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Rediscovered – the fate of Józef Richter during the occupation

‘Drawings on the Scraps of Life’

On the first days of November 2017 a temporary exhibition of Józef Richter’s works was opened in the Visitor Service Centre of the State Museum at Majdanek. It was prepared by Krzysztof Banach and Lech Remiszewski. The exhibition consisted of 18 drawings which are stored at the Ghetto Fighters' House in Israel and illustrate crimes committed on Jews by Germans in the Lublin region in the years 1942–1944. Their author, being a witness of the events, with deep sensitivity and meticulousness immortalised on newspaper scraps and occupational announcements the scenes from the labour camps in Trawniki and Lublin, from the concentration camp at Majdanek, the death camp in Sobibór as well as from ghettos and places of mass executions. The form of these drawings makes them a unique and, at the same time, extraordinarily interesting and vital testimony to persecution and extermination of the Jewish population. It was created when Germans carried out their criminal plan for the biological destruction of Jews – the same was codenamed ‘Aktion Reinhardt’ on the area of the General Government (GG). The character of the material on which the sketches were drawn was an inspiration for the title of the exhibition: ‘Drawings on the Scraps of Life.’

Who was Richter?

While collecting materials, the authors of the exhibition wondered who Richter was, what he looked like, where he came from, what he did as well as what his fate during the occupation was. In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition we can read that: ‘There are a number of hypotheses as to the identity of Józef Richter. The content of his drawings suggests that during the occupation, he may have been employed as a railroad worker involved in the modernization of the Dorohusk – Chełm – Lublin railway line. He was most likely originally from Chełm. It is possible that he belonged to the so-called Baudienst – the German Construction Service exploiting Polish forced laborers.’ It is also known that one of the drawings is a self-portrait of Richter, who, standing in a group of workers, is looking at the transport of Jews brought to Sobibór. Much of the information, which was initially a mere hypothesis, was confirmed over time, although indeed coincidence had a considerable impact.

Aleksander Paszko’s account

When I was gathering sources to an article devoted to Jewish prisoners in the concentration camp at Majdanek, I came across an account of a Pole, Aleksander Paszko, which he gave during his stay in Israel in June 1967. Aleksander alias Aleksy Paszko was born on July 5, 1912 in Kraśniczyn in Krasnystaw County, where he also stayed during the occupation. After the war he settled in Piaski near Lublin. He was a dental technician by profession.

The account turned out to be an extremely important source for research on Richter’s fate during the occupation – according to the testimony it was Paszko together with his wife Leonarda who provided help to Richter in the years 1942–1944. In the mentioned memories his surname was written as ‘Rychter’ and such spelling I will use further in this article.

The Paszkos help Jews

The attitude of the Paszkos is part of a wider debate concerning the attitudes of Poles towards Jews, which has been going on in Poland for many years now and has recently raged. The behaviours of the Polish part of society differed a lot: selfless help on the one hand, and betraying people to German authorities as well as murdering those seeking shelter on the other hand. Among such extreme attitudes there were behaviours marked by many shades of gray. Unfortunately, indifference was also common. Many Poles were afraid to help Jews as it was punishable by death. In this context, it is worth paying special attention to the words of Henryk Grynberg, a Holocaust survivor: ‘It was enough not to report, not to denounce, not to betray, not to blackmail, not to rob, and – as God commanded – not to kill.’

The mentioned Rychter was not the only person who received support from Paszko. Already in 1940 he was involved in smuggling Regina Gladberg from the GG area to the Soviet occupation zone, thus allowing her to get to Łuck where her husband stayed. Further fate of the escapee turned out to be tragic because she lost her husband and child and was herself exiled to Siberia. After the end of the war she was repatriated to Poland and settled down in Szczecin, from where she immigrated to Israel. In the autumn of 1942 Paszko led Stella Fast out of the Warsaw Ghetto to the ‘Aryan’ side. She survived the occupation, but after the war they did not stay in contact with each other.

Aryan papers

Between the end of 1942 and the beginning of 1944 Paszko and his wife helped Rychter. As appears from the account, they met before the outbreak of the war and served in the army together, which means that they must have been the same age. However, the query at the Central Military Archives did not bring any new information. Paszko mentions in his account that Rychter came from the Chełm area, but unfortunately he does not specify any location. Determining the place and date of birth of the artist turned out to be impossible.

Paszko characterizes his ward in the following words: ‘He was a very pleasant person, with whom I got close for a longer period of time.’ He realized from the beginning why Rychter had come to him. Being a soldier of the Peasant Battalions during the war, he was able to organize ‘Aryan papers’ with the name Zbigniew Zaprzalski for the fugitive. An important role was also played by Leonarda Paszko – her husband reported: ‘He got clothes from us, and this was my wife who took care of his clothes and his underwear.’

The new identity combined with his good look and knowledge of the Polish language made Rychter enlist in the Baudienst. This is what Paszko wrote about his ward: ‘Józef Rychter worked on the railways in the workers' brigades, depending on the districts to which they sent him. He was in Trawniki and Krasnystaw, and in Piaski. Of late, he worked in Sobibór. [...] He worked as a Pole [...] and would show up at my place from time to time.’ Rychter was both a witness and chronicler of the Holocaust of his fellow brothers, and transferred the observed scenes to scraps of paper, which is also confirmed by Paszko’s testimony: ‘He drew documentary things on everything that he had with him. When he had paper, he drew on paper, when he had a newspaper, he drew on the newspaper.’ According to the account of the Pole, he was a painter by education, which explains his professional drawing skills. On the other hand, in materials found by prof. Dariusz Libionka at the Ghetto Fighters’ House, there is a handwritten note from which it appears that Rychter was a professional photographer. His last sketches were created in Sobibór.

Coming to Paszko’s house, Rychter would leave his drawings for safekeeping. During his stay in Israel, Paszko had them with him. At this point we should recall the figure of Miriam Nowicz, who worked in the Ghetto Fighters' House and who – indeed using two versions of the story – presented a different method of obtaining the drawings. According to the first, during her stay in Poland, she met an anonymous Pole living near Chełm, who gave her Rychter's sketches. Could it be Paszko? We do not know that. On the other hand, in the catalogue prepared by her for the exhibition of Rychter's works, published in Israel in 1974, she stated that the drawings were handed over by the family of Max Grodus. Who Grodus was and how he came into possession of them has not been ascertained so far. The fact is that there are 18 sketches in the collection of the Ghetto Fighters' House.

Survival tactics

Richter adopted a different tactics than many other Jews seeking refuge, who considered shelters, dugouts, cellars, attics etc. to be safe places. His survival strategy was to blend into the Polish community, which was a risky move and probably led to his eventual death. According to the account, after losing contact with Richter, Paszko tried to find him. He visited places where his ward had previously stayed, but the same was gone without a trace: ‘We obtained new information in places of his work. Some said that he had died of typhus, and others that he had been recognized because of his drawings. However, these are mere hypotheses and assumptions, and there is no exact proof. And he did not come back to me in 1944, so he is probably dead.’ Nowicz’s interlocutor said that the artist had enlisted with a partisan unit and died in a skirmish. Probably no member of Richter’s family survived the war.

Undoubtedly, Paszko's report sheds a new light on the figure of the talented drafter whose works are an exceptional testimony of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, there are still many doubts: where and when was Richter born? What happened to him during the occupation? Did he survive the war, and if not – in what circumstances did he die? Maybe, just as it was in the case of Paszko's account, coincidence will simply be the most important factor determining further research.

Uncertain element

During the occupation, the fate of the talented drafter entwined with the fate of a Polish family, which also deserves a closer examination. Paszko joined the ranks of the ORMO [Volunteer Reserve Militia] in the early 1960s, from which he was dismissed a year and a half later. From a note prepared by the MO [Citizens' Militia] commandant in Piaski, it appears that he was involved in the activities of the church choir and his affiliation to the organization in no way led to the improvement of functioning of this formation. Thus, it can be assumed that for the communist authorities he was an ‘uncertain element.’

The Paszko family have never been awarded the Righteous among the Nations medals. On the one hand, it may have been caused by the lack of contact after the war with the Jews who thanks to their support survived the war, and on the other – the death of Rychter. However, the Paszkos’ children may be the source of new information…

Jakub Chmielewski – an employee of the Research Department of the State Museum at Majdanek, doctoral student of the Department of Ethnic Studies at Political Science Department at Maria Curie Skłodowska Univeristy