Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, will hold a ceremony on Thursday in which it will posthumously honor Stefan and Maria Magenheim of Poland as Righteous Among the Nations.
The couple’s nephew, Stefan Laudyn, Director of the Warsaw Film Festival, will accept the medal and certificate of honor on their behalf. The event will take place in the presence of family and friends, as well as educators from a dozen countries currently at the International School for Holocaust Studies for a three-week seminar.
The couple will be honored for saving the life of five-year-old Wlodziu Berg of Warsaw, Poland. On September 28, 1939, the Germans occupied Warsaw and a year later a ghetto was established to confine the city’s approximately 375,000 Jews. Some 300,000 Jews were deported from the Warsaw ghetto to the Treblinka death camp in the next two years, and another 6,000 were deported in January 1943.
Little Wlodziu’s parents realized in March 1943 that if they wanted to save their son, they would have to part from him and give him to "Aryan" friends. They asked several Polish friends to care for the child, but since hiding a Jew was punishable by death, people were afraid to take him in. Finally, the desperate parents turned to Stefan Magenheim, who used to work with Wlodziu’s father on the publication of a daily Polish newspaper. He and his wife Maria, an elderly couple with no children of their own, agreed to take the child into their home.
The child was smuggled out of the ghetto and brought to the home of Stefan and Maria. The couple told their neighbors that he was the son of friends who had been arrested by the Germans, but Stefan and Maria lived in constant fear that the lively boy would divulge his true identity. Sure enough, three weeks after Wlodziu’s arrival at the Magenheim home, they were betrayed, most likely by a neighbor. A szmalcownik (Poles who extorted money from hiding Jews or from Poles protecting Jews) arrived at the Magenheim apartment, and while Maria gave him some money, it was clear that they had to move the child to a safer hiding place.
With the help of Magdalena Grodzka-Guzkowska, young Wlodziu was brought to an orphanage near Otwock, where he remained for two years. During that period, Maria came to the orphanage whenever she could, bringing Wlodziu cakes and other special treats.
Wlodziu’s parents survived the Holocaust and were reunited with their son. They later changed their last name to Donat and immigrated to the United States, where Wlodziu became William.
The story of Wlodzio’s rescue is described in the appendix of “The Holocaust Kingdom,” a memoir written by his father, Alexander Donat. Stefan Magenheim passed away in 1950, and his wife Maria passed away in 1966. They were recognized by Yad Vashem in February of 2009 as Righteous Among the Nations.