- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 13, 2006

It was a crime that unfolded on the sidelines of the Holocaust: Farmers in Nazi-occupied Poland killed six members of a well-to-do Jewish family for their possessions.

And there the story might have stayed, swallowed up in the enormity of Hitler’s genocide, had a biotech company owner in Israel not decided at age 57 to find out what happened to his grandmother, Gitl, and her five children, who would have been his aunts and uncles had they lived.

As Rony Lerner would discover, the wounds are still raw more than 60 years later.

In a Polish village to which his search led him, he confronted a 92-year-old man reputed to be the last surviving suspect. “Apparently trying to reconcile, he opened his arms as if to hug me,” Mr. Lerner said. “I shoved him aside out of disgust and revulsion.”

The story began in 1942 at the height of the Nazi persecution of Jews in Poland, when the Lerners were forced into a ghetto. A Nazi officer shot Gitl’s husband, her sister and one of her sons.

Another son, Yitzhak Lerner, was hiding in Warsaw, posing as a gentile. He persuaded Polish farmers in the eastern village of Przegaliny to save most of the family from the ghetto, apparently after bribing the Nazi authorities.

Farmers wanted money

After World War II ended, he submitted a complaint to Polish authorities in which he said the farmers took “a large payment” for hiding the family, and then started pressing Gitl Lerner to hand over her other belongings, knowing the family had owned a bakery and sold sewing machines.

When the 45-year-old mother had nothing left to give, the complaint said, the farmers raped her two daughters, aged 22 and 20. Eventually, it said, they knifed one of the daughters to death and shot the rest of the family, as well as two unrelated boys who had come with them from the ghetto.

The killings were committed at a time when Poland’s German occupiers were rapidly annihilating its 3.5 million Jews. Although Poles were not directly involved in the Nazi death machine, “The cases of murders of Jews by their Polish neighbors was quite widespread,” said Jan Gross, a specialist on Polish history at Princeton University who has written extensively on the subject.

“It was a unique phenomenon that was taking place in the countryside,” and was particularly common at Komarowka Podlaska in the Lublin district, the Lerners’ hometown, Mr. Gross said in a telephone interview.

After the war, there were several hundred court cases involving the killings of Jews, but often the evidence was insufficient, he added.

On the other hand, Mr. Gross said, there were many Poles who saved Jews, as shown by the large number honored as “Righteous Among the Gentiles” by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.

Son became curious

After the war, and after filing his complaint, Yitzhak Lerner emigrated to Palestine. In 1948, Israel won statehood and he had a son, Rony.

Like many children of Holocaust survivors, Rony Lerner didn’t like dwelling on the family history and didn’t ask his father many questions. His curiosity was only aroused after his father died three years ago, and he visited Warsaw. There he discovered the complaint his father had filed.

It contained villagers’ testimony and named five suspects, of whom only one, Jozef Radczuk, was still alive.

Mr. Lerner hired investigators posing as Polish historians to interview and film Radczuk and other villagers in Przegaliny, near the Lerners’ hometown, and made a documentary, parts of which were shown on Israeli TV in April.

He said that in his presence, Radczuk told of being present at the rapes and killings on the property of a farmer named Franciszek Uzdowski.

In the film, Radczuk condemned the murders and showed the cameras where the bodies were buried near a pigsty and then reinterred at the edge of the village cemetery.

Interview turns nasty

When Radczuk was told that Rony Lerner was sitting next to him, Radczuk tried to hug him.

“Don’t you do it,” Mr. Lerner said, speaking English, angry tears in his eyes, and pushed Radczuk’s hand away. “You killed my grandmother, and you killed five of my uncles and aunts.”

Off-camera, things turned even nastier, with Mr. Lerner charging that Radczuk showed him and the investigators the second burial site and spoke of the “Jewish dogs” buried there.

Since Polish media reported the story in April, following its publication in Israel, Radczuk’s family has refused to let him be interviewed. An Associated Press reporter who approached his home was barred by his daughter from seeing him. The daughter, who would not give her name, confirmed that she had heard of Jews being killed at Uzdowski’s place, but said: “My father did not take part in it.”

Uzdowski was arrested for the crime, but apparently not convicted, and died a long time ago. His nephew, Kazimierz Uzdowski, who still lives in Przegaliny, said that after the war people did not discuss the killing because they were ashamed of it.

“It was unnecessary, but it happened,” said Mr. Uzdowski. “The truth should see daylight, should be revealed.” He did not say whether his uncle had been involved.

Evidence was lacking

Speaking to the AP, Mr. Lerner said Polish prosecutors told him that after the war Radczuk was accused of involvement in the slayings, and was also a suspect in killing or turning over to the Nazis three other Jews, but most charges were dropped for lack of evidence and some files were missing.

Polish prosecutor Jacek Nowakowski of the National Remembrance Institute, which oversees the prosecution of Nazi-era crimes, told the AP a new investigation has been opened and suggested that Radczuk would be questioned.

However, Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff, head of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said Polish authorities have been reluctant in the past to pursue such cases.

As part of Mr. Lerner’s investigation, graves thought to be those of his ancestors have been dug up, but no remains have been found. Mr. Lerner plans to return to pursue the search.

But even if nothing turns up, said Mr. Zuroff, the Nazi hunter, Gitl Lerner’s grandson has found out more about the family’s fate than most descendants of Holocaust victims can hope for.

“This is extremely rare,” he said. “Here we are putting faces and names on the murders.”

In Israel, one child of Gitl Lerner is left — Rony’s uncle, Yosef, who escaped the Holocaust by moving to Palestine in 1939. He took a Hebrew surname, Yanai, and lives in Hibat Zion, a farming community in central Israel.

Now 89, he hopes his family someday can be reburied in a nearby cemetery among Mediterranean orange groves.

As for Radczuk, he said: “Maybe they will put him in jail, but what is it worth to us now? This would give me some satisfaction. But it’s too late.”

• AP writer Monika Scislowska in Poland contributed to this report.

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