Michigan Tech
Karol Pelc: Surviving the Holocaust

Karol Pelc

MTU News

(Editor's note: The following is reprinted by permission of the U.P. Catholic. It appeared in the January 5 edition as part of a three-part series featuring local Catholics who survived the Holocaust in Poland.)

Professor Karol Pelc notes the date on the calendar. "September first," he says. "Sixty-one years to the day, when World War II started in Poland.

Pelc w/student"At that date, my future was determined," he muses, settling into a chair in his well-worn office in the School of Business and Economics. "Everything changed. Suddenly, everything was broken."

Pelc was four years old when the German blitzkrieg swept over his native Poland. Less than three weeks later, the Soviets also invaded. "My father was taken into the army, and I never saw him after that," he says. "He died in a Russian camp, shot as a POW."

Auschwitz. Dachau. Treblinka. These icons to evil are bound forever in the public mind to the Nazi's final solution, the extermination of the Jewish people. Half of the six million Jews murdered in the death camps were from Poland. Yet they were not the Nazis' only targets.

In countless Polish cities and towns, from Warsaw to nameless hamlets, the Nazis carried out a campaign of terror against the non-Jewish population. Most of them were Catholic, but the fact of their common Christianity had no relevance. According to Nazi beliefs, Poles were subhuman, fit only for manual labor in service to the master race. And, in due time, if their documented strategies are to be believed, the Nazis planned to send all the Poles to the same death camps that were even then swallowing up the Jews. Many thousands did not survive.

"Of the educated classes in Poland, something like 70 percent were killed," Pelc said. "Chunks of Poland were 'ethnically cleansed'--everyone who was able was rounded up and taken as slave labor for the German war machine."

In 1939, everyone thought the war would be over soon. It wasn't. Pelc's mother placed him with relatives in another town for two years, until she could find a stable job in the city of Czestochowa, famous for its monastery and shrine to the Black Madonna.

mom and sonThen six years old, Pelc would ordinarily have started school. But under the German occupation, all classes were eliminated except for those dealing with manual labor, he said. "It was just elementary physical work, like how to hammer a nail. They were training people to be laborers. . . They were trying to create a sense that we were an underclass. You are nothing, just a slave, and you have to follow orders."

Despite the law, Pelc was sent to an underground school, which he attended until the end of the occupation. "The classes were in total secrecy," he says. "There were six or eight students, and we met with the teacher in somebody's home."

There was some risk in this. "Any teacher involved would be sentenced to death, and the same thing would happen to the family that provided the room," Pelc recalls. "We had meetings in different places, and we never knew in advance where we would meet, to prevent leaks."

At the age of eight, Pelc started to learn piano. "I remember when my teacher gave me one or two pages of Chopin and said to be very careful," he says. "One fact that is not well known, but which is known by every Pole, is that it was forbidden to play Chopin. So for me it was a duty to learn, an act of insurrection."

Pelc familyStudents learned to play dumb if they were questioned by Germans on the street, to say they were going to play with their friends. Pelc had already refined this skill--German officers had bivouacked at his relatives' home, and even as a four-year-old he had learned to keep his mouth shut. Older cousins served in the underground Polish Home Army, and the family shuttled provisions to soldiers hidden in the forest.

"Since then, I've learned to keep things confidential, because the life of your family can depend on it," he says.

At the age of nine, Pelc became an altar boy. "I was expected to serve at the early morning service, at about 6:30," he says. "I had to walk from my home, about one mile to the chapel, through the empty streets, and during Advent it was dark.

"I met this German patrol in the same place, every day. They never stopped me, but every time I would be afraid. I knew that they were a foreign force, and they were killing us."

Roundups in the streets seemed to happen almost daily. "If you were young and strong, there was always a chance you could be taken for slave labor," Pelc remembers. "I was afraid my mother would be taken, and there were always rumors. The Gestapo would surround a neighborhood, take some and leave others. The idea was to create fear."

One day, when Pelc was returning home from his underground class, he was stopped by German police and forced to go down another street. "They were collecting a crowd," he says. "They were pushing people to a place of execution."

The Germans took Polish hostages to kill in retaliation for attacks on their military forces, and just such an execution was then under way.

"Twenty men were standing under the wall," he said. "Because I was small, they put me in front of the crowd to see it." From ten feet away, he watched the men being shot. "It was terrible, the bodies falling, and I was scared to death," he remembers, looking back more than fifty years. "But I had to, or I would have been shot, too. That's the terror that comes from physical domination."

In 1943, the Germans began emptying the Jewish ghettos. Many residents went to their deaths, while others were diverted to work as forced labor. One such couple had a young daughter, and sympathetic Poles contacted Pelc's mother and asked if she could take the child. "Otherwise, she could be sent to the camps," he says. His mother said yes, she would take care of her.

Irene"Irene was introduced as the daughter of a cousin from another town, and she called my mother Aunt Kamilla," Pelc says.

It was something of a stretch, particularly in those times. "Irene was three-and-a-half years old, very beautiful, and had a very typical Jewish face," he said, with her big, brown eyes, prominent nose, and dark hair. Fortunately, the Pelc's also had dark hair, so the deception, if not seamless, certainly bordered on the believable.

To help assure her safety, Kamilla Pelc asked a priest to forge Irene's birth certificate. "He risked his life to do this," he said. "Anyone who helped the Jews was punished by the death penalty--Poland is the only country in Europe where the Germans had such a law.

"So my mother was risking her life, my life, and the neighbors'," he said. "We lived in a courtyard, with twenty families all looking at each other. They all could have been held responsible for not reporting Irene. Forty people risked their lives."

Several years ago, Pelc's wife, Ryszarda, began pressing him to have his mother declared "Righteous among the Nations" by the state of Israel, a designation reserved for those who risked and often lost their lives helping Jews during the Holocaust. At first, he was reticent.

Kamilla"My mother didn't do it for an award," he notes. "She did it because of her religious faith, that she should help people and love your neighbor as yourself. But my wife thought we should do it to document what she and other people did on behalf of the Jews in Poland, and now, I think she was right."

In 1999, six years after they began the process, Pelc went to Chicago to receive the award on behalf of his late mother. Irene, who is now a sociology professor in France, provided important testimony on behalf of her "Aunt Kamilla." Miraculously, Irene not only survived the occupation but was also reunited with her parents, who were among the few lucky Jews to live through the Holocaust.

Many Polish children were not so lucky. And those who did survive were changed forever. "I consider myself to be a Holocaust survivor. There is some strength that comes from this kind of experience," Pelc said. "You know you can survive in very hard conditions."

And you receive a blessing, a certain rare and irrevocable clarity of vision.

"You know," Pelc says, "that the knowledge you've been given is the only thing they can't take away from you."