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May 20, 2022



Even in hell, she chose good: Alfreda Markowska, the Polish Romani woman who saved Jewish and Romani children from the Nazis

16.5.2021 8:25
Alfreda Markowska (PHOTO:  Chad Evans Wyatt / RomaRising)
Alfreda Markowska (PHOTO: Chad Evans Wyatt / RomaRising)

The life story of Alfreda Noncia Markowska reads like a screenplay for a film. She was a Polish Romani woman who saved at least 50 Jewish and Romani children from the Nazis.

"Grandma Noncia", as her family called her, passed away this year on 30 January at the age of 94. She has been called the "Romani Irena Sendler" and is the very first member of the Romani nation to ever receive a Commander's Cross with the star of the Order of Polonia Restituta, which is the second-highest civilian honor the Polish Republic awards for exceptional service. 

"If the Jewish nation exists today, if the Romani nation exists today, that is just thanks to people like you," then-President Lech Kaczyński told Markowská when giving her the commendation at an official ceremony on 17 October 2006. Held at the Presidential Palace, the event was attended by representatives of the Polish state and public life, guests from Germany, Israel and the USA, and Romani representatives.

"This commendation is in honor of an act of the highest value - saving human lives under the conditions of the hell prepared for our country by the Third Reich, Hitler's Nazism. You saved citizens of our country when there was not just the danger of being imprisoned or exiled for saving them, but the danger of being put to death," the Polish President said on that occasion.

"I thank you for your exceptional heroism," Kaczyński told Markowska. She was 80 years old at the time.   

Decades had passed since she had taken the actions for which she was recognized. If it were not for the efforts of others who publicized her story - even against her wishes - it is likely that nobody would know about her today. 

Death in the forest

We'll begin at the start of her life story. Her parents came from the Polska Roma (Polish Roma) group, who lived on the road - her father, Jan, was a horse trader and her mother, Adela, did palmistry.

Alfreda was born on 10 May 1926 near Stanisławów in what is today Ukraine. When the Germans and Soviets invaded Poland in the autumn of 1939, the mobile camp her family was living with had stopped near Lviv and decided to take refuge from the Red Army in an area occupied by Germany.

In 1941, the Germans attacked their mobile camp near the eastern Polish village of Biała Podlaska, massacring all 80 people in the encampment. Alfreda, who was 15, was away in the village at the time and became the sole survivor. 

She spent several days searching the surrounding forests to see if anybody from her family had managed to escape and hide, or whether she could at least find the place where the Germans might have buried her relatives. She was not successful. 

Alfreda then set out for Rozwadów, 60 kilometers away, in search of another Romani group, and one year later she was married. She and her husband were arrested more than once by the German occupation administration and imprisoned in ghettos with other Romani people, but each time they escaped and eventually remained in Rozwadów, where a forced labour camp for Romani people was built in the meantime.

A family of her own children - and those she rescued

Rozwadów is where Alfreda's story as a rescuer of children begins. The camp there ran under a relatively relaxed regime and the Romani people were chiefly working on the railroad line.

Alfreda acquired confirmation of employment and was therefore able to leave the camp safely without risking arrest. When she heard of a place where a massacre or pogrom had taken place, she would go there on foot and look for any surviving children.

Sometimes she would stop by the train station, to which she had access as a railway worker, and rescue the children of the Jewish and Romani prisoners whose trains stopped there on their way to the concentration camps. One such child was Karol "Parno" Gierliński, a Sinto who is 76 years old today and is a painter, poet and sculptor.  

Gierliński's mother put him in Alfreda's arms when her transport stopped in Rozwadów. She later perished at Auschwitz.  

So far it has been ascertained that Alfreda saved 50 children's lives this way. Some were Jewish, some were Romani, and toward the end of the war, when the front lines shifted and the Germans were retreating from the Russians, some of those whom she saved were also German. 

She arranged false documents and work permits for those whom she rescued, tracked down their relatives so she could restore them to their families, and placed the Romani children with families to whom they were related or took care of them herself, raising them together with her own children. Some of them stayed with her just a couple of days or weeks, others for the rest of their lives.

Several of them were housed in a barracks for the camp workers, right under the noses of the Germans, others lived in Alfreda's own home. Wasn't she ever afraid to be doing this?

They asked her about that later in life. She told them she had never expected to survive the war and was therefore not afraid to die.

A new home in Gorzów Wielkopolski

In 1944, as the Red Army advanced, young Romani men were being forcibly recruited into its ranks, so Alfreda, her husband and her new family fled further into the Polish interior. After the war was finally over they resumed living on the road and did not settle until the 1960s, under pressure from the communist authorities, in Przeźmierowo in the Greater Poland Voivodeship. 

They bought a plot of land there and built a house. After her husband passed away, Alfreda moved to her last "stopping place" in neighboring Gorzów. 

She lived there with her family, both those to whom she was related by blood and those who, thanks to her, had been "born again", as Karol Gierliński once put it. During one family reunion the decision was taken to tell the world about what she had done. 

"I began to write to the authorities, to the President. Together with different bureaucrats we collected information about her rescues. We found 50 of them. That's not everybody - many of the Jewish children had emigrated and lost contact," Gierliński said in an interview for the Tygodnik powszechny magazine in Poland.  

It was exactly that effort that resulted in the ceremony we described above. Alfreda's friends from many different countries, as well as the official representatives of those states, came to the Presidential Palace in Warsaw to be there when "Grandma Noncia" received her state commendation. 

They say that Alfreda was angry at first and did not want to go to the ceremony. Eventually, though, she was dancing there to music performed by a Romani band from Gorzów.  

"She gave me life a second time. She was condemned to death, as we all were, but she rescued us. Thanks - there is so much I would have to say that this single word will have to do," Gierliński told her at the ceremony.

The Polish Romani magazine Romano Atmo dedicated issue 5/2006 to this event. "This is something all Polish Roma can boast of, an honor," wrote the editor-in-chief Roman Chojnacki in the editorial for that issue.

Chojnacki's parents were among those rescued by Alfreda. "For the first time in the history of Poland its president has given a commendation to a person of Romani nationality. I am certain this event has improved the image of Romani people in society. The very fact that Romani people were invited to the Presidential Palace is important," he wrote. 

She chose good even in hell

Further honors followed. Alfreda was made an honorary citizen of Gorzów in 2017.  

Leszek Michta included a portrait of her in a mural on the wall of the primary school on Dąbrowského Street there, and another decorates the wall of an elite high school in Warsaw. The Polish director Agnieszka Arnod began making a documentary about Alfreda's life, called Phuri daj.

Unfortunately, that film was never completed. When Alfreda was buried on 3 February 2021, the funeral was attended by many more people than just her extended family, with its dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, both related by blood and adopted. 

The service at the Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary in Gorzów and the prayers at the local cemetery were conducted by the Catholic priest Father Dariusz Glama (Alfreda and her family were Roman Catholic) and representatives of the town spoke there as well. "We are grateful that our town has entered history forever as your place on this earth," said Mayor Jacek Wójcicki.  

The chair of the town council, Jan Kaczanowski, told the mourners that:  "Alfreda Markowska will live on forever in her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, in the countless descendants of those whose lives she saved." Let's end with this declaration from Roman Chojnacki:  "Markowska's life is proof that even at the very bottom of a human tragedy, in a hell created by human beings themselves, good wins over evil."   

First published in Romano vod'i magazine. A Romanes translation of this article follows below:

Te arakhel le čhavoren andal o maribnaskero nacisticko bibachtaľipen

Te leperas la Alfreda Markowskona, ta oda hin sar scenaris pro filmos – poľčiko Romňi, savi arakhľa mujal o nacista vaj penda romane the Čhinde cikne čhavoren. E somnakuňi „baba Nońcija“, sar lake phenenas andre lakeri famiľija, muľa čori kada berš 30. januariste u has lake 94 berš.

Vakerel pes pal late sar pal „romaňi Irena Sendlerovo“ u sar perši džuvľi the peršo romano manuš chudľa o komandérsko kerestos la čercheňaha Rjados Polonia Testituta – dujto nekbareder ašariben predal o nipi, savo e Polsko republika del vaš varesavi but hirošňi aktivita. „Te vakeras akana pal čhinde manušengeri nacija, te hine o manuša khatar e romaňi nacija, ta šaj paľikeras kajse manušenge sar san tumen,“ phenďa lake o prezidentos Lech Kaczyńsko, sar lake pro ašundo ceremonijalos 17. oktombriste 2006 o ašariben delas.

Andro prezidentoskero palacos akor has pre ceremonija o manuša khatar e Poľčiko, vičinde manuša khatar e USA, e Ňemciko the o Izraelos, u tiš romane bare manuša. „Kada ašariben hin paťiv, te o manuš kerel baro majbaro lačhipen – vaš oda, hoj arakhľan manušengero dživipen andre bari bibacht, savi amara themake kisitinďa trito riša, hitleriskero nacismos. Tumen arakhenas le manušen andre amari them, choc vašoda na has ča e bertena, abo oda, hoj tumen tradena andal e them, vašoda le manušenge šaj lenas o dživipen. Paľikerav tumenge vaš kada čačo baro zaačhiben vaš o manuša,“ phenďa akor o prezidentos Kaczyńsko. La Alfredake Markowskovonake has akor ochtovardeš berš. Akorestar kana arakhelas le čhavoren andro dujto baro mariben, pregejle but berša. Te o manuša, save pal kada džanenas, pal kada na irindehas, choc joj pal oda na kamelas te del duma, ta dži adaďives o manuša pal kada na džanlehas.

O meriben andro veš

Ta aven pale pro agor. Lakeri daj the o dad perenas kije grupa Poľčika Roma, save tradenas le verdanenca, o dad bikenkerelas le grajen u e daj Adela phenelas andal o vast. E Nońcija uľiľa 10. majoste 1926 paš e Stanisławówa, akana oda hin e Ukrajina. Sar pre Polsko demade o Ňemci the o Sovjeti jesoste 1939, has lakero „taboris“ paš o Lvov, gejle pen te garuvel mujal Rudo armada andro regijonos, so perelas tel o Ňemci. Andro berš 1941 paľis o Ňemci paš vichodoposko Bělé Podleské demade pro manuša andro taboris u savore manušen -ochtovardeše dženen – murdarde. La Alfredake has dešupandž berš u has akor andro gav, joj sas korkori, so predžiďiľa.

Vaj keci ďivesa phirelas upre tele pal o veša, či vareko andal e famiľija dživel, či pen na garuven. Rodelas, či choča na rakhela o than, kaj o Ňemci le manušen učharde la phuvaha. Na rakhľa. Gejľa šovardeš kilometri andro Rozwadóvos pal aver Roma u odoj tel jekh berš iľa vera. La the lakere romes e ňemecko okupačno sprava buterval chudľa u phandle len andro romana ghetta. Sakovar denašle u ačhile andro Rozvadóvos, kaj kerde predal o Roma buťakero taboris.

Jekh famiľija lakrengere the avrengere manušendar

Adaj ačhol e paramisi, savi predžiďiľa e Nońcija-arakhibnaskeri manušňi. Andro taboris Rozwadóvoste na has ajso zorala režimos. O Roma nekhbuter kerenas pre štacija. E Alfreda chudľa o ľil, hoj odoj kerel buťi, ta šaj khatar o taboris džalas avri. Phirelas pro thana, pal save šunďa, hoj odoj has o demavipen, masakros u rodelas le cikne čhavoren, save ačhile džide. Abo phirelas pre štacija, odoj šaj džalas, bo la has o ľil, hoj odoj kerel buťi, u paš o mašini lelas le Romendar the Čhinde manušendar le čhavoren, bo len ľidžanas andro koncentračne lagri. Jekh ole čhavorendar has o Karol „Parno“ Gierliński – Sinto, adaďives leske hin eftavardešthešov berš. Hino maľaris, socharis the poetikos. La Nońcijake pro vasta diňa leskeri daj. Joj čori muľa andre Osvjenčina.

Dži akana avle o manuša pre oda, hoj kavka e Alfreda arakhľa pandžvardeš čhavore. Romane, Čhinde u paľis sar džalas e fronta u o Ňemci denašenas anglal o Rusi, ta tiš ňemecke čhavoren. Počoral lenge anelas na čače dokumenti the o ľila, hoj keren e buťi, rodelas lengere famiľiji, te len odoj bičhavel, delas len andro aver romane paťivale famiľiji, abo pal lende bajinelas joj korkori – lelas len andre peskeri famiľija, u baronas avri lakere čhavorenca. Varesave ke late ačhile paru ďivesa, kurke, aver calo dživipen. Varesave dživenas andro kher predal o buťara, le Ňemcenge prosto pro jakha, aver paš e Alfreda khere. Na daralas? Pal buter berš latar phučenas. Joj phenelas, hoj avka the avka na užarelas kaj ačhela džiďi, ta na daralas.

Nevo dživipen andro Gorzówos Wielkopolsko

Andro berš 1944, sar džalas dureder the dureder e Rudo armada, savi – či kamenas, na kamenas – lenas le Romen sar rekruten andre armada, e Alfreda le romeha the la famiľijaha denašľa dureder la frontatar. Pal o mariben pale phirnas le verdanenca, sar the aver Roma andre Poľčiko. Andro šovardešte berša, sar has o komunista, imar našťi tradenas le verdanenca, ta gejle te bešel andro Przeźmierowos. Poťinde kadaj koter phuv u ačhade o kher. Sar muľa lakero rom, ta e Alfreda gejľa te bešel andro peskero agorutno bešťipen – andro Gorzówos.

Dživelas odoj la famiľijaha – savore džene has e famiľija, lakere čhave the ole, so lenge e Nońcija „diňa nevo dživipen“, sar jekhvar phenďa o Karol Gierlińsko. Odoj, maškar e famiľija, kana pes sgejle jekhetane, phende, hoj kamen, te e luma džanel, so e Alfreda kerďa. „Chudľom te irinel pro amta, le prezidentoske. Le manušenca pro amta kidahas upre o informaciji pal o manuša, so len e Alfreda arakhľa. Rakhľam penda manušen. Oda na has savore - but čhindengere čhavore has andre emigracija u na denas pen te rakhel,“ mek kija phenďa o Karol Gierlińsko andro jekh vakeriben, andro polsko magazinos Tygodnik powszechny.

Kada avrirodkeriben džalas dži ko aktos, pal savo das e duma pro agor. Andro prezidentsko palacos kije Varšava avle o šerale khatar o rajaripen the o amala khatar but thema, kamenas te avel paš oda, sar „e baba Nońcija“ lela le prezidentostar o ašariben. E Alfreda, sar paľis phenenas, rušelas u na kamelas odoj te džal. Andro agor odoj the čeporo khelelas, sar bašaďa gorzowsko romaňi banda. „Joj man pale ločhiľa. Joj tiš šaj merelas, avka sar amen, kajča joj amen arakhľa. Paľikerav – kampľahas mange but lava te phenel pal late, ča kada jekh lav hin dosta,“ phenďa akor o Gierlińsko.

Poľčiko romano magazinos Romano Atmo pal kada ačhiben irinelas andro numeris 5/2006. „Vaš savore poľčika Roma oda hin bari paťiv the o baripen,“ irinďa andro editorijalos o šefredaktoris o Roman Chojnacko. Leskeri daj the o dad has le čhavorendar, save e Nońcija arakhľa. „Perševar andre poľčiko historija diňa o prezidentos le romane manušeske o ašariben. Paťav kaj kada bararela Romengeri paťiv maškar sa manuša. Imar oda, hoj o Roma has vičimen andro prezidentsko, palacos hin igen anglunoi the igen bari paťiv.“

Mek andre bibacht gejľas pro lačho drom

Paľis chudelas mek aver ašaribena. O Gorzóvos la Alfredake andro berš 2017 diňa o ľil sar foreskere paťivale manušeske. Pre fala andre zakladno škola andre uľica Dąbrowského kerďa o Leszek Michta la Nońcijakero portretos, aver hin pre fala pro gymnazium andre Varšava. E poľčiko režiserka e Agnieszka Arnold kerďa o dokumentos pal Alfredakero dživipen, vičinďa les Phuri daj. O dokumentos na kerďa dži kijo agor.

Kada berš 3. februariste, sar has la Alfreda Markowskona o parušagos, na avle ča o manuša khatar lakeri bari famiľija le onukenca the le onukengere čhavorenca. E omša andre khangeri Neposkvrněného početí Panny Marie v Gorzówě the lava kijo Del pre mulaňi bar phenelas o katolicko rašaj P. Dariusz Glama (e Alfreda the lakeri famiľija has rimska katolika) u vakerenas odoj the o manuša khatar o foros. „Hin predal amende bari paťiv, hoj amaro foros ela imar sakovar irimen andre historija sar tumaro than pre luma,“ paľikerelas la Alfredake o šeralo pal o foros o Jacek Wójcicko. U o šeralo andre foroskero amtos o Jan Kaczanowski mek kija phenďa: „ E Alfreda Markowsko dživela dureder – andre lakere čhavore, onuki, lengere čhavore, andro manuša khatar o famiľiji, save arakhľa andro mariben.“ Andro agor šaj phenas o lava, so phenďa o Romanos Chojnacko. „E Markowsko the lakero dživipen hine sar manušengero leperiben, hoj the andre but baro bibachtaľipen, andre tragedija, savi džanen te kerel o manuša, o lačhipen marel tele e bibacht.“

Alena Scheinostová, translated into English by Gwendolyn Albert, translated into Romanes by Eva Danišová
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