New Honors for the Polish Sewer Worker Who Saved Jews From the Nazis

Leopold Socha, the Polish sewer worker who helped a group of Jews survive 14 months underground during the Nazi occupation, has been honored by Yad Vashem; now he may get a plaque in Lviv, Ukraine.

Asher Weill
Asher Weill
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Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU, by the sewer entrance from which the Chiger family emerged after 14 months underground.
Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU, by the sewer entrance from which the Chiger family emerged after 14 months underground.Credit: Yossi Aloni
Asher Weill
Asher Weill

An anonymous iron gate on a main city street in Lviv, Ukraine. A hefty blow from the shoulder of a neighbor, and we gain access to an inner courtyard of the residential building. In the courtyard is a round manhole with a cover which our photographer manages to pry up despite vociferous objections from the residents. It appears that they thought we wanted to sell the heavy iron cover to a scrap metal merchant.

In fact, the manhole leads to the extensive Lviv sewage system. It was from this point that 7-year old Krystyna Chiger, her 4-year-old brother Pawel and their parents, Paulina and Ignacy Chiger, emerged in August 1944, after 14 months concealed in the sewers, their immediate companions being rats, worms on the walls and the stink and flow of running raw sewage.

Thanks to Skype, I am able to speak to Krystyna and her husband, Marion Keren, at their home in New York during a Limmud FSU (former Soviet Union) conference that has just concluded in Lviv.

In 1943, in the wake of the German occupation of the then-Polish city (known as Lwów in Polish or Lemberg in German), the Jews, who represented more than a third of the total city population of 320,000, began to be herded into an increasingly smaller ghetto area.

Krystyna’s father, realizing that the ghetto was about to be liquidated, decided to save his family at any cost. In discussing their options, the parents spoke to each other in Yiddish so that the Polish-speaking children couldn’t understand. “That was why it was important for me to learn Yiddish,” says Krystyna.

After considering the possibilities, Chiger decided that their only chance for survival was underground — namely in the sewers.

The family of four and some friends descended into the darkness carrying a bare minimum of items, including valuables. Krystyna was wearing a green sweater, knitted for her by her aunt, from which she would not be parted. They were helped by a local sewer maintenance supervisor called Leopold Socha.

Socha had been a small-time criminal, and at first he evidently saw an easy way to make some money (together with two colleagues), in bringing the group food, clothing and especially water. The latter had to be fetched from the only available source of drinking water, the Neptune fountain in the city square, two kilometers away.

Krystyna explains, “Socha led us to a ledge that was part of the tunnel system that was relatively dry and protected from the running water. He brought us wooden planks on which we could sleep. In the morning we would stack them up so we could use the area. During the day, the place that was most bearable was directly under the Santa Maria ‘Snow’ church which was one of the city’s highest points. The problem was that as we were so near the surface, we had to keep very quiet to avoid detection, and we could hear every footstep above us. My father wanted us to keep living as human beings as much as possible. He asked Socha to bring us first-grade school books so we could continue to learn.

“During the long months when we never saw the sky, there were two incidents that we thought would be the end of us. In the first, a fire broke out and we were frightened we were going to be burned alive. In the other, due to exceptionally heavy rain, the water level rose and rose and the speed of flow increased enormously and we thought we would be drowned when the water come up to our necks.”

Socha has remained something of an enigma. Clearly he began helping the Jews for payment. But eventually the money ran out; Paulina, Krystyna’s mother, was chosen to tell him. “Do what you like with us,” she told him. Socha apparently thought about abandoning them but then decided to carry on what he had begun. He was a deeply devout Ukrainian Catholic and might have had some sort of an epiphany or saw his actions as a form of redemption or act of faith. Krystyna says she will never forget him: “For me he was like a second father. An orphan, he had had a very difficult life. My mother said he was an angel sent by God to protect us.

It was only a week after the liberation by the Soviet army that Socha allowed them to emerge, as he feared the Germans might retake the city. “When the time finally came,” Krystyna relates, “Socha said the children should go up first, followed by the women and then the men, and finally my father, ‘the captain of the ship,’ as Socha called him. As we emerged into a bright sunny day, we were blinded. Everything seemed red to me and it took some time to get our sight back.”

The story of the sewer dwellers is the subject of Krystyna Chiger’s memoir, “The Girl in the Green Sweater,” published in 1998, and of an-Oscar nominated movie, in Polish, “In Darkness,” directed by Agnieszka Holland and released in 2011. When the film was made, Holland had no idea that any of the survivors of the episode depicted in her movie were still alive. But Krystyna says the film is very authentic.

Socha died in 1946, when the bicycle he was riding with his daughter was hit by a car. The daughter survived. Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum has recognized him and his wife Wanda as “Righteous among the Nations,” or “Righteous Gentiles,” for their part in saving the Chigers. After the war the Chiger family immigrated to Israel, and later moved to New York. Krystyna studied dentistry at the Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Dental Medicine in Jerusalem and practised as a dentist in New York. Her parents and brother died in Israel — her father and Pawel in 1979, and her mother in 2000. Thus Krystyna is the last survivor of the epic Lviv sewer story. She married Marian Keren, an engineer and himself a Holocaust survivor from Krakow in Poland. They have two sons and two grandchildren.

Krystyna donated her iconic green sweater, which is now on display in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Chaim Chesler, the founder of Limmud FSU, met last week with the Mayor of Lviv, Andrei Sadovoi, and told him about a Limmud FSU initiative to install a plaque on the wall of the building closest to the sewer entrance and to commission a memorial to Socha that would be placed in an adjacent public park. The mayor was enthusiastic about the idea and said he would give the project his full backing.

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