Yad Vashem honour for Auschwitz heroine Maria

Lena Lakomy

THE Polish resistance fighter who saved the life of the longest-serving Auschwitz survivor living in Britain has been posthumously recognised by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Devout Catholic Maria Kotarba saved the life of Lena Lakomy (nee Bankier).

Lena (pictured), of Warsaw, entered Auschwitz in February 8, 1943, with her first husband, who was killed instantly.

Meanwhile, Maria, a poor hill farmer, had been betrayed for her resistance work and sent to Auschwitz as a political prisoner.

Having witnessed the extermination of her Jewish neighbours, she vowed to help any Jew she could.

She became a courier in the camp's resistance movement, working outside the camp growing fruit, flowers and vegetables for the SS.

This way she smuggled fresh fruit and vegetables into the camp. Discovering that Lena was suffering from typhus, she made nutritious vegetable soups for her.

The two became firm friends. Maria managed to transfer Lena to lighter duties after she was set to work by the SS, quarrying gravel by hand.

In January, 1945, the two women joined the "death march" to avoid the approaching Red Army. They arrived separately at Ravensbruck concentration camp.

Maria found Lena nearly dying in the snow. She brought her food and carried her to a barracks.

After the camp was liberated by the Red Army, Maria made her way back to her Polish home.

Lena, meanwhile, met a Polish army officer, Wladyslaw, whom she married in Paris.

Thanks to the British Resettlement Act, the couple and their first child were able to move to Britain. They arrived in 1947 with the princely sum of 60.

Wladyslaw, a lawyer, gained work as a docker in Middlesbrough. But he insisted that his wife forget her past and start a new life in Britain.

James Foucar, Lena's biographer, said: "After the war, Lena received no psychological assistance. There was nobody around with empathy and listening skills.

"Her husband, a Catholic PoW, would not let her talk about it.

"She was suffering from concentration camp syndrome, both psychologically and physically, because of her low-protein diet."

In the 1960s, the couple and their three children moved to London.

Meanwhile, Lena had tried to trace the woman who had saved her life.

After the collapse of Communism, she discovered that Maria had died of cancer in 1956.

Seven years after Wladyslaw died, Lena visited Maria's Polish grave in 1997. She was determined to have her recognised by Yad Vashem - which has now happened, thanks to Mr Foucar.

Despite her poor health, octogenarian Lena is determined to travel to Israel to see Maria's name on Yad Vashem's commemorative wall.

She said: "I have waited so many years for this. It is the least I can do for Maria who treated me as a mother might treat her child.

"She was truly incredible. Her actions were unbelievable."

Lena now lives alone in Finchley and often travels to Manchester to visit her grandson Richard Maton at Manchester University.

The grandmother-of-five said of their achievements: "Their successes help heal my sadness over the loss of my little brothers in the Holocaust."

Last Shabbat, Rabbi Pete Tobias, formerly of Glasgow's New Synagogue and now at Elstree Liberal Synagogue, London, read out a letter he had written to the Iranian president containing Lena's story in response to the Iranian leader's attempt at Holocaust denial.

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