Sima’s uncle, Simcha Inwentarz, who had owned a hardware store.
Sima cooked and cleaned, milked the cows, and did other farm chores for the Wójcickis. Their home had a warm, friendly atmosphere, and Sima was grateful to work for them. Sometimes, when she thought no one was watching, she would go into the fields to enjoy the open air. When she heard dogs barking or saw anyone, she immediately hid.
Pola often visited her uncle and aunt, and she and Sima became close friends. They talked about life and shared their plans and dreams. They had no secrets from each other; their friendship was so strong that Pola spent every free moment she had with Sima. Pola invited Sima to her parents’ home, where Sima once hid, and she was warmly welcomed. Sima said that there were very few people like Pola’s family. They did everything they could to help her.
“There are different people, some are criminals and some are good,” Pola said. “My family didn’t hate any race or any human being. Our religion tells us, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’ It was the most natural thing to help another person who needed help.” Pola noted that her family went far beyond merely helping someone in need. If the Germans found a Jew with a Polish family, they would execute the whole family. “My parents risked not only their own lives but also their children’s lives.”
After Sima had been with the Wójcicki family for a while, someone informed the Germans that a Jew was working in the house. When Pola’s uncle saw through a window that the Germans were coming, he shouted to Sima to run, but it was too late. Sima had quick reflexes, though, and acted composed and self-confident. She grabbed a hoe as if she was going to work in the field.
The Germans and the Polish police asked Sima about the Jewish person who was reported to be hiding in the neighborhood. They asked her what her name was and she told them, “Krystyna Budna,” the Polish name she had adopted so that she could move about in public. She used the nickname Krysia, or Kryśka. The Germans asked the farmhand, Drapieski, if a Jew was working there. He answered that Kryśka was the only woman working there.
Jan Wójcicki invited the Germans and the Polish police into the dining room and asked them to sit down. He told them that he was an established, wealthy farmer and would not risk hiding a Jew. They believed him. As they were leaving, the German officer said, “Ordnung muss sein.” (“There must be order.”) As soon as they left, Sima started shaking violently. Realizing that it was no longer safe for her to stay at the Wójcickis’ house, she left.
Sima could easily pass as a non-Jewish Pole because she had a light complexion and was blonde, but to be able to live as a Pole, she needed a Kennkarte (identification card), and to get a Kennkarte she needed a Polish birth certificate. Pola offered to obtain one for her and went to a church to get it, but it was particularly dangerous for Sima to use the one she got because the woman whom it belonged to lived nearby. Pola asked a friend, Michał Stonkiewicz, the underground captain known as Harski, to help get Sima a Kennkarte. He arranged it all so that Sima wasn’t asked any questions when she used the borrowed birth certificate to register. She was fingerprinted and soon she had a Kennkarte.
After Sima left the Wójcicki family, Pola helped her get a job as a nanny and housekeeper with Jadzia Rogozińska, a friend and classmate at the Warszawka Miejska Szkoła Położnych (Midwifery School of the City of Warsaw). Pola described going with Sima to Jadzia’s home in the Grochów district of Warsaw: “We took a train to the center of Warsaw. It was a huge event for us. We sat facing each other. If someone had seen us together and recognized us, I would have been held responsible, and she would have lost her life.”
For a few months Sima lived with the Rogodzinskis, their son, and their brother and sister. They did not know Sima was Jewish. Sima was responsible for cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, and taking care of the little boy. On their days off, Pola and her future husband, Paweł Nikodemski, visited Sima at the friend’s home. Pola and Paweł became Sima’s family.
In April 1944, Pola married Paweł in the cathedral in Warsaw’s Old City. As the bride and groom were greeting their guests, Sima suddenly appeared, wearing a hat with a veil. Pola was astounded and delighted. Sima was putting herself in great danger because some of the guests knew her. In spite of the danger, she came to the wedding to congratulate her friends. Pola was overjoyed to see her, but she also feared for Sima’s life. Pola wanted Sima to return safely and for nothing to happen to her. Sima wanted Pola to see that she was there. Sima recalled she cried a lot then because she thought that she would never get married.
“It was a daily struggle for survival—just to go out and mingle with people,” Sima said of that time. “Whenever I was outside and somebody looked at me, my heart sank. Whenever a German looked at me, I thought immediately that he knew I was Jewish. It is difficult to explain how terrible it was. I didn’t know anybody who was Jewish living outside the ghetto. I felt completely alone.”
The Rogodzinski family left Warsaw, and Sima was able to get a new job as a nanny and housekeeper with Jan and Maria Godlewski, who had three children, including an infant, Marian. Sima was very fond of the whole family, and they were fond of her. She lived with the Godlewski family until the Warsaw uprising began on August 1, 1944.
During the uprising, which lasted until October 2, 1944, Sima suffered from hunger and thirst. After suppressing the fierce street fighting, the German military expelled the remaining civilian population of Warsaw and systematically destroyed the entire city. Sima and half a million other Warsaw residents were sent to a transit camp in Pruszków, in central Poland. Because Sima was bleeding from dysentery, she was not sent from there to forced labor in Germany.
Sima rejoined Jan and Maria Godlewski, who were then living in Grudzkowola. They welcomed her warmly. One time in Grudzkowola, Sima stepped on a nail and as a result had a blood infection. Her whole body was swollen. She fainted and was taken to the hospital in Grójec. Medication was in short supply. Jan Godlewski asked the director of the hospital to save her life and said he would pay whatever it cost. The doctor gave her medication from his private supply.
“It was Christmas Eve, 1944,” Sima recalled. “Nuns at the hospital called a priest to perform the last rites and confession with me. I don’t know how I confessed because I was delirious with a high temperature. During the night the crisis passed, and I started to feel better. The next day a nun told me that I would be receiving Communion. A priest came, accompanied by an assistant, and I took Communion. I felt guilty because during the confession I didn’t say that I was Jewish. I didn’t trust anybody. The priest was sworn to secrecy, but I still didn’t say I was Jewish. I was afraid that I would die because I had lied. I asked God to forgive me.” Sima stayed in the hospital in Grójec until it was liberated by the Russian army on January 15, 1945.
After the war, Sima searched for Pola for two years before she finally found her. Pola was deeply touched that Sima went to the trouble to find her and thank her for saving her life.
“There are very few people like Sima Wasser,” Pola said. “We found each other. We are very similar. I’m a compassionate person, as is she.”
Pola recalled how Sima sent her packages of oranges from Israel when they were unobtainable in socialist Poland in the 1950s. In 1987, in preparation for Pola’s being named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Sima invited Pola to visit her in Queens, New York. Sima wanted her children and grandchildren to meet the special woman who saved her life.
Sima Gleichgevicht married Alexander Wasser in 1946. Sima and her husband left Poland that year and lived in displaced persons camps at Bad Reichenhall and Bergen-Belsen, where Sima attended nursing school. Her first child, Jacob, was born in 1948 in a displaced persons camp in Germany. Sima and her family moved to Israel, where they lived for ten years. Her daughter, Anne, was born in 1952. The Wassers immigrated to the United States in 1958. Sima worked as a registered nurse at Beth-El Hospital (now Brookdale University Hospital) in Brooklyn, New York. She died in 1994 in Florida.
Apolonia (Pola) Gorzkowska was born in Dąbrówka, near Warsaw, in 1922. During World War II she was active in the underground (known as Armia Krajowa, or Home Army). In 1944 she graduated from the Midwifery School of the City of Warsaw and married Paweł Nikodemski. After the war, she moved to Łódź, Poland, where she supervised midwives at the city’s department of health. She had two children, Teresa and Zbigniew Paweł. Pola was named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 1988. She died in Łódź in 1998.
This story was written by Dr. Krystyna Sanderson, whose mother, Jadwiga Włodarska, was a friend of Pola Nikodemska in midwifery school in Warsaw. After the war, both moved to Łódź, Poland, where the families continued their friendship. In May 1987, Sima invited Krystyna and her husband, Colin, to meet with Pola and her. Colin led and audiotaped an interview with them about their wartime experiences and their friendship. That interview, which was conducted in a mixture of Polish and English, was misplaced and then found after many years; it is the basis for this story.