Updated: Oct 28, 2021
When 15 year old Polish Catholic Jan Kostanski moved into an apartment building in Warsaw in 1940 with his mother Wladyslawa and his two sisters, they became good friends with their Jewish neighbours Ajzyk Wierzbicki and his children, Nathan and Nacha. This friendship was about to turn all their lives upside down.
In that same year the Germans, who had overrun Poland, sealed off the Warsaw ghetto effectively dividing the apartment house into two parts by the wall that was drawn through the city to separate Jews from non-Jews. Life became more nasty for Jewish people in Warsaw when German authorities issued the following announcement:
“Not only will Jews who have left their designated residential area be punished with death, but the same penalty applies to anyone who knowingly provides refuge (a hiding place) to such Jews.”
Jan Kostanski and Nacha Wierzbicka in the Warsaw ghetto. Photo courtesy United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Such threats didn't stop Jan from helping his neighbours and friends. Supported by his mother and sisters he became involved in a large-scale smuggling operation to take food into the ghetto. The scant German rations were condemning the Jews trapped in the ghetto to a slow death of starvation.
On one occasion, Jan and a group of Jewish boys were arrested during a raid. The Jewish boys were killed; Jan was only released after his mother paid a substantial bribe to a Polish policeman. Shortly before the mass deportations in the Summer of 1942, Jan and his mother managed to secure hiding for the Wierzbickis and provided for them over the next two years.
Wladyslawa and her daughters fled the city after the Warsaw Polish Uprising of 1944 but Jan stayed and hid with the Wierzbicki family. For four months, Jan, Ajzyk, Nathan, and Nacha lived with a group of Jews in an underground bunker until the arrival of the Soviet army in January 1945.
After the war, romance blossomed when Wladyslawa married Aizik Wierzbicki and Jan married Nacha Wierzbicka. In time, they all settled in Australia.
Fast forward to 1983 and both Jan and Wladyslawa were honoured by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, as Righteous Among the Nations for the help they gave to starving Jews in Warsaw during World War Two.
Jan's son Andrew was quoted as saying “Dad, I’ve really thought about it a lot. I don’t know if I could have done it.” Jan replied, “No one knows until they’re in that situation. I just did it because it was just a natural thing for me to do.”
Springvale Botanical Cemetery, the resting place for Wladyslawa and her son Jan, considered Righteous Among the Nations. Courtesy Findagrave
Wladyslawa passed away in 1997 and was buried in Springvale Botanical Cemetery in Melbourne. Jan followed in 2010 and is buried in the same grave.
'Jan Kostanski', United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Facebook page, accessed online 11th September, 2021.
'Wladyslawa Wierzbicka-Kostanska and her son, Jan Kostanski Poland', Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, accessed online 11th September, 2021, Wladyslawa Wierzbicka-Kostanska and her son, Jan Kostanski (yadvashem.org)