In the Nowy Sącz court under occupation – the memories of Helena Gądek

Anna Żalińska

When German soldiers of the Wehrmacht entered Nowy Sącz on the night of 5 to 6 September 1939, a lot of local offices employed women. When the Germans took over and created the General Government, the office workers automatically became clerks of the German occupational administration. They kept their jobs, but under the new German management. Office work for the Germans during the war was not seen as collaboration. In view of the economic crisis and the work order imposed by the occupant, the position in the administration of the General Government became a way to maintain the material existence of the family and a certain degree of security, not different from any other work (an alternative was going to Germany to work there). The proximity of German co-workers could have been a start of building relationships and subsequent collaboration with the Germans, but it also could have been be an opportunity to help in a broader scope and secretly protect the Polish people of the city.

The attitudes of women working in the administrative service toward the occupant were varied, often diametrically, and the differentiating factors were – as in other situations of choice – the attitude towards the homeland and the degree of the sense of duty toward the nation, the strength of the religious sentiments and sense of morality, the material and family situation, and finally – ones personality. The specific and extreme conditions of the war released people’s predispositions for selfish or noble deeds, ones that were already in there before.

An example of how women working in German offices could have shown invaluable help for their fellow citizens is the case of Maria Fetter “Biedronka” (“Ladybug”) or court clerk Helena Gądek. Maria Fetter worked in the population registration office, from where the Germans obtained the addresses of the people they planned to arrest. “Biedronka” often warned the pursued and their families, which gave them the opportunity to successfully escape and hide[1]. Janina Zagórzycka in her memoirs of the war gives information about the anonymous help of a Polish official from the labor office (Arbeitsampt), that helped destroy her personal files – which allowed the young girl the opportunity to participate in secret education and saved her from being sent to Germany for work[2]. Often, simple actions available to the clerks taken in a fairly safe way, were an effective sabotage of the Germans’ aspirations to destroy the Polish nation. Although it should be remembered that a shadow of suspicion of connections with the underground movement could have ended with arrest and severe punishment.

The Nowy Sącz Branch of the National Archive in Krakow hold interesting memories, written for the local branch of ZBowid in 1979, by a clerk of the Polish Court in Nowy Sącz (in times of peace – the Municipal Court), Helena Gądek[3]. She was Julian Zubek’s half-sister[4] (she took care of his apartment near the end of the war), and she worked closely with his friend Kazimierz Prohaska “Murzyn”, who was the commander of the ZWZ (Union of Armed Struggle) for the city of Nowy Sącz (“Nurt” branch). Zofia typed out various orders for the ZWZ – as a court employee, she could legally use a typewriter; the illegal possession of a typewriter or radio receiver was punished with imprisonment in a concentration camp.

After a major denunciation of the ZWZ, in the summer of 1944, many people with whom she worked, including Kazimierz Prohaska, were arrested and then executed in Zbylitowska Góra. „Murzyn’s” second-in-command – Tadeusz Kołodziej „Sprot” – had to escape. He stayed in hiding in Helena Gądek’s apartment for three weeks. Finally, they joined a unit of the BCh (Peasant Battalions) commanded by “Juhas” and only there Helena was sworn into the ranks. From now on, she received orders from there: The liaison officers would very often come to the Court with my black briefcase and secret messages… So without minding the office hours, I would leave the court building and run to the city to run errands for the underground[5]. Once she was reprimanded for her absence by the court’s president and for repeated absence she lost two weeks of leave. Nobody guessed Helena worked for the underground, but suspiciously frequent visits of the “boys” were finally noticed. Helena then provided the unit with empty witness summon forms. From that moment on, the couriers would come to her with the document (although of course not correctly filled, lacking the file reference, the date of the hearing, etc., to which was also noted by her co-workers, she would also continue receiving president’s negative comments about her absences).

She would often walk to the contact point in Juraszowa on foot. She would bring news from Nowy Sącz and from the court, describe the events happening in the prison yard. Sometimes she would learn beforehand from her private talks with the prosecutor Pisiaczyński, a Ukrainian, when the round-up was planned or who the police were looking for. Requests from the partisans were diverse – as Zofia mentions – often to bring food or clothes. Her relatives would give her pieces of clothing. When this source was exhausted, full of fears, she was forced to go to the craftsmen dormitory at Lwowska Str., where Tadeusz Kołodziej used to live before his escape. She knew that Kołodziej was a wanted person, but she had to use his name when asking his friends who stayed there for his clothes and shoes. Then she delivered the shoes one by one – in fear of being robbed on the way of a pair of almost new, highly sought-after shoes[6].

Communication with prisoners held at Pijarska Str. was possible through the Windows of the court, by gestures or by writing on large pieces of paper – Zofia Gądek recalls. Together with another court employee – Franciszek Kocot, she would coordinate these “window” conversations of prisoners with their families, often with very touching scenes. The court’s president, who caught them in the act, ordered the windows to be covered first, and then for the matt glass to be installed in the windows. Despite the obstacles, Zofia would continue to connect the inmates with their families by opening the window[7]. She was not the only person involved in this. Zofia Rysiówna recalled how her sister Stanisława Rysiówna and Maria Kóskowska, a court employee, on a day before the Zofia was transported to Tarnów, from where she was taken to KL Ravensbrück, hung a cardboard in the court window with a sentence: “Zosia, at 19 today sing Ave Maria.” It was supposed to be a symbolic farewell to the prisoners shot in Biegonice on 21 August 1941[8]

Almost all of Zofia Gądek’s family was involved in underground activities, which certainly also was additional motivation for her. They payed a great price for it, because – as recalled by Zofia – her two brothers-in-law and her brother were caught and sentenced to imprisonment in the concentration camp, where they died. After the war, Zofia received thanks in a form of a a letter from the command of the forest unit with which she cooperated, a poem and a soldier song written about her[9]. Let the next part of these thanks be the lasting memory of women such as her, Polish office workers serving the Homeland under the German occupation


[1] Julian Zubek „Tatar”, Ze wspomnień kuriera, s. 27.

[2] ANKr O/NS, Materiały do dziejów harcerstwa w nowosądeckim, ref. 31/559/34, Janina Zagórzycka, „Promyk” na ziemi sądeckiej, s. 2.

[3] ANKr O/NS, Związek Kombatantów Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej i Byłych Więźniów Politycznych. Zarząd Okręgowy w Nowym Sączu, ref. 31/558/754, Helena Gądek „Ciotka” – więzienie i sąd w Nowym Sączu w czasie okupacji.

[4] One of the six children of Maria Wojciechowska primo voto Lipińska, secundo voto Zubek from her first marriage to Józef Lipiński, see: Piotr Kazana, Przedwojenna działalność sportowa mjr. Juliana Zubka, „Almanach Sądecki” 2016, nr 3/4 (96/97), s. 67.

[5] ANKr O/NS, Związek Kombatantów Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej…, ref. 31/558/754, Helena Gądek „Ciotka” – więzienie i sąd w Nowym Sączu w czasie okupacji, s. 2.

[6] Ibidem, s.2 et seq.

[7] Ibidem.

[8] Zofia Rysiówna, Z przeżyć okupacyjnych, „Rocznik Sądecki” 1968, t. 9, s. 444

[9] ANKr O/NS, Związek Kombatantów Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej…, ref. 31/558/754, Helena Gądek „Ciotka” – więzienie i sąd w Nowym Sączu w czasie okupacji.