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Illinois Holocaust Museum: Polish citizen receives highest Yad Vashem honor

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Look closely at the photo – at the nearly 30 family members of all ages who have gathered to celebrate a wedding – and it positively brims with life.

It speaks of a promising future for the young couple just starting out, but also for the 10 children whose impact on the world has yet to be written.

Among the personal photos that Danuta Renk-Mikulska examined publicly July 23 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, none had more resonance or hit more deeply than this one. Without Renk-Mikulska, now 84, and her parents and siblings, there would have been no wedding, no couple, no children and no family.

Some 70 years after she and her family helped save five Jews persecuted by the Nazis during World War II, Renk-Mikulska received Yad Vashem in Israel’s highest honor and was deemed “Righteous Among the Nations.”

A moving ceremony at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center saw the Polish citizen recounting her family’s experiences with gentle prodding from her grandchildren as enlarged personal and historic photos displayed on an overhead screen.

Her voice soft and sometimes quivering, her emotions sometimes overtaking her, Renk-Mikulska seemed transported by memories now seven decades old, memories still very much a part of her.

“I think if we ever wanted to imagine what it is to be in the presence of pure goodness, you experienced that today,” Museum Executive Director Rick Hirschhaut said after pieces of her story unfolded.

Renk-Mikulska lived on the outskirts of Bilgoraj, Poland in the Lublin district with her siblings, Jadwiga and Jerzy and her parents, Jan and Melania.

Her family had a good relationship with the Jewish townspeople before the war. When Jews became increasing threatened, their lives suddenly placed in great peril, the family willingly took in and cared for Rivka Weinberg and Lila Stern.

Later on, winter conditions became too harsh for Jews to survive outside, and Renk-Mikulska and her family opened their home to brothers Benzion and Chaim Rosen and Perla Kenig.

In the early 40s, such action was taken with great risk. Pols who harbored Jews were threatened with death, but this family never wavered; they created a hiding area on their farm, and managed to circumvent plenty of close calls and tense moments.

“Somehow we survived,” Renk-Mikulska said.

“Knowing the war was a battle of survival, (the family) could have chosen to be bystanders and survived, which was also difficult,” said Paulina Kapuscinska, Consul General of the Republic of Poland in Chicago. “And yet they chose to stand up and accept the risk of death.”

 The State of Israel created the Righteous Among the Nations to honor non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from the Nazis. Nearly 25,000 people from two dozen countries have earned the distinction.

Renk-Mikulska’s name will also be added to the Illinois Holocaust Museum’s Ferro Fountain of the Righteous later in the year. The fountain contains plaques naming courageous non-Jews for their brave actions during the Holocaust.

But the July 23 program was an official ceremony by Yad Vashem, the world’s center for Holocaust research, documentation, education and commemoration. Renk-Mikulska’s parents were honored as Righteous Among the Nations in 1966.

In presenting Renk-Mikulska with this high honor, Roey Gilad, Consul General of Israel to the Midwest, said that she and her family “exposed themselves to risk of the death penalty by the Nazis.”

Agnieszka Kubiak, who publicly interviewed her grandmother with cousin Michael Szubiak for the ceremony, said she hopes she would be brave enough to do the same thing if she had been in that position.

“We’re a family, a normal family, and we have our good and bad times,” she said. “We don’t always get along like anyone else. But our grandmother fills us with pride. When I heard her stories, it gave me this special kind of understanding for her. She never had a childhood.”

Renk-Mikulska quietly shone a light on what life was like for her family and those trying to survive during an unimaginably terrifying time.

To this day, the octogenarian doesn’t like peeling potatoes, she said, because she performed that task so often for 10 people (five from her family and the five in hiding). Her sister, she recalled, had to remove human waste from underground where the Jews hid. Weinberg, she remembered, had to hide in the forest at times to avoid detection.

Rivka Weinberg died two years ago after living a long life, but her daughter, Chany Kotlarsky, attended the ceremony to say thank you to the family. Renk-Mikulska and her family carried on special relationships with those they helped save after the war.

“I didn’t just come today because my mother passed away,” Kotlarsky said. “My siblings, the children in my family, the different generations – they’re all here because of them.”

When five people are saved, many more are really saved because of future generations that would not have existed. That’s what the wedding photo of Rivka Weinberg’s family said so clearly.

The Illinois Holocaust Museum every day teaches how one person can make such a big difference. “That’s really what the message of the Illinois Holocaust Museum is all about – to start early, to begin to recognize the better angels within all of us,” Hirschhaut said. “We have tremendous power as individuals to stand up for what is right and to do what is right and just.”

The visiting family members of Danuta Renk-Mikulska know they don’t need to look far for living proof of such important words.

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