An Actor, an Advocate, and an Ally

The Fellowship  |  December 18, 2019

Polish actor, director, theatre president, & teacher, Aleksander Zelwerowicz
Aleksander Zelwerowicz playing Figaro

If tragedy were to strike today, it’s hard to imagine those in the limelight — the millionaire actors in the Hollywood Hills, the fake nobodies on reality television, the frothing-at-the-mouth talking heads on cable news — standing up for what is right, much less doing what is right. Such was not the case with the celebrity we’ll learn about today.

Aleksander Zelwerowicz was a Polish actor. He had acted in films in Poland since the earliest days of the silent movies, beginning in 1913. While appearing in films all the way up until Nazi Germany invaded Poland, Zelwerowicz also starred on the stage, directed, and taught acting in Warsaw. And it was in Warsaw that Aleksander would play his greatest role when the Nazis came.

Living in the city with his adult daughter Helena, Aleksander was surprised by a visitor in August of 1942. It was one of his daughter’s friends, a woman also named Helena, and her eleven-year-old daughter Hania Caspari. The two were Jewish and had managed to escape the Warsaw Ghetto, where the city’s Jews were being held until they could be deported to extermination camps. Little did the Caspari family know, but Aleksander and Helena were already harboring another Jewish girl named Miriam.

Despite the danger that hiding more Jewish refugees in their small city apartment posed, father and daughter did what was right and opened their doors to Helena and Hania. After some time, Aleksander’s daughter found a convent outside the city willing to hide the three Jews in a much safer place. But even after this, there were times when the family would hide Miriam until the war ended, as well as yet another Jew named David Epstein who found shelter in the Zelwerowicz apartment.

Once the war ended, Helena, Hania, and Miriam all made aliyah (immigrated) to Israel. But they never forgot what the famous actor and his daughter had done for them, and neither did Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, who named Aleksander and Helena Zelwerowicz Righteous Gentiles in 1977, a finer award than any Oscar, Emmy, or Tony could ever be.

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