Staszek Olszewski and his wife, who are visiting from Lithuania, have been busy touring Israel's historic sites in the past few days. "I fell in love with Israel," Staszek said with a smile.
"I am very excited because I saw things that I haven't seen anywhere else in the world, like places with high significance to human history; the landscapes, Jerusalem – there are no words to describe it," he said with exuberance.
But history also has a darker side, which makes Staszek's story especially touching and unique.
Olszewski during ceremony (Photo: Yossi Ben David, Yad Vashem)
As part of his trip to Israel, Olszewski on Wednesday visited Jerusalem, where he received the Righteous among the Nations medal and certificate in a special ceremony.
Olszewski was honored on behalf of his grandmother Teodora Olszewska, her mother and brothers, who risked their lives to save Jews during the war.
The offspring of the family members rescued by the Olszewskis also attended the ceremony, and surrounded Staszek and his wife while they were honored at Yad Vashem.
During the Second World War, Gita Nomkin and her 13 children, who lost their father prior to the war, resided near Vilna, Lithuania's capital, which was within Poland's borders at the time .
The Nomkin family before the war
In 1941 Nazi forces occupied the area, and concentrated all the Jewish families in two Ghettos, one of which was located in the town of Szarkowszczyzna.
On July 18 1942 the Nazis liquidated Szarkowszczyzna ghetto. In the process, some 700 Jews managed to escape to the forest, including five of Gita's children and their spouses.
Gita and her eight other children were murdered by the Nazis along with 1,200 other Jews.
The five brothers who survived – Martin, Hircsh, Yehuda, Yehudit and Esther Nomkin, went through many hardships until finally reaching an old family friend – Teodora Olszewski.
Teodora hid the brothers and their spouses for almost two years, until in July 1943 they decided to join the Russian partisans in their struggle against the Nazis.
Hid 8 people for almost 2 yearsAfter the war, the brothers returned to live in the area until finally making aliyah. However, the Nomkins and Olszewskis kept in touch throughout the years.
"Near grandmother's house there were several structures," said Olszewski. "At night they hid, and in the day they sat and ate together. One time mother was interrogated and was told that a rumor was going around that she was concealing Jews. She acted as if she had no clue what they were talking about."
Despite the denials, the rumors continued to circulate, and finally the Nazis came to search the bath house, which was one of the structures in the complex.
"When they came there were still plates on the table from the Nomkin's previous meal. One of the children managed to hide them at the last moment, but the Germans stayed and watched over the area for the entire night," he added.
Tova Levin, the daughter of Hirsch and his wife Michalina, both rescued thanks to Teodora's courage, accompanied Staszek and his wife during their visit to Israel.
"I met her when I was in first grade, and now, 57 years later, we meet again. My heart is beating out of my chest," said Staszek in excitement, "She came to visit us in our house years ago. I am Polish, but we are very similar."
Teodora Olszewska passed away in 1975. Her daughter and Staszek's mother, Anna, died in 2006 and Anna's brother, Kazimierz, passed back in 1946. The last living member of the older generation is Staszek's aunt, Józefa, who lives in Vilna.
Levin, 64, also couldn't conceal her excitement. "Staszek's family rescued my family. We are all alive because of her. The last survivor who gave her testimony to Yad Vashem is my aunt, Haya, who is 89-years-old. I am very excited by this unusual closure."
"It's hard to believe that the third generation of rescuers are here and we are touring together. It's really the bare minimum we can do to repay them for their acts. Thanks to Teodora we are all here today. She was an unusual character and rescued eight people. They are Catholics and are very excited to tour the holy places," Levin concluded.
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