A single violin displayed in a corner of the room was visible from the entrance to the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center one Sunday in early February. The occasion was an exhibit by photographer Daniel Levin about Amnon Weinstein, the luthier behind the Violins of Hope project, which restores violins played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust.
"Showcasing a Violin of Hope in November 2018 at the launch event for
Holocaust Education Month in Ottawa, Canada, and moved by the power of the
music performed by virtuoso violinist Niv Ashkenzi, compelled me to walk
towards the violin on display in Phoenix. The note beside the violin told the story of a local family who is lending the violin to Weinstein and the Violins of Hope project. The name “Stefania,” described as the wife of Max Diamant, the violin’s owner, caught my attention. I read that Stefania had hid Max for two years in an attic in the city of Przemysl in southeastern Poland.
Stefania! My mind started racing. I wondered how many Stefanias in Przemysl saved Jews. Could she be the same Stefania I had heard about several years earlier? I had to find out, but how?
As Julee Landau Shahon, co-chair of Violins of Hope in Phoenix, walked by, I approached her, asking if it was possible to meet Stefania. Within minutes, with the help of Jeffrey Schesnol, associate director of the Arizona Jewish Historical Society, I learned that Stefania’s daughter, Krystyna Diamant, was about to join visitors to the exhibit. I could not wait to meet her. Could her mother be the same Stefania who had saved my relatives in Przemysl?
Coincidence or fate?
In 2014, while planning a visit to Poland, I was searching for an English-speaking guide to help me navigate family records in the city archives of Kanczuga, a small village in southeastern Poland. On a previous trip, I had found such records with the help of the mayor. However, because of a language barrier, I could not understand them.
This time, I was making the effort to be better prepared. The Polish embassy in Ottawa provided a recommendation and I emailed my potential guide my trip dates, location and the name of the family whose records I wanted to search. Within minutes, a response arrived from Lukasz Biedka. It said, “You are a relative of Jack Zimmerman from Przemysl.”
I had no clue who Jack Zimmerman was or how Biedka connected me to him. Eventually, I discovered that a few years earlier, Biedka had helped Zimmerman trace information in Poland and had become familiar with his family tree. I soon learned that Zimmerman and his sister, Cesia, along with their mother, Malvina Schachter, my father’s cousin, had survived the war and now resided in the United States. They were among 13 Jews who survived thanks to the bravery and kindness of a girl named Stefania Podgorska.
I did know that my father, Eliezer Kalter, came from a large extended family in Oswiecim and that most perished in the Holocaust. I also knew that some of his relatives had lived in Przemysl, including a great-uncle and an uncle, and that my father found refuge in their home for about a year following his escape from the Nazis. He last saw them in the spring of 1941 before the Nazis occupied the area and before he fled eastward.
My father knew and accepted that his family members, together with most of the Jewish community that remained in Przemysl after the Nazi occupation of this part of Poland (which was under Russian control between the fall of 1939 to the summer of 1941), did not survive.He lived with this knowledge all his life.
So many years later, I was dazed by the news that three family members from Przemysl — Malvina and her children — had survived the war. Following a short email exchange, I called Zimmerman and Cesia in Los Angeles. It was heartwarming to learn that they owed their survival to Stefania Podgorska, a Catholic teenager who hid Jews in a secret space in the attic of her apartment.
I was overwhelmed to find relatives who survived the Holocaust seven decades after the end of the war. This is something that happens to others, I kept thinking. It is hard to describe the emotions engulfing me as I heard the gruesome details of the fate of the other members of the family, including my father’s great-uncle. I was so grateful that my father did not live to hear what befell his family in Przemysl.
There was another strange coincidence. Seven years ago, knowing nothing of my family’s connection to Stefania, I included her story as part of the yearly teachers’ workshop on the Holocaust sponsored by the Ottawa Shoah Committee, of which I was the chair. I had discovered her story while researching the topic of Righteous Among the Nations. Hers was one of a few I used from various countries. I could have chosen anyone from a long list of the righteous, but I chose Stefania.
Walking into the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center that Sunday morning, I could have never imagined that a visit to a photographic exhibit would turn into an emotional closing of a circle that included the honor of meeting Stefania’s daughter, Krystyna, who confirmed that it was indeed her mother who saved my relatives in Przemysl. JN
Mina Cohn is the director of the Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship (CHES) at Carleton University’s Zelikovitz Centre for Jewish Studies in Ottawa, Canada. Stefania Podgorska’s story is told in the documentary ‘Hidden in Silence.’ She died in September 2018.