How a 16-year-old girl risked her life to save Jews during World War II

CARMEL, Ind. -- Janina Korzeniewski has a one-word answer when asked what it was like the day the Nazis marched into Poland in 1939.

“Fear.”

Janina was 16-years-old, a striking beauty and was tutored in the German language because her Roman Catholic mother could see the writing on the wall in the late 1930s as Adolph Hitler made no secret of his intentions to establish a Third Reich throughout Europe.

Among Hitler’s first targets: the Jews of Warsaw.

“My mother always had respect for the Jewish people treatment because it wasn’t right,” Janina told WXIN from her apartment at an assisted living facility in Indiana.

“We were invaded and they were building ghetto concentration camps one after the other and threw them on the train…and take them to a certain place in the woods and told them they were going to a different camp and instead they lined them up and there was a big ditch and they just lined them up and shot them and buried them.”

On the day the Germans marched past her house, the Warsaw teenager ran outside with a bucket of water for the thirsty soldiers. An officer heard Janina speak German and soon she was running errands and entrusted with a suitcase full of looted valuables from the homes of displaced Jews.

“They gave me an address and told me where to deliver and I checked the suitcases first,” she said. “Furs, beautiful foxes, shawls, jewelry. They raid every house, especially Jewish people.

“I have to get rid of the suitcases because the underground needed money for hungry people, little poor children even, and I thought to myself, ‘This belongs to Polish people, everything that is in these suitcases.’”

While on a train to make the delivery, Janina instead tossed the suitcases into the snow and jumped off afterward.

“I make a decision to contact underground and tell them where I buried the suitcases,” she said. “And I contacted my brother and I said, ‘There is a fortune here,’ because Jewish people were wealthy and this belonged to Polish people.”

Janina still retains her German-issued work papers and a photograph as she wore a stylish hat that was a tip-off to underground members that the teen was carrying an important message for partisans.

Janina said everyone in her family was secretly subverting the German war effort under the nose of the occupying Nazis, especially her brother Kazik.

“It was at night. He slept in daytime and fighting at night,” she said. “Black market was wide open and he got some cash and I remember he bought some diapers for the children milk and other things.”

Janina’s mother would smuggle messages through German lines and her father bought potatoes to stack up in his cellar to hide a crawlspace.

“Mama asked, ‘What you gonna do with the potatoes?’” she recalled.  “‘Save some Jews,’” was her father’s answer.

“That was the hiding place for a session and then when we were sure that they will be safe then we send them to another sanctuary with very important messages to the next sender that was sending so and so many people, take care of them and then do what we’re doing, get them out of the country.”

When Janina’s father was sent to a work camp, another brother and partisans stole a German staff car and uniforms, marched into the camp and demanded his release.

He returned home to survive the war with his heroic children.

All the while, Janina was a waitress at a Warsaw airport that catered to visiting German military officers as one brother plotted an attack on munitions stored on the base.

The operation depended on information from Janina.

“He even said, ‘Use your charm.’ I did. If you have to save your life and the lives of many people, yes, you were friendly.”

Janina said her family was under the constant threat of death if the Germans discovered their exploits.

“They have said several times, ‘If anyone doesn’t do what we ask you to do, then you get shot. Your mother, your father, two brothers and sister, we shoot them all.’”

Janina, too, survived the Nazi occupation and welcomed allied soldiers who liberated Poland as she eventually married a U.S. serviceman and moved to Indiana to continue telling her story.

“A lot of people didn’t believe it,” she said. “They wouldn’t believe it that there such a cruel war.”

At the age of 96, after a lifetime of public speaking engagements, Janina’s family said her story has gotten the attention of a filmmaker and scriptwriter who will soon visit the Carmel woman to record her remembrances of a courageous life lived during the Holocaust.