First, before we begin, cue the violin music. And open the Hollywood curtain halfway, so you can see the opening credits.
Ready? Hit projector button!
When the New York Times ran a weepy obituary last October headlined ”[Catholic Polish man ] Jerzy Bielecki Dies at 90; Fell in Love [With Jewish Girl] in a Nazi Camp,” not every Times reader was convinced that the backstory was true.
Did Bielecki tell a few tall tales in the latter part of his life in order to get some love and adulation from the world around him — including a book about him and a documentary? And an award as a Righteous Gentile from an Israeli group? And monthly payments from another Jewish group for his electricity and gas bills at home in Poland from 1997 on?
Sadly, these hoaxy, embellished, fabricated things sometimes happen in a post-Holocaust world — not always, but sometimes — where some victims of that tragic event, be they elderly non-Jews (as in the case of Bielecki) or Jews as in the case of Cyla Cybulska, either mis-remember what happened in those terrible faraway days or intentionally create fabrications that really amount to hoaxes and frauds.
The jury is still out on this one, but from all apparent information available online, something is not entirely kosher about Bielecki’s backstory, which the august and always fact-checked Times swallowed hook, line and sinker without apparent doing any deep fact-checking this time.
If you read the Times obit, as well as the past Associated Press and Reuters stories — (not to mention the Washington Post, thousands of newspapers and myriad blogs that picked up the sad, tragic, weepy Holocaust story with a happy ending of sorts, including mentions of things like a pear tree in Auschwitz in 1944 where the couple spoke in hushed tones and the 39 roses that Bielecki presented to his former lover when they met in Poland 39 years after the war) — you will see.
If you believe all this, I have a bridge in Brooklyn that’s for sale. Interested?
First the good news: In 1985, the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem awarded Bielecki the Righteous Among the Nations title for saving Cybulska, a Jewish woman at Auschwitz who later married another man and came to America and died in 2005. Bielecki died this year.
“It was great love,” is how Bielecki, recalled it in an AP interview at his home in a small southern town 55 miles from Auschwitz. “We were making plans that we would get married and would live together forever.” Maybe. Maybe not.
You see, he was Catholic, She was Jewish. They were both inmates of the Nazi camp. They both escaped — together! — according to Bielecki.
As the Times tells it, "Jerzy Bielecki was 19 years old, Roman Catholic and suspected of being a member of the Polish resistance when he was arrested by the Nazis in June 1940 and transported to Auschwitz, where the number 243 was tattooed on his arm. Nearly three years later, Cyla Cybulska, her parents, her two brothers and her younger sister were crammed into a train with thousands of other Polish Jews and shipped to Auschwitz. Only Cyla — No. 29558 — would survive. Because of Mr. Bielecki.”
Now for the what-if news: Was theirs — as the Times reports — really ”a tale of love and courage that would continue to resonate despite the nearly 40 years during which they were separated, both believing the other had died”? Or did Bielecki do some clever and imaginative creative ”remembering” as he pieced together his saga for the AP reporters in Poland and his book and the book’s website?
There was documentary about him. Was a theatrical movie also planned? Did he let his imagination carry him away to the land of embellishment and fabrication, inventing a pear tree, and other details from a tragic story that don’t always align with reality?
You be the judge.
Investigative reporters much more able than I are looking into this possible hoax now. Is that too strong a word? OK, embellished Holocaust tale: Is that better?
Yes, ”Bielecki was recognized in 1985 as one of the so-called righteous gentiles by Yad Vashem, Israel’s center for Holocaust research and education,” as the Times reported. and yes, Stanlee Stahl, executive vice president of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which assists non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews, did speak with the Times reporter and verify the account. That the foundation had been supporting Bielecki with payments for his home and gas bills since 1997, the Times did not mention.
Now comes the wink. Are you ready?
Bielecki — known in Polish as Jurek — was in forced labor in a grain warehouse at the concentration camp when several young women were herded through the door in the fall of 1943. “It seemed to me that one of them, a pretty dark-haired one, winked at me,” he told a Polish AP reporter in Poland in 2010. “It was Cyla, who had just been assigned to repair grain sacks.”
The AP reporter lapped it all up and reported his story verbatim. But did it really happen that way? A pear tree, a wink, love at first sight?
Later news reports note that Cyla went to Poland to see him in 1983 — and thus the 39 roses for the 39 years they were apart that he brought to the airport — and tried to persuade him to leave his wife and children in Poland and come back to America with her to live. Cyla’s husband, a Jewish man she had met in Poland after the war, died in 1975. Bielecki told Cyla that he could not go with her to America and leave his wife and children, so she hightailed it back to New York and never spoke to him again, and never opened the many letters he sent her over the years, according to AP news reports available on-line to anyone searching the Internet.
That’s love? That’s gratitude? That’s a happy ending?
If you believe in angels and God and serendipity, get ready for this: “It was pure chance that in 1983 they would find each other again,” the Times reported in its weepy obit for Bielecki. “By then, David Zacharowicz had died. “Cyla was at home talking to the Polish woman who cleaned for her, telling how this man had saved her and that she had been told he had died,” Stahl told Hevesi. “The cleaning lady said: ‘I don’t think he’s dead. I saw a man telling the story on Polish television. He’s alive.’ ”
Cyla tracked down Bielecki’s phone number in Nowy Targ one morning in May 1983 and several weeks later flew to Krakow to meet him. When she stepped off the plane, he handed her 39 red roses, one for each of the years they had not seen each other.”
“He and Cyla saw each other about another 15 times,” Stahl told the Times. “They were good friends for life.”
In fact, they were not good friends for life, and Stahl probably knows this. They never spoke again after she tried to get him to leave his wife and go back with her to New York.
Bielecki was born in Slaboszow, Poland, on March 28, 1921. Stahl told the Times that she did not have information about his survivors or his wife or children or grandchildren, but all that information is readily available on Bielecki’s handsomely designed and expensive website.
It’s still up. Even now, after he has passed away. Who’s minding the store?
Cyla and David Zacharowicz had one child, Fay Roseman of Coral Springs, Florida, who went to visit Bielecki in Poland, too, after her mom passed away in 2005. The news story was printed in the Miami Herald.
The couple’s story was so captivating it was the subject of a German book, a Polish documentary and numerous articles, Roseman told a reporter for her hometown newspaper in Florida after her own trip to Poland to meet her mother’s ”savior”… er, boyfriend.
When Roseman’s mom died in 2005, so did the answers to a lot of Roseman’s questions, she told Madeline Baró Diaz of the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Coral Gables. “I want to be able to talk to her and say ‘Wait, why didn’t you tell me all of these things?’” Roseman said. “Why didn’t she share that? I don’t know.”
Roseman said then that she had put together some of the pieces by going through her mother’s papers and doing her own research. Her meeting with Bielecki, whom Roseman describes as a “gentle soul,” also filled in some blanks.
“I felt closer to my mother,” Roseman told the Sun-Sentinel of the meeting. “He said that he felt that my mother was watching us, which I believe. And I hope to go back.”