Many of the athletes flying into Israel this week to participate in the 19th Maccabiah Games would say this is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. But for one 86-year-old Polish-Catholic woman who will be among the crowd of tens of thousands attending the opening ceremony at Teddy Stadium on Thursday evening, it marks the realization of a very different sort of wish.
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Czeslawa Zak had always dreamed of flying to Israel so that she could reunite, after all these years, with those Jews she and her family had saved during the Holocaust. This week, thanks to a fundraising campaign launched by March of the Living Canada, it has come true. And as a side bonus, she’s also received a complimentary ticket to the best show in town.
For a period of two years and seven months, Zak and her family provided shelter to 14 Jews from several different families, in their Warsaw apartment. These Jews, who had fled the Warsaw Ghetto, were hidden in a spare room that was blocked off from the rest of their second-floor apartment on Grzybowski Square and not visible from the street. In 1993, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum recognized Zak as a Righteous Among the Nations – an honorific used to describe people who risked their lives to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis.
Of the 14 Jews her family saved, some moved to Switzerland after the war, some to France, and one family, the Treflers, moved to Israel. The one remaining survivor today of the Trefler family, Olga Kost, is two years older than Zak and lives in Haifa. The two have remained in regular contact by mail and phone ever since the end of the war and saw each other once, more than 20 years ago, when Kost visited Zak in Poland.
On early Wednesday morning, Zak landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport. In a conversation while heading to Jerusalem, where she will be spending the next few days, she said that her family had decided to save these Jews because “that was the kind of people they were.”
At the time, she and her sister, who were both teenagers, contributed to the rescue effort by shopping for food for the Jewish families and bringing them reading materials. Because her family would have faced instant death had they been caught harboring Jews, she was forbidden from bringing friends into their home during that extended period.
Zak was the eldest daughter of a seamstress and a carpenter. Her family had known the Treflers, also in the carpentry business, before the war.
On three separate occasions while they were hiding the 14 Jews, German soldiers searched their apartment but came up with nothing. At one point, when they came very close to the hideout, Zak got them to back away by concocting a story that the room was filled with rabbits she was breeding and that she feared they might escape if they opened the entryway.
Eli Rubenstein, the director of March of Living Canada, said that for the past 10 years, the youth groups he has brought to Poland have met with Zak and been inspired by her story. “We decided to surprise her not only by arranging for this trip to Israel but by allowing her to fulfill another longtime dream – to fly on a plane. She has never flown before.”
Zak, widowed, has two sons, a daughter and three grandchildren. On Wednesday, she was scheduled to visit Yad Vashem and meet there with Canadian youth groups. After she attends the Maccabiah opening ceremony, she will travel to Haifa to spend a few days with Kost and her extended family. The Kosts are the only family of those who were saved whom she has remained in contact with over the years.