Choms, Wladyslawa Laryssa (1891–1966)
Choms, Wladyslawa Laryssa (1891–1966)
Polish rescuer who saved the lives of many hundreds of Jews and became known as the "Angel of Lvov" during the Holocaust. Name variations: Angel of Lvov. Born in Poland in 1891; died in 1966; lived before World War II in Drohobycz (Drogobych), Eastern Galicia; married Friedrich Choms; children: one son.
Before World War II, Wladyslawa Choms lived in Drohobycz, a town in a section of Poland that was populated by a mixture of Ukrainians, Poles and Jews. In an atmosphere where ethnic tensions and rivalries were often passionate and disruptive, traditional hatreds and prejudices held no appeal for Choms. In 1927, she was elected head of the municipal social welfare council and became intimately acquainted with the problems of poverty in her town. Contrary to the prevailing prejudices of Poles and Ukrainians, many of the Jews of Drohobycz were not wealthy capitalists; in fact, they were terribly poor. As time went by, Choms became increasingly sympathetic to the economic plight of Jews as well as to their political aspirations. She sympathized with the Zionist students who were often attacked by Ukrainian and Polish anti-Semitic student fraternities armed with clubs, brass knuckles, and sticks sporting razor blades. Although she was Polish and Roman Catholic, many Poles in Drohobycz, particularly those in the violently anti-Semitic National Democratic Party ("Endeks"), regarded her as a traitor and as "the Jews' mother."
Choms' attitudes placed her squarely at odds with the great majority of her fellow Poles, but she had a few friends who quietly supported her beliefs. The likemindedness of her husband Friedrich, a major in the Polish Army, was to be crucial to her later activities. Perhaps even more than his wife, Friedrich Choms felt out of place among his peers, as the spirit of the Polish military in the 1920s and 1930s was, with few exceptions, highly anti-Semitic and intolerantly nationalistic. Unable to abide by the oppressive atmosphere promoted by his fellow officers, Friedrich resigned from the military, a difficult decision in the middle of an economic depression. In 1934, Wladyslawa and her husband visited Palestine and were greatly impressed by the achievements of Zionist pioneers, many of whom had migrated from Poland to build a Jewish state. On their return to Poland, the Choms family, including their small son, settled in the city of Lvov (Lviv; Lemberg), which was similar to Drohobycz in its ethnically mixed population of Poles, Jews and Ukrainians.
With the start of World War II, the Nazi German attack on Poland in September 1939 resulted in the occupation and partitioning of the country. The western and central sections were either annexed to Germany or turned into a colony named the Generalgouvernement. Both Poles and Jews were harshly treated from the outset of the occupation, but the conditions the Jews endured were usually dramatically worse and included the creation of ghetto districts in the major towns and cities. From late September 1939 to late June 1941, Lvov was part of a region newly annexed to the Soviet Union as part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Though conditions here were not easy, Jews did not need to fear because of their religion, since Stalin's goal was the consolidation of his power rather than a complete social transformation. Under these fluid conditions, Wladyslawa Choms could continue her work of amelioration among the Jewish community. The defeat of Poland had radically altered her family life, with both her husband and son fleeing the country to fight the Nazis. Not until after the war would she learn that her husband had survived as a prisoner of war in Germany. Her son escaped to England, but like many other young Polish aviators he lost his life in combat as a pilot in the Royal Air Force in 1941.
The Nazi occupation of Lvov, which began on June 30, 1941, was a tragedy for virtually all of that city's inhabitants but particularly for its Jews. At first, thousands of Jews were massacred in a bloody pogrom carried out by gangs of Ukrainians; soon, however, the terror became systematized, bureaucratic violence carried out by German occupation forces determined to exterminate Jews, Bolshevik sympathizers, and any form of Polish resistance. Under this regime of mass murder, Wladyslawa Choms was both defiant and practical in her resistance. She collected money and jewelry from wealthy Jews, using these resources to create a permanent fund for extending aid to endangered Jewish families and individuals. Building on the friendships and alliances she had nurtured in Lvov over the years, she created a tight circle of Polish women and men who daily risked their lives working together to outwit the Nazi occupiers and save as many Jewish lives as possible.
After the Nazis built a ghetto for Lvov's Jewish population, it became even more difficult for Choms and her circle to assist the increasingly threatened Jews. Bold efforts, nonetheless, continued. Under her leadership, the group smuggled food to those in need, provided them with medical care, and arranged for the procurement of false identity papers and the subsequent movement of Jews from the ghetto to safer locations within the city. On many occasions, entire families were moved, sometimes to areas as far away as Warsaw.
In the spring of 1943, a branch of the national organization Council for Aid to the Jews (Zegota) was created in Lvov with Choms elected chair. As a member of the Democratic Party, she enjoyed the confidence of the various factions within the underground movement—groups, which were often suspicious of each other's motives—and none doubted her sincerity or courage. Within the complex and dangerous efforts to aid Jews, her word was law. Choms' intimate knowledge of Lvov and her superb instincts for conspiratorial work enabled Zegota activities on behalf of the city's Jews to flourish despite German and Ukrainian nationalists who spent almost every waking hour in a search for Jewish men, women and children. As the Germans deported more and more Jews to death camps and the overall situation grew increasingly desperate, Choms and her group responded with every means at their disposal to rescue Jews, particularly children. Jewish infants were given for safekeeping to 60 trusted Polish families, who had volunteered for a task that if discovered could bring the death penalty.
Always aware of the enormous danger her work entailed, Choms periodically changed her name and address, but this did not prevent close calls. With each scrape with disaster, both her immediate collaborators and superiors in the Zegota organization in Warsaw feared she would soon fall prey to the Germans. While masterminding her large and complex assistance network, Choms also personally saved the lives of Klara Chotiner-Lustig and her small child, who appeared on her doorstep, hungry, frightened and exhausted. Choms took them into her own apartment until Klara had regained some strength, then found a safe place for the two at a neighbor's home. Soon forged papers made it possible for mother and child to receive legal food rations. A grateful Klara Chotiner-Lustig then became a member of the Choms group, joining them in the preparation of forged identity documents for other endangered Jews.
Long before the Polish underground central command ordered Choms to leave Lvov in November 1943 for Warsaw, the Jews of that city had come to know her as the "angel of Lvov." Her countless interventions, each of which could have cost her and her co-workers their lives, had resulted in the saving of many hundreds of Jews. In Warsaw, Choms continued her resistance activities and survived the bloodbath of the 1944 uprising that essentially leveled a once beautiful city. After the war, Choms began the painful work of restoring her own life. She left Poland to search for her husband, whom she found in occupied Germany where he had survived Nazism after years as a slave laborer. News of her beloved son's death was a profound blow. In the 1940s, many of her Jewish friends left Poland for Israel, a move Wladyslawa and Friedrich considered before deciding to remain in Europe, at least in part because of Friedrich's fragile health. After his death in France in 1951, she pondered a move to Israel, a step she finally took in 1963. Although she was not Jewish, Choms felt at home in Israel, where many of those whose lives she had saved now lived. A network of friendships made the burdens of growing old and the loss of her husband and son easier to bear.
On May 22, 1963, Wladyslawa Choms received the award of the "Righteous among the Nations" in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where Israel and the Jewish people pay homage to the victims and heroes of the Holocaust. Visitors to Yad Vashem can still see the tree planted in her honor.
Bartoszewski, Wladyslaw, and Zofia Lewin. The Samaritans: Heroes of the Holocaust. Edited by Alexander T. Jordan. NY: Twayne Publishers, 1970.
Bauminger, Arieh L. The Righteous Among the Nations. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1990.
Bronowski, Alexander. They Were Few. Translated by Murray Raveh. NY: Peter Lang, 1991.
Paldiel, Mordecai. "Choms, Wladyslawa (1891–1966)," in Yisrael Gutman, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Vol. 1, pp. 289–290.
Silver, Eric. The Book of the Just: The Unsung Heroes Who Rescued Jews from Hitler. NY: Grove Press, 1992.
John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia