We are pleased to present here an excerpt from Roman Dziarski’s How We Outwitted and Survived the Nazis: The True Story of the Holocaust Rescuers, Zofia Sterner and Her Family, accompanied by a personal introduction from the author. The book tells the story how his family rescued Jews from the Holocaust and survived WWII, against the backdrop of the realities of the Nazi and Soviet occupation of Poland.
How We Outwitted and Survived the Nazis publishes on October 17, 2023, and is available for preorder wherever books are sold.
Author’s Introduction by Roman Dziarski
About the Book
This book is about a young Polish woman (my aunt Zofia Sterner), her Jewish husband, and the rest of her family. It describes how they survived WWII and how they rescued many Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.
Marek Halter in his book La force du Bien (Stories of Deliverance: Speaking with Men and Women Who Rescued Jews from the Holocaust) writes about Zofia Sterner: “[T]here is such a confidence …, such a gift, such abandon of Good! I am greatly struck by it, when Zofia Sterner tells me how she led her charges out of the Ghetto. … [D]uring all the Occupation, the Sterners devoted heart and soul to the cause which they had voluntarily chosen: to save Jews, give them comfort, and to help them leave for more secure places, with passes in their pockets.” 
But this short interview gives no details about what exactly happened, how they did it, who else was involved, and how they survived themselves while avoiding capture and extermination by the murderous Nazi regime. I have written this book to answer these questions. I have chronicled the lives of Zofia, Wacek, and their family throughout the entire war. I wrote it in the form of Zofia’s memoir in the present tense, as though events are unfolding before her eyes. But all the events in the book are real, exactly as they happened, and as the people in the story recalled and recorded them.
At the beginning of the war, they flee the advancing German army, dodge air raids, bombings, and machine gun fire, are separated and reunited, find shelter, are threatened again by the Soviets, and flee back to the German-occupied Poland.
Then in Warsaw, they refuse to be classified as Jews destined for extermination and refuse to move into the ghetto. Instead, they join the underground resistance, help Jews in the ghetto, organize an elaborate rescue operation for the Jews from the ghetto, and develop close friendships with the rescued Jews.
This is a true story of hope amid horrifying tragedy. It reveals how war brings out the worst and the best in people; and how true humanity and heroism of ordinary people are revealed by their willingness to risk everything and help others. This story is about being human under the most inhumane conditions.
The heroic rescues and selfless help in this story are especially remarkable because these rescuers and helpers had to not only oppose the cruel Nazi occupiers—who would execute on the spot the entire family for any gesture of help they gave, even offering a glass of water or a piece of bread to a Jew—but they also had to oppose the norms of the surrounding Polish society, usually indifferent or even hostile to those who were helping Jews.
To be historically and morally correct, the rescues of Jews described in this memoir must be put in the context of the concurrent antisemitism and atrocities against Jews that were also present.
Thus, only at best 1% to 8% of the Polish population helped to rescue Jews from the Holocaust. In large cities, such as Warsaw, most of the population was indifferent, a minority helped, and another minority was hostile and preyed on Jews or denounced them to the Nazi occupiers. But in many villages and small towns, most of the population was often hostile to the Jews. Thus, there were extraordinary rescues, but there were also betrayals, denunciations, and horrific murders. The exact or even approximate numbers of the perished, rescued, rescuers, indifferent bystanders, and murderers are unknown and subject to frequently acrimonious debate among historians.
There is no doubt that Poles could not have saved over three million Polish Jews killed by the Nazis—large-scale help by Poles was out of the question, short of a general uprising, which would have been suicide for all. The Germans were at their greatest power, and the Poles themselves were defeated on the battlefield, terrorized, hunted, and subjugated, and could not prevent the Nazis from murdering nearly three million ethnic Poles. Moreover, there was no help from the Western Allies, and even they could not “have done much more to impede the killing [of Jews].” 
But could greater help by the Poles have resulted in saving more Jewish lives? Definitely yes, and it is tragic and disgraceful that such help was not offered. “More courage to help on the part of non-Jews would have produced more survivors” —estimates range from forty thousand to one hundred-sixty thousand, or more (see the book’s Postface for details). This is a horrifying number of lost lives, and Polish society must come to terms with this tragic aspect of its history. However, one hundred thousand wantonly lost Jewish lives is still less than 3% of the over three million Polish Jews murdered by the Nazis.
But whether the numbers are larger or smaller does not change the tragedy and the burden of moral responsibility. Polish historian Jerzy Jedlicki wrote, “If there had been only the Gestapo, how much easier it would have been to survive in hiding and count on a network of human solidarity. … What [was the] nationwide balance sheet? Heroism or baseness? … There is no way to subtract one from the other or offset one with the other. … We will bear responsibility for what we make of our past, for how we reconcile its glory and its shame.”
There is no doubt that the Nazis were responsible for the Holocaust. [4-6] But the debate has been ongoing for decades on the role of Polish people in the Holocaust and the extent of their help to rescue Jews and atrocities against Jews. Unfortunately, the politicization of this often acrimonious debate and its antagonistic atmosphere are not conducive to a sincere and open exchange of views and an objective determination of the truth.
Doris Bergen analyzed Polish-Jewish relations in the Holocaust and compared three prevailing positions: “Poles as arch-antisemites” participating in the Holocaust; “Poles as equal victims” (as similar numbers of Polish Jews and ethnic Poles perished in WWII); and “unequal victims” (as about 10% of ethnic Poles compared with 90% of Polish Jews perished in WWII). Bergan concluded that such a “competition in suffering” is not morally valid in face of this unprecedented genocide and human suffering.  Another historian, Peter Hayes, also called “for understanding and for suspending mutual blaming and competing claims to having suffered worst.” 
For Jews, the Holocaust created deep wounds that will never heal. Joseph Lichten, a Holocaust survivor who lost his entire family, wrote: “I do not intend to get involved in statistical games. The value of Jewish lives and the heroism of the many who saved them cannot be evaluated by figures alone; … that [the rescuers] form a small minority … makes their efforts more significant, more courageous, more humanitarian. … But it is hard not to remember the millions who were indifferent. … We know that they could have been executed for giving help; we know that it is difficult to transform ordinary men into heroes. We are willing to be rational … but our hearts object.”  The exact numbers are important for accurate historical records, but the enormous moral tragedy of WWII and the Holocaust is more important.
In my book’s Postface, I explain without whitewashing or exaggerating Polish-Jewish relationships, Polish help, and Polish atrocities on Jews during WWII, and present various points of view, common ground, and possible reconciliation of the opposing points of view.
Excerpt: “Working for the Enemy” and “Blackmail”
We present here excerpts from Chapter 12, “Working for the Enemy,” and Chapter 13, “Blackmail.” The narrator (the Polish woman Zofia Sterner), her Jewish husband Wacek, and their family are involved in the underground resistance to the Nazi occupation and have also set up an elaborate operation to rescue Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. As a mixed marriage, the Nazi regime classified both of them and their daughter as Jewish and ordered them to live in the ghetto, where they would eventually face extermination. Zofia and Wacek did not comply with this order and did not live in the ghetto. But they faced constant danger—a triple threat—as runaways from the ghetto, resistance workers, and rescuers of Jews, all punishable by death. And now, in this excerpt, they grapple with the request to work for the occupying Germans.
… [A] letter arrives from the German Schmidt-Münstermann engineering firm in Warsaw addressed to Wacek, under his real name, Sterner. I am terrified simply at the sight of the letter. How do they know that Wacek, under his real name, is still living here? Wacek opens the envelope. The letter asks him to visit the company office to discuss an employment opportunity. Is it a trap? Do they want him to go so they can hand him over to the Gestapo as a Jew living outside the ghetto? But Wacek argues they could just notify the Gestapo that he is living here, which would simply come in the middle of the night and arrest him and the rest of us. He decides to go the next day.
Wacek is gone almost all day. I wait anxiously and worry more and more with every passing hour. Have they arrested him? At last, he comes back late in the afternoon. The company somehow found out about his prewar civil engineering experience and has offered him a job overseeing the construction of a labor camp and a German uniforms factory in Poniatowa, near Lublin, some 170 kilometers southeast of Warsaw. The German Walter C. Többens uniforms factory, now in the Warsaw Ghetto, will relocate there, together with the fifteen thousand Jews working there.
I am horrified and dumbfounded. Wacek, a Jew who helps Jews to escape from the ghetto, is now to collaborate with the Germans and build a forced labor camp—essentially no different from a concentration camp—to imprison Jews? My heart is pounding. I cannot hold back my tears. What is he to do? Flee and hide? Where?
But Wacek, as usual, is calm and rational. He says that they will build the camp and the factory regardless of whether he helps them. And he says, “If I take the job, I can actually save many people. I will have unlimited access to the Warsaw Ghetto and to the Poniatowa camp. I’ve already talked to my commanders in the underground and my assignment will be to recruit Jews from the Többens factory in the ghetto and from the Poniatowa camp for the resistance and help them escape. I can also provide the Polish resistance with information about the camp and the factory that could aid in sabotage and rescue actions. It is beneficial for us to infiltrate a German company; we will know what they are doing and what their plans are. If I don’t take the job, someone else who takes it may not help the resistance and may not help the Jews.” And then he adds, “Besides, working for a German company will be the safest work for me, because the Gestapo does not bother people working for the Germans and surely will not suspect that a Jew is working for a German company. I will not have to hide and live on false papers anymore.”
Wacek’s logic and sense of purpose calm me down and we decide he will take the job. He travels to Poniatowa a lot, spending more than half of his time there. They clear the forest and build roads, bridges, barracks, and the factory. He also finds a position for Tadeusz—supervising the workers in Poniatowa. Our living conditions improve, as he has a better income and larger food rations, as does Tadeusz. Also, Niusia recovers quickly after her surgery and is back to seeing patients.
We continue helping Jews to escape from the Warsaw Ghetto through the court and finance building on Leszno Street as much as we can. But Wacek now has a new way to help Jews in the ghetto. Working for Schmidt- Münstermann, Wacek often oversees Jewish workers in Warsaw, who leave the ghetto during the day to work on various construction projects on the Polish side. These Jewish workers often smuggle out various items, such as clothing and shoes, which they want to sell or exchange for food. Wacek and I take these items from them; I sell them and then deliver money or food. We also help Jewish workers to pass letters and messages to their family and friends on the Polish side. This is especially important for those who want to find safe places to stay on the Polish side before they escape. And then, if some Jewish workers want to escape from the ghetto, Wacek also helps them slip away from the worksite. …
In the summer of 1943, Wacek comes back from Poniatowa distressed, which is quite unusual for him. My heart is already beating faster. He tells me that Obergruppenführer Odilo Globočnik inspected the Poniatowa camp. Finding that prisoner discipline is lax and their living conditions relatively comfortable, he ordered the camp commandant, Gottlieb Hering, to drastically tighten security and implement a harsher regime. It will be very difficult now to help the prisoners. In addition, Wacek thinks the Germans suspect his involvement with the Polish resistance. I immediately know that this is punishable by torture and death in the Pawiak prison. He needs to leave Poniatowa and disappear.
The next day, Wacek goes to the company headquarters in Warsaw and meets with the owner, Heinrich Münstermann—a fat, forty-year-old man in a civilian suit, who sits behind a desk in a richly furnished office. Wacek asks him to terminate his employment, but Münstermann becomes visibly upset and refuses because the company needs him at the camp. Wacek expected a negative answer, so he has prepared a story that he hopes will convince the owner to release him. There are many partisans in the forest in the Poniatowa area, and they target not only the Germans but also Polish collaborators. Wacek has written himself a fake death threat from the partisans and shows it to Münstermann. He says that he doesn’t feel safe anymore and must find a position elsewhere.
However, Münstermann is not persuaded by this argument and tells Wacek that he has received several death threats from the Polish resistance, too, and that they mean nothing. He says that the Gestapo will protect Wacek, and that he has nothing to worry about. Wacek has to agree, takes all his work orders and new construction plans, and pretends to set out for Poniatowa. But instead, he goes into hiding and moves into his friend Leszek Gryczyński’s apartment on Królewska Street in Warsaw. He stays there secretly, very much like Edek Kosman in his wife’s apartment. In the meantime, Wacek’s brother- in-law, Tadeusz, who is still working for Münstermann in Poniatowa, calls company headquarters in Warsaw. He tells them that Wacek left Warsaw two days ago, but did not make it to Poniatowa, and that the partisans have probably killed him.
The same day, I receive a phone call from Münstermann’s office asking what has happened. I tell them that Wacek left two days ago and that I have not heard from him since. They order me to come for immediate interrogation. I am terrified. All I can think of are Wacek’s stories about his employer’s cruelty and ruthlessness. …
I have no choice. I take my two-year-old Basia with me and, trembling, enter the building at 5 Prusa Street. To my surprise, I am led not to the Münstermann’s office, but to his partner Schmidt’s office. I must act like a new widow—and it’s actually very easy. I shake and cry so profusely that my face is swollen because I am truly frightened and worried about what will happen to us. I tell Schmidt, through an interpreter, that Wacek showed them the death threat and that Münstermann insisted on him continuing at the camp. I add that Wacek has probably been caught and killed by the partisans because he wasn’t allowed to leave.
The next day, I get a phone call from Münstermann’s office. He is furious that Wacek’s death is likely not real; he is looking for Wacek everywhere. He has even been to two transit detention camps near Radom, where people rounded up in łapankas are held. They make threats: to force Wacek to show up, they will take me and Basia as hostages. I am completely terrified. I have heard stories of the Gestapo torturing children in front of their parents in the Pawiak prison. For the first time in my life, I do not know what to do and how to protect my little Basia. Everyone is advising me to go away somewhere with her and hide. But this would mean admitting they are right that we staged Wacek’s death. Besides, I have no place to hide undetected with a small child. Even Wacek is having doubts about the wisdom of staging his own death, and we frantically look for a way out of the situation.
Finally, he finds a contact in one of the Polish resistance organizations, who works as a driver for Münstermann and Schmidt. The man goes and talks to Schmidt. I do not know what the driver told him, but Schmidt asks me to come to his apartment. With much trepidation and, again, crying desperately, I enter the apartment. But I am pleasantly surprised when he and his wife welcome me with an elegant dinner. They both speak good Polish, are very polite, and tell me I should not worry. Schmidt tells me he will make my problem go away, and then adds, “After the war, when all the dust settles, Wacek will surely come back.”
I go back home puzzled, but relieved, and immediately call Wacek. Why is Schmidt sympathetic to me? Maybe he is just a decent man who understands what a terrible situation Poles have found themselves in through no fault of their own… Or maybe he is afraid of retaliation by the Polish resistance… Or maybe both… Weeks later, the driver tells me that he overheard Schmidt telling Münstermann: “If you don’t leave Sterner’s wife alone, I’ll go to the Gestapo and tell them about all the illegal dealings that you have with the Jews and all the bribes you take from them. They can check all the money, gold, and diamonds that you are keeping in the safe at work, which you extracted from the Jews. Also, if Sterner is indeed dead, you will gain nothing. But if Sterner is alive and something happens to his wife and daughter, the resistance will surely find a way to put a bullet in both your head and mine.”
 Marek Halter, La force du Bien (Paris: Editions Robert Laffont, S. A., 1995); English version: Stories of Deliverance. Speaking with Men and Women Who Rescued Jews from the Holocaust, trans. Michael Bernard (New York: Carus Publishing Company, 1998), 34-35.
 Peter Hayes, Why? Explaining the Holocaust (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2017), 328.
 Jerzy Jedlicki, “How to Grapple with the Perplexing Legacy, Polityka, 10 February 2001,” in The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland, ed. Antony Polonsky and Joanna B. Michlic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 239-240.
 Ludwik Hirszfeld, The Story of One Life (New York: University of Rochester Press, 2010), 318.
 Eva Hoffman, Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1997), 247.
 Nechama Tec, When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 63.
 Doris L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers and Barnes & Noble, 2007), 118-119.
 Hayes, Why? Explaining the Holocaust, 256-257.
 Joseph L. Lichten, Foreword to He Who Saves One Life: The Complete Documented Story of the Poles Who Struggled to Save Jews during World War Two, Kazimierz Iranek-Osmecki (New York: Crown Publishers, 1971), x.
Roman Dziarski is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University and a biomedical scientist with 150 publications and 14,000 citations. He is passionately interested in the Holocaust, WWII history, and helping persecuted people. Learn more at www.romandziarski.com.
How We Outwitted and Survived the Nazis is available for preorder here or wherever books are sold.
Praise for How We Outwitted and Survived the Nazis
“The story of Zofia Sterner in How We Outwitted and Survived the Nazis reads like a thriller. It is a page-turner. What makes it most unique is that the story is imbedded in the history of Poland under the German-occupation and after liberation without whitewashing the antisemitism that existed, and simultaneously describing the precarious lives of Poles. If Poles and Jews can acknowledge the suffering of each group as Roman Dziarski has accomplished to do, perhaps these groups can transcend the ‘who-suffered-most’ question and work together to teach the history of World War II and its aftermath.”
— from the Foreword by Eva Fogelman, author of Pulitzer Prize-nominated Conscience & Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust
“In the vast literature on the Holocaust, few memoirs are told from the point of view of the rescuers. Roman Dziarski’s reconstruction of the story of a Polish-Jewish couple … stands out for its presentation … The story, punctuated by counterintuitive twists, demonstrates the difficulty of generalizing about Polish-Jewish relations during the Second World War and beyond. This creative retelling … saves this remarkable story from oblivion.”
— Tomasz Frydel, Concordia University
“Dziarski debuts with a dynamic narrative … [and] renders in palpably urgent, first-person, present tense writing the remarkable story of a woman who was driven by her belief that ‘every life was precious’ to save strangers. … It’s a worthy tribute to the extraordinary bravery of a remarkable woman.”