CJN Story, December 14, 2000
Survivor meets woman who saved his family
By PAUL LUNGEN
TORONTO - For two-year and five days in 1943 and 1944, the Riesenbach family's world consisted of a tiny attic in a farmer's barn, or, when danger was particularly acute, a coffin-like space under a mound of potatoes in a cold cellar.
Five members of the Riesenbach family lived in those cramped spaces, subsisting on a paltry diet of boiled potatoes as their muscles atrophied from lack of use.
The, Riesenbachs never forgot Josef and Julia Bar and their teenaged daughter Janina, the Polish Catholic family who risked their lives to save them from the Nazis and their local collaborators.
When Soviet forces pushed the Germans out of their Silesian village of Markowa, the Riesenbachs received a new lease on life[i].
Joe Riesenbach made a new life for I himself in Winnipeg, but he kept contact with the Bars, sending them parcels of clothing, food and luxury items they could not get in Communist Poland.
When he retired a few years ago, Joe offered to bring Janina to Canada for a visit. Citing her age, she declined. Instead, she sent her grandson, Wacek Balawejder, who twice visited the Riesenbachs in Winnipeg and Joe's sister, Genny Wasser, in Toronto. He spent a total of 14 months here.
Cindy Wasser, Joe's niece, reciprocated that visit, travelling to Markowa about a year ago. She met Janina and relayed a message that it was her fondest wish to see Joe and his sisters before she died.
Still, Joe was hesitant. "I had no interest to return to Poland. I have bad memories" he said.
In June 1999, however, he received a I letter from the Holocaust Museum in Washington, to which he had given mementoes of his families past. A family from Argentina visiting the museum recognized a post-war Shanah Tovah that featured a photo of the Riesenbach family[ii].
Gabriel Anmuth, a civil engineer in Bahia Blanca, had seen the same postcard among his late father's letters and photos. It turned out that his late father, Netalio, was a distant cousin of the Riesenbachs[iii].
In January, the Riesenbachs met Gabriel and his wife Marisa, a Hebrew school teacher, in Miami. They talked about their family histories.
Gabriel ï¿½wanted to visit Poland to see the roots where his grandfather came from, Joe said. Joe's son, Ron, was ready to join the Anmuths and so Joe signed on as well. In-October[iv], Joe, his wife Ruth, Ron and the Anmuths made the trip.
They visited Warsaw, where they were intensely moved by the memorials in the cityï¿½s former Jewish ghetto. They took a train in Cracow, where Polish Catholics are reviving the cityï¿½s once vibrant Jewish culture. And they visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, only a short distance away.
In Cracow, they were met by a driver and interpreter arranged by Shtetl Shleppers, a Texas-based non-profit organization that organizes custom tour s of Eastern Europe.
Heading to Markowa, Joe was a little apprehensive, but ï¿½I felt good because I had part of my family with me. As I approached the Village, I knew it wouldnï¿½t be the same. His family home had been renovated and appropriated by the local municipality. Some of the old Jewish cemeteries were gone and even the barn where they, were hidden had been torn down[v].
But waiting for them in front of their house were Janina Bar and her family, children and grandchildren, about.15 people in all. Joe and Janina embraced immediately and their emotions spilled over.
"Once I came there, they couldn't tear us apart. The tears came, of course. I tried to toughen up;" he said.
The Bars invited them into their-home and the families talked and talked. Food was piled 'high on the table and there was plenty of vodka and wine to fortify them.
"Janina said she loved my mother. They were like sisters:' Joe said.
Janina recounted an occasion when the Riesenbachs were nearly caught. One Sunday, when the local priest spoke from the pulpit and told his parishioners that two Jewish families were still. unaccounted for, he urged them to leave the church and do a house to house search to find them[vi].
Josef Bar rushed home immediately and moved the Riesenbachs from the barn's attic to a space he had constructed for them under a pile of potatoes. Even though local villagers searched the cellar, their hiding place was not found.
"If the Nazi had found us out, they [the Bars] would have been executed on the spot," Joe said. "It happened. It happened in the village. Thirteen Poles [including children] and seven or eight Jews were executed in the same village."
While many in the village wer inclined to hunt down Jews, it was the Bars' deep religous faith that saved the Riesenbachs.
"Janina's mother, Julia, was a true Christian. She believed in fate, that if God sent these people to them, it was God's will dial she help them" Joe said.
Many others in the village didn't see it that way - and still don't. The Bars' wartime exploits remain a closely guarded family secret in Markowa for fear of attack by antiSemitic neighbours. When Wacek accompanied their Jewish visitors outside the home, he shied away from them and turned his back so neighbours wouldn't conclude he was with them, Ruth said. The Bars "told us not to attract attention," she added.
Still, for the Riesenbachs and Anmuths, the visit was an experience to be cherished.
"Ron called it a highlight of his life. You come back changed," said Ron's wife, Perla.
"It was definitely worthwhile," Joe said. "It was very fulfilling."
Details of the trip can be found at www.riesenbach.com.
The home of Janina Bar.[vii]
Footnotes by Ron Riesenbach
[i] The village of Markowa is in Galicia, just south of the town of Lancut.
[ii] In fact, Gabriel conducted a last-name search for ï¿½Riesenbachï¿½ and came up with Joeï¿½s name. The photo was something that Gabi had found in his grandfathers belongings in Argentina.
[iii] Natalio is very much alive and well. It is Gabrielï¿½s Grandfather (Natalioï¿½s father) that passed away.
[iv] The trip took place September 19-26, 2000.
[v] In fact, Markowa was too small to have a Jewish Cemetary of itï¿½s own. The neighboring villages of Kancuga and the town of Lancut had Jewish Cemetaries.
[vi][vi] There is some dispute about the role of the priest in this round-up. At the meeting in Markowa, Janina denyed that the priest had said anything.
[vii] This picture is, in fact, a photo of the old Riesenbach home in Markowa.