The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem recently announced the recognition of the Polish rescuers of Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski as Righteous Among the Nations. The grandson of the Polish couple will receive the award – given to individuals who selflessly risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis – at a ceremony slated for next week in Poland, apparently in the presence of the director. In recent decades he has lived mostly in France to avoid extradition to the United States, where he was convicted of statutory rape.
Polanski was born in Paris in 1933 to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother with Jewish origins. At the age of 4, he immigrated with his parents back to their homeland, Poland. During World War II they were expelled to the Krakow ghetto. His father, Maurycy Liebling (later Polanski), was later deported from the ghetto to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, and survived the Holocaust. His mother, Bula Katz-Przedborska, was sent to Auschwitz, where she was murdered.
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With the beginning of the mass expulsion of Jews to the camps, Polanski’s parents sought ways to help him escape with the help of Polish acquaintances, in return for money or property.They hoped to take advantage of the fact that, thanks to his outward appearance and his command of the Polish language, it would be easy for him to blend into the Christian surroundings.
His parents thus made contact with their friends, Heinrich and Casimira Wilk, who agreed to take Roman in and find a hiding place for him, in return for an advance payment. Roman’s mother had a regular permit to leave the ghetto, since she was a cleaning woman in the famous Wawel Royal Castle in the heart of Krakow. One day she managed to take her son to the Wilks’ apartment, so he could learn the route and would be able to get to them on his own, when necessary.
Not long afterward, on a summer’s day in 1942, she was put on a transport to Auschwitz. In March 1943, just days before the final razing of the ghetto, Roman’s father managed to bring him to its barbed-wire fence, make an opening in it and send the boy to the Wilks’ apartment. After spending several days with them, they transferred Roman to another Polish couple: Boleslav and Yadwiga Putek, who apparently received some of the money Roman’s father had previously given the Wilks.
After a few days, the Puteks refused to continue to hide Roman and brought him to a small remote village called Wysoka, about 30 kilometers from Krakow, to distant relatives named Stefania and Jan Buchala – poverty-stricken farmers with three young children. They knew that the Nazis considered Roman to be Jewish, and despite their very difficult economic plight, which sometimes bordered on starvation, they accepted Roman as though he were their son.
“Stefania, without any recompense, solely out of love for others, risked her life, and that of her husband and children, by hiding me in their home for almost two years,” Polanski wrote recently in a letter to Yad Vashem, in a request to recognize the couple as Righteous Among the Nations. “During that time, despite the poverty and the scarcity of food for her family, she hid and fed me. After the war, as a film director, I travelled to Poland twice to the village of Wysoka. Unfortunately, I was already unable to find any sign of life from them.”
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After the war Polanski reunited with his father in Krakow and developed his reputation as a successful director in the Polish and European film industries, and later in Hollywood as well. In 1968 he married actress Sharon Tate. The following year, when he was abroad making a film and she was pregnant with his child, she was murdered by members of cult leader Charles Manson’s violent “family.”
Polanski fled to France from the United States in 1978, after being convicted of raping a 13-year-old girl; since then he has been considered an escaped felon. Over the years other women accused him of sexual abuse, but Polanski has denied these claims.
He won an Oscar for best director for his film “The Pianist” in 2002. Other films of his were nominated for numerous additional Academy Awards.
As mentioned, Polanski failed during his trips to Poland to find any information about the farming couple who rescued him during the Holocaust, but following considerable efforts and archival research, he discovered that Stefania Buchala had died of tuberculosis in 1953, at the age of 49. Her husband Jan died about a month later, and both were buried in the same grave. Since no one paid for maintaining their grave site, their bones were exhumed and another local resident was buried in their place – 20 years later.
The only descendant Polanski was able to track down was the grandson of Stefania and Jan Buchala – Stanislaw Buchala – who will accept the Yad Vashem honor in their name.