A miner from Rotherham was one of Poland’s secret heroes during the Nazi occupation. To mark Holocaust Memorial Day this month, Phil Turner tells the inspiring story.
Pawel Dlugai kept his secret for around 50 years. Now his part in the amazing rescue of Jewish people in Poland is to take pride of place with a film and exhibition of his photographs and documents at Schindler Museum in Kraków — on the site of the original enamel factory which is featured in the film Schindler’s List.
It follows an emotional visit by Pawel’s daughter Gillian who went to see the place for herself. She even got to sit at the same desk her father used at work.
Pawel died in 2000 aged 75, but he was just 14 – celebrating his local football team becoming Polish champions again – as Nazi tanks invaded his homeland. It was autumn 1939 and the beginning of the Second World War.
The Holocaust which followed saw the mass murder of six million Jews, as well as millions of gypsies, homosexuals, trade unionists, communists, disabled people, Slavs and Jehovah’s Witnesses from across Europe.
The role played by Pawel (and his father Josef) only emerged around 1994 – at the time of the UK release of Schindler’s List.
The Dlugai family were from the village of Hajduki Wielkie in Upper Silesia, near the city of Chorzów in southern Poland. After the Nazis invaded, Pawel worked on a farm in Germany for ten months from 1940.
His unemployed dad – refused rations because he was regarded as politically unreliable – got a job as a porter at Schindler’s Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik in Kraków. Pawel joined him in early 1941, welding ears to pots during ten-hour nightshifts from Monday night to Saturday morning.
On weekends he and his father were couriers, transporting messages for the anti-Nazi resistance and buying food and supplies for Jewish workers.
Pawel (later known as Paul) recalls in his memoirs, “Saturday every week one of us, father or I, used to go home. A lot of people from our district were in hiding in Kraków or in the surrounding district. So father and I became the postmen or baggage carriers. It was thanks to Mr Schindler that we were travelling in [rail] coaches intended for Germans only.
“Also, we were allowed to shop in German shops. My father got a green passport for the Kraków area and green ration cards through Mr Schindler’s warranty.
“In [the nearby town of] Trzebinia there was a border fort train. Border guards were checking baggage but not in the German compartments. Had we been caught carrying anything for anybody else, the Gestapo would have…”
Pawel adds, “It was well organised. The parcel was always deposited in Katowice railway station and we used to pick it up from there. Arriving in Kraków we left it on the station and sent the ticket by post to the local post office. But most parcels we delivered personally.”
His daughter Gillian says, “We’re very proud of our dad and grandad. They knew if they’d been stopped and caught at any time, they would have been shot.
“Dad was a very quiet man. He would do anything for anybody, but didn’t want any fuss.”
Schindler personally promoted Pawel to office boy where he taught himself how to fake Schindler’s signature. “It was easy,” said Pawel who describes Schindler as a “gentleman” and “a likeable man”. Slowly he learned about Schindler’s behind-the-scenes lifesaving work.
Pawel was once put on a train with his dad, a rifle, ammunition and 10 Jewish workers as they went to collect a shed to be used as a canteen at the factory. He also answered lots of important phonecalls for Schindler, which he had to wait for in the office. Once Pawel even had to get one of his boss’s mistresses home after a trip to the opera to see Madame Butterfly.
Daily he watched Jewish police escort Jewish workers to the factory. “For the first 12 months I worked nights only, my father worked days. Many mornings I waited for my father to arrive for work and that is when I would have seen Jewish men and women led by their own police to work.”
Schindler was a businessman and Nazi party member. His story of saving around 1,200 Jewish people from the death camps was made famous by Steven Spielberg’s film, itself an adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s 1982 historical fiction novel Schindler’s Ark.
Pawel remembered the gleaming gold Nazi party badges worn by Schindler and another boss called Fuchs — not featured in the film — whom Pawel called “a Gestapo man” and a “real swine”.
The Nazis stripped Poland’s Jewish citizens of their property and forced them into ghettos. From there they were used as free labour, including at factories such as Schindler’s. As increasing numbers of German males were drafted to the military, these slave labourers were relied upon even more.
Schindler had a small camp built on his factory premises in 1943. Before that, SS guards would march the Jews from the nearby Plaszów camp, where they lived, to the factory and back home late at night.
In the sub-camp the food was better, while males and females weren’t separated. SS guards were not allowed into the camp. They could stay in watchtowers, but couldn’t enter.
In summer 1944 — as the Russian Red Army advanced — factory owners who made weapons and equipment for the German military moved their factories westward. By autumn of that year Schindler had moved his operations from Kraków to Brünnlitz — in what’s now the Czech Republic. It was then that the famous list enters the scene. The people on the list were sent to Brünnlitz to work, and so were saved.
Pawel had left the factory in 1943 for an appendix operation and to avoid conscription. Later he worked as an interpreter for US troops. His father, also a chauffeur, continued to work at the factory until 1944. Josef survived the war and visited Pawel in Rotherham in the 1960s.
Pawel made his way to Garmisch in Germany, and decided to emigrate to Britain in 1948. He came to Rotherham because of its Polish community and went down the pit in the mining village of Treeton. He also worked at Orgreave colliery and later as a delivery driver at Habershon’s steelworks in the 1970s. His health deteriorated and his last job was as a works’ nightwatchman in the 1980s.
In the meantime, Pawel met his English wife Rhoda and they brought up their family in the Kimberworth Park area of Rotherham.
Gillian says: “After the film came out dad spoke more about what happened in the war. We did find out he had another daughter after he met a woman when he went to live in Garmisch. He didn’t find out she was pregnant until he got to England. But he couldn’t go back.
“He asked her to come to England, but her father wouldn’t let her. He must have stayed in touch and he had pictures of his daughter, called Anne Marie. We contacted her, and keep in touch.”
Auschwitz is just an hour’s drive from the beautiful, historic city of Kraków. A former army barracks which became the largest of the Nazi death camps, Auschwitz was originally used in 1940 as a work camp for Polish political prisoners.
But the first ‘experimental’ gas chamber and crematorium was soon set up and the extermination of prisoners began a year later. Only ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria chillingly remain because fleeing Nazi soldiers blew them up to try to hide the appalling truth of what happened there.
In 1942 the Nazis established their ‘Final Solution’ at Auschwitz and the adjacent, vast Birkenau camp. Some 90 percent of those murdered were Jews, but 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Roma, 15,000 Russian prisoners of war and tens of thousands of people from other nationalities and groups the Nazis deemed “asocial”, such as LGBT people, also died there.
Kraków’s entire Jewish population was sent to extermination camps in March 1943 after the Nazis cleared the city’s ghetto. The story of Kraków ghetto’s liquidation and Plaszów concentration camp is the story of Schindler’s List.
The Nazis gained power by playing on people’s fears and scapegoating sections of society, using racism and nationalism to divide and rule. But thousands of Polish people hid, or helped Jews escape at great risk to themselves.
Stories of such resistance like that of Pawel and his father, Jews and non-Jews standing together, remind us that even in the darkest times unity can be forged against the racists and fascists.