Life: March 28, 1921 - October 20, 2011
Why you should know him: Jerzy Bielecki was a Polish Gentile who was one of the few - along with his Jewish girlfriend - to escape Auschwitz concentration camp.
Born in Slaboszow, Poland, Jerzy Bielecki was a student when World War II broke out. Intent on joining the Polish Army after the Nazis took over his country, Jerzy attempted to flee Poland and join up with the army in France. However, he was caught by the Nazis as he crossed the border into Hungary. Sent to the newly opened Auschwitz concentration camp in the first trainload of Polish prisoners, Jerzy was tattooed with number 243.
Jerzy knew German, which allowed him to work various jobs at Auschwitz, including at a grain warehouse. There, he met a young Jewish girl named Cyla Cybulska, who had been deported from the ghetto in Zambrow and whose job was to repair burlap feed bags. Jerzy and Cyla became friends and soon fell in love, despite the Nazi orders that men and women not speak to each other. Learning that Cyla's family had all been murdered upon their arrival at Auschwitz, Jerzy promised her that they would both survive.
Dressed in an SS uniform pieced together by a fellow prisoner and carrying a stolen pass, Jerzy arrived at Cyla's barracks on July 21, 1944. He called out her prisoner number (29558), took her by the arm, and marched the Jewish girl through the death camp's gates.
For ten days, the two walked through forests and fields, mostly under the cover of night. Their food ran out, and Cyla, already weakened by her time at Auschwitz, urged Jerzy to leave her and save himself. Jerzy refused to leave her, even carrying her on his shoulders when he could. At last, they reached the village where Jerzy's mother and uncle lived. Soon, friends of the family took Cyla in as if she were their own daughter. Jerzy joined the Polish Home Army, and the two planned to meet up after the war.
When the Soviets liberated Poland, Jerzy headed back to meet Cyla - he would miss her by four days. Cyla's area had been liberated first, and informed that Jerzy had been killed, she left, heartbroken. On a train to Warsaw, she met a Jewish man who would become her husband. They moved to Sweden and then the United States.
Jerzy, too, heard that Cyla had died. And he, too, started a family. He was director of a school for auto mechanics and also helped found the Christian Association of the Auschwitz Families.
Living in New York in 1983, a widowed Cyla learned that the boy who had saved her nearly four decades before was still alive. The two were reunited once again that year when Cyla visited Poland. Two years later, Jerzy Bielecki was named Righteous Among the Nations, for saving the life of a Jewish girl as the two pulled off one of the most daring escapes from Auschwitz.