Jana Renee Kostanski

Title: Janek - a gentile in the Warsaw Ghetto
Author: Jana Renee Kostanski
Publisher: Self Published
Place of publication: Melbourne
Year of Publication: 1998
Location of Book: Rare Books Collection, Sir Louis Matheson Library, Monash University Clayton Campus
Cities/town/camps: Poland:Warsaw
Note: those cities/towns/camps underlined are those which are most central to the narrative

Janek: A Gentile in the Warsaw Ghetto tells the story of a young Catholic boy’s efforts to protect Jews during the years of German occupation. Pages 1-102 desribe Janek\\\'s efforts in smuggling himself, and supplies, into the Warsaw ghetto, while pages 103-155 portray the hazards of concealing his Jewish step-family outside the ghetto. Pages 156-178 contain the survival story of a boy Janek encountered as well as photographs from the period. Pages 179 -226 deal with the Polish uprising and Janek’s survival in bunkers until the conclusion of the war. Oringinally written late in life in Polish, Jan Kostanski memoirs were translated into English and published privately in Melbourne in 1998.

Jan Kostanski was born in Warsaw in 1925. Although born into a Catholic family, Janek’s mother’s second husband was a Polish Jew, thus granting Janek a new Jewish step-family. In 1940 the Jews of Warsaw, Janek’s step-family among them, were confined to a ghetto. As food was scarce for the ghetto population, Janek began work as a smuggler. Through daring and ingenuity, and where needed, bribes, Janek was part of a network of smugglers who managed to sneak vital supplies into the ghetto. The book provides a fascinating insight into the planning, precautions and risks of the ghetto smugglers. On a number of occasions Janek was badly beaten or narrowly escaped with his life. Furthermore, while most of Warsaw’s non-Jewish population was sheltered from the horrors of German actions against the Jews of the ghetto, Janek witnessed these atrocities first hand. Janek personally witnessed numerous executions and other cruelties. After entering the ghetto after a German round-up Janek discovered the streets strewn with corpses and his adopted grandfather shot dead in his bed.

Janek and his mother had been desperate to get their Jewish family out of the ghetto, but had been unable to do so owing to the lack of accommodation with a suitable hiding place. Eventually an appropriate flat was found and Janek was able to smuggle out and hide three members of his step-family. Concealing Jews was an extremely dangerous venture and Janek’s family was constantly at risk of betrayal by blackmailers and Nazi sympathisers. Janek continued to visit and assist the Jews remaining in the ghetto and had great respect for those who had taken up arms to resist deportation.

When it finally began, Janek participated in the unsuccessful Polish uprising. After their flat was destroyed, Janek and the Jews he was protecting were forced to live in a cellar. While some of Janek’s family left Warsaw when the Germans expelled the city’s population, Janek remained hiding out in bunkers in the rubble. Those hiding in bunkers faced the constant danger of German grenades or bullets, as well as the struggle to find adequate food and water. The residents of the bunker slept during the day and went out at night, using only the light of burning buildings, to find supplies. After discovering weapons and making home-made grenades, Janek and his fellow bunker dwellers were able to defend themselves against small German forces. Despite the difficult and cramped conditions Janek always found a way to find shelter for those in need.

Janek: A Gentile in the Warsaw Ghetto is a captivating and enlightening account of heroism and survival in wartime Warsaw. Events are recalled with clarity and detail, drawing the reader into the rubble strewn streets, bunkers and treacherous alleyways of the occupied Polish capital. The book provides the fascinating perspective of a Catholic teenager who risked everything to rescue Jews.