Helena and Stefania Podgórska, ca 1942

Stefania Podgórska Burzminski

During World War II in Nazi-occupied Przemyśl, Poland, Stefania Podgórska (nicknamed Stefa or Stefi to her friends in America and also Fusia ever since she was a child – pronounced “foosha”) and her younger sister Helena hid 13 Jews for nearly two years, rescuing them from certain death by the Nazis.

In 1939, Fusia worked at a small shop owned by the Diamant family in Przemyśl, Poland. She and one of the Diamants’ sons, Izidore (or Izio – say Eezshoh) began dating which was unusual for the time because the Diamants were Jewish and Fusia was Catholic. The Diamants were not very traditional so they did not mind the relationship.

World War II broke out and the Soviets invaded the western part of Przemyśl, while the Nazis invaded the eastern part. Fusia and the Diamants were in the Soviet side but by 1941, the Nazis took all of Przemyśl and began sequestering Jews into a walled-off section of town that became known as the ghetto. Izio was taken to a labor camp where he was ultimately killed. Fusia was devastated upon learning of Izio’s death.

Fusia’s mother and siblings were sent to Germany to work as slave laborers for the Nazis. Fusia, at the Diamants’ request, stayed in their apartment while they were in the ghetto. She brought her eight-year old sister Helena who had been left with the neighbors when the mother was sent to Germany.

Mr. and Mrs. Diamant were sent to Bełżec death camp in July 1942 as part of the first Aktion, a large Nazi effort to clear the ghetto. Upon getting off the trains at Bełżec, people were almost instantaneously killed in the gas chambers.
On November 18, 1942, the second Aktion, Max Diamant and Chaim Diamant, two of the Diamants’ sons, ended up on the train to Bełżec. Max had a pair of pliers hidden in his coat and on the train, a cattle car, he cut the barbed wire in the window intending to jump out. Chaim stayed on the train; Max jumped while the train was rounding a bend.

Badly injured from the fall, Max walked back to his parents’ apartment in Przemyśl and asked Fusia if he could stay one night. Fusia wouldn’t let Max leave and before the third and final Aktion, Fusia and Max determined to get Max’s remaining brother Henryk and his fiancée Danuta out of the ghetto and into the apartment. Then came others who were close to Max; very soon the apartment proved to be too small and too dangerous for all of them to stay.

Having found a small house for rent on 3 Tatarska Street with no electricity, no running water and with a good-sized attic, Fusia and Helena moved in and snuck Max and the few others in the dark of night. Max was able to build a false wall in the attic using scrap wood that Fusia and Helena had found. This space in the attic became their hiding spot, their bunker for nearly 18 months.

Left Photo: ca 1985 shows the rear of 3 Tatarska Street where Fusia and Helena lived. Hand-pump for well water in foreground. The two small square windows near the roof are in the attic. The right square window in the attic is where the bunker was that hid 13 people.  Right Photo: Also from 1985 shows the front of 3 Tatarska Street which was occupied by neighbors during the war.

In time, several more arrived until there were thirteen Jews from ten-year old children to fifty-year-olds living in a small space in the attic. They could not leave. They had to be fed. A bucket was their bathroom and had to be emptied daily into the outhouse.

Since she was such a young child, only six-years-old, Helena was somewhat invisible to the Nazis, the neighbors and others in town. She carried water from the well, often emptied the bucket in the outhouse, went to the open-air markets to buy food, among other things, because she wouldn’t be noticed or draw much suspicion.

While some of the thirteen were still in the ghetto, before they came to Fusia, Helena would play near the ghetto fence and pass notes to the people who were to come to Fusia. Once an SS guard noticed her passing the note and he chased her. That note had the address of Tatarska 3 on it. Knowing that everyone would be killed if the guard got that note, while running Helena swallowed the note. The SS guard caught her but couldn’t get a grip and she got away.

Fusia needed a job to make money to feed everyone, but she was too young. A friend helped her get false papers saying she was older which helped her get a job at the Minerwa manufacturing plant, making screws and bolts.

One day, an SS officer knocked on the door to Tatarska 3 and demanded that Helena and Fusia move out in two hours’ time because housing was needed for nurses. The Nazis had commandeered the municipal building across the street and converted to a hospital. If Fusia wasn’t out in two hours, she would be shot.

The thirteen Jews begged Fusia to leave with Helena saying they had already done enough to help them and that it was time for Fusia to save herself, but Fusia couldn’t leave her thirteen people. After two hours, a different SS man came and said it was good they didn’t move out because only one room was needed for the nurses after all. They would be roommates.

3 Tatarska Street on left and the building that was the German Army hospital on right.

For nearly six months, two German nurses lived in the house and right above their bedroom there were thirteen Jews hiding in the attic. And these nurses had boyfriends sleep over who were German soldiers.

In 1944, the Soviets pushed the Nazis out of Przemyśl. As they went door-to-door, a Soviet soldier burst into Tatarska 3. Fusia asked the soldier if the Nazis were gone and when he said yes, the Jews began coming down from the attic. Shocked, the Soviet soldier raised his rifle at them and Fusia told him they were Jews hiding from the Nazis. The soldier said he was also a Jew.

Fusia and Helena endured much after the war. Helena remained in Poland where she became a physician. She lived under Communism and was shunned by some people who knew she had rescued Jews. She became a hardened person. Her mind remains sharp but the toll on her body from all the physical labor she did as a child is now debilitating.

Having done such an undeniably heroic act, Fusia said she did not consider herself a hero; she only did what she felt she had to because what the Nazis were doing to the Jewish people was wrong. Fusia is proof that one person does make a difference; that one thought and one act can change the world. Fusia’s actions gave thirteen people the opportunity to carry on with their lives, despite the utter destruction of their families and their community, and go on to have many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Stefania Podgorska Burzminski and Joe Burzminski (Max Diamant)

Fusia and Max (later Joe) happily married after the war.

Fusia and Max Diamant, (changed to Józef Burzmiński in Poland and later to Josef Burzminski in America), were married immediately after the War. Joe said about Fusia, “She gave me my life, I owe her mine”. About Joe, Fusia said, “He asked to stay for only one night and he stayed over fifty years”.

Fusia’s spirit of helping people didn’t end in WWII. A fire in an apartment building near Fusia and Joe’s home in Boston left dozens of people without a place to stay. Without thinking twice, Fusia and Joe welcomed nine strangers into their home for several weeks.

Such selflessness came at a high price. In the late 1970s, Fusia’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) began to manifest with severe insomnia, frequent flashbacks which almost constantly put her back “upstairs in the bunker”, uncontrollable crying and bouts of depression, ultimately triggering dementia. Documenting her experience in a memoir may have been her way of confronting the demons.

A horrible disease, dementia was a blessing for Fusia because she forgot the past and her mind was at ease. She finally became the happy young girl who missed out on her youth, singing Polish songs and just being a warm, joyful spirit.

Fusia returns to the attic in 1985, for the first time since the war ended. Visible on the left wall is where the false wall once rested against and exposed a vertical timber.  The window on the right is where one of the hidden would always keep watch on over the courtyard for unexpected visitors.

Many of those rescued by Fusia came together to recognize her heroism and in 1979, she was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel. Fusia’s story has been memorialized in a television movie titled “Hidden in Silence,” in a documentary titled “The Other Side of Faith,” in a segment on the television show “In the Name of Love,“ and in multiple interviews for newspapers, television news, and various Holocaust archives. She was a featured guest on “Oprah,” spoke at the dedication of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in which she is featured at the Rescuers exhibit, and was recognized by Women’s Day USA in Los Angeles.

A fictionalized version of Fusia’s story is in the young adult novel titled “The Light in Hidden Places” by Sharon Cameron, published by Scholastic Press.  An audiobook version is passionately voiced by Beata Pozniak Daniels, an award-winning Polish-American actress who founded Women’s Day USA, honored Fusia as an inspirational woman, and was Fusia’s friend.   

3 Tatarska Street in 2019 during renovations to become a museum.

Tatarska 3, the house in Poland where Fusia and Helena hid thirteen people is currently being converted into a living museum by Mr. Maciej Piorkowski, a compassionate businessman in Przemyśl to memorialize the heroism of these two young ladies.

Fusia and Joe had two children, Ed and Krystyna, who are the stewards of their parents’ story.  Pictured are Ed Burzminski, Joe Burzminski (Max Diamant), Stefania “Fusia” Podgorska Burzminski and Krystyna in 2002.

Fusia and Joe had two children, Ed and Krystyna, who are the stewards of their parents’ story. 

Fusia died in September 2018 and her humble yet extraordinary life continues to touch and inspire.

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The illustration above was made by Josef Burzminski (nee Max Diamant) in the 1980s depicting Stefania and Helena as guardian angels, Stefania protecting the 10 adults and Helena protecting the 3 children. 

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