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Port Washington woman shares her Holocaust survival story

Gloria Glantz, a Port Washington resident, retired teacher

Gloria Glantz, a Port Washington resident, retired teacher and the only one in her family of five to survive the Holocaust. (Oct. 9, 2013) Credit: Steve Fenn

Carefully, she pulls out a black-and-white photograph from a protective folder. It was taken in 1939, in the small town (shtetl) of Wegrow just before the Nazis invaded Poland. She points to an attractive woman in her mid-30s -- Esther, who she recalls had a beautiful singing voice. Then to her handsome, dark-haired husband, Mendl. And two boys, Zelig, 10 and Yitzchak, 12.

There is also a baby in the photo. She was Gitl Przepiorka back then. Today, she is Gloria Glantz, a Port Washington resident, retired teacher and the only one in her family of five to survive the Holocaust.

Her two mothers saved her life. Later this month, one of them -- Marianna Kowalczyk -- will be honored for her sacrifice as "a light in the darkness" at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington.

One night in 1942, Esther took 3-year-old Gitl for a walk and left her in the care of Kowalczyk and her husband, Michal, a Christian Polish couple with an older daughter of their own, Stanka. They took the child in, risking their lives to save Gitl from Treblinka, the Nazi death camp that was just 12 1/2 miles away from Wegrow and where most of Gitl's immediate and extended family perished.

The Kowalczyks are being posthumously honored at the Community Synagogue by Glantz and the Department of the Righteous Commission of Yad Vashem, the Israel-based Holocaust memorial center. They have named the couple "Righteous Among the Nations" -- a worldwide tribute to those who risked their own lives during the Holocaust to save Jews.

World War II began in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. It ended in August 1945 after the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Earlier that year, U.S. troops liberated concentration camps, but not before some 6 million Jews were killed by Nazis and their collaborators.

"This ceremony will remind all, and especially the young people in our community, of the power of decent over despair, of humanity over hate and of goodness over genocide," said Rabbi Irwin A. Zeplowitz, the synagogue's rabbi.

Glantz, 74, said she doesn't remember her father very well, but that's not the case when it comes to her siblings or Marianna Kowalczyk.

"I played hide-and-seek with my two brothers," she recalled. "I always got the best hiding place, under the bed, because I was the smallest and could fit."

She called Kowalczyk "matka," which means mother in Polish.

"She was extraordinary," Glantz said of the soft-spoken and patient Christian woman. Before the war, Michal Kowalczyk was a custodian in Glantz's father's leather factory. She learned that her father was killed in 1941, when she was just 2.

"The Nazis probably wanted him to give up his factory," she said. "This really broke me up, because when my mother gave me away she did it alone. My mother, by herself, had to make that decision."

But it was a wise one. Marianna Kowalczyk soothed the despondent little girl she renamed "Gucia." She made her clothes, took her to school and taught her Catholic prayers so when the Germans questioned her background they wouldn't suspect she was Jewish.

Kowalczyk sheltered others, too. One day, Gucia went to the barn and saw legs exposed under a pile of hay. Her matka was hiding two Jewish women there -- Malka Friedman and her daughter Maryla, 13.

She had adjusted to life with the Kowalczyks when one day in May 1945, a few months before the war's end, a woman with a familiar face knocked on the door. It was her aunt Norma Przepiorka, her father's youngest sister, who had survived by jumping off a stalled train headed for Treblinka.

"My matka had promised my mother that if I lived, she'd give me up to any biological relative who claimed me," Glantz recalled. And so at 6, she was forced to bid a tearful farewell.

"It was nightmarish," Glantz wrote in her testimony to Yad Vashem. "The traumatic separation from my matka yet again deadened my memory of ensuing events."

She wound up in a Swedish orphanage and was renamed "Guta." Relatives in New York sent for her in 1947, but she couldn't enter the United States until her immigration documents were processed. Glantz would have to wait three years with a Montreal family who took her in. It was there that she became "Gloria" and endured the last of painful separations from families she had grown to love.

On April 5, 1951, she finally stepped foot in America, and settled in the Bronx with her aunt Esther, her father's older sister, and her husband, Max Bernstein.

Today, Glantz, a retired ESL teacher in the Manhasset school district, gives lectures and workshops on the Holocaust and tolerance. She volunteers in Glen Cove at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, which is co-sponsoring the ceremony with the Community Synagogue, along with the Polish American Museum in Port Washington.

In front of her husband, Miles, children Craig, 42, and Jordana Crow, 40, their families, the Friedmans and others, Glantz will thank the couple who saved her life and discuss her experience.

Glantz never had any contact with the Kowalczyks after she settled in America. "I wanted to write when I was 8 in Montreal, but was told 'forget the past, it's over. We don't have her address.' I was told the same thing when I was 12 in New York."

But she never forgot the Kowalczyks or any of her other families, and said she "feels very lucky to have survived."

And then there are the photos. There aren't many, so she handles them tenderly and points wistfully, one by one, to the faces of a Christian family she was separated from so long ago.

Among them is an image of a little girl determined to survive, next to her matka.

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