Grandma Noncia

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    Every tragic period gives birth to exceptional individuals, and one of the most tragic periods in the  human history definetely gave rise to extraordinary heroes, who were quite ordinary man and woman capable of almost super-human fits. This is one of their stories…

    Alfreda Noncia Markowska, in her later years known as “Babcia” Noncia (Grandma Noncia, Noncia being her Roma name) was a Polish-Romani woman who during World War II saved approximately fifty Jewish and Roma children from death in the Holocaust and the Samudaripen genocide.

    Markowska was born in 1926, in a travelling Polska Roma camp in an area around Stanisławów, what was then the Second Polish Republic. In 1939, the German invasion of Poland caught her in Lwów (Lviv), present day Ukraine. After the Soviet Union also invaded Poland her camp moved to the German occupied part of Poland. In 1941 the Germans murdered all the members of her family (65 to 85 people), including her parents and siblings, in a massacre near Biała Podlaska. Alfreda was the only one to survive. On the said day, Noncia, who was about fifteen at the time, left the group to go to work, i.e. to earn some money by reading the hands of peasant women. When she went back, a passer-by warned her to hide because she was in great danger. When she left her hiding she discovered that every member of her tribe had been killed. She spent several days searching the local forests for the mass grave of her family. She made her way to Rozwadów where in 1942, at the age of 16, she married. She and her husband were caught in a street roundup while visiting Stanisławów by Ukrainian police who handed them over to the Germans, but the couple managed to escape. Subsequently, they were forced to move into Roma ghettos in Lublin, Łódź, and Bełżec but they fled these as well and settled back in Rozwadów, where the Germans had organized a labor camp for Roma.

    This episode was written down in the book Nie idź tam, Cyganeczko (Don’t Go There Gypsy) by Polish author Halina Elżbieta Daszkiewicz , so titled because of a remarkable twist of fate and a neighbour’s warning that saved her life, which allowed her to go on to save the lives of others.

    Rescue missions

    In Rozwadów, Alfreda was hired on the railway and managed to obtain a work permit which gave her some protection against further arrests. She became involved in saving Jews and Roma, particularly children, from death at the hands of the Nazis. She would travel to sites of known massacres of Jewish and Roma populations and look for survivors. She made children flee from transports, put them in feather sacks, hid them under wide coloured skirts. She dug small shelters in the woods. At a certain point, her fame had spread and it was the very children who went looking for her. When she could, she returned them to their parents and relatives. Markowska would bring them back to her home, hide them and obtain false documents which protected them from the Germans. She personally saved an estimated 50 children. Noncia risked her life saving the children as death was the punishment for anyone in Poland caught hiding Jews or ethnic minorities. Years later, when asked why she was not afraid to help, Markowska stated that at the time she did not expect to live through the war herself anyway, so fear was not an issue.

    In 1944 the Soviets liberated the area. Because of the policy of the Red Army to forcibly conscript Roma into its ranks, Markowska along with her husband and some of the children she had saved, including some German children who sought to flee Soviet soldiers, fled westward, first into central Poland and then into the so-called “Recovered Territories” in now western Poland.

    Later life

    After the war, the communist authorities of the People’s Republic of Poland initiated a campaign to force the Roma to settle and abandon their traditional lifestyle. As a result, she and her family lived first near Poznań, and after her husband’s death, in Gorzów Wielkopolski.

    For a long time she didn’t speak of her wartime experiences or the children she had saved, only starting to do so when her daughters were grown women and had children of their own.

    It was only when she was nearly 80 years old that Karol Gierliński, whom she had saved when he was just three years old and Edward Dębicki, founder of Poland’s oldest international festival of Roma culture, began to take an interest in Noncia’s stories and set about collating them in order to assemble a case for her to receive an award in recognition of her actions

    In October 2006, Alfreda Markowska was awarded the Commander’s Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta for saving Jewish and Roma children during World War II. At that time, then-President of Poland Lech Kaczyński commended her “for heroism and uncommon bravery, for exceptional merit in saving human lives”. She was the first Polish representative of the Roma nation who received such a high and important state decoration.

    President Lech Kaczyński personally thanked Mrs. Alfreda, expressing his admiration for the extraordinary heroism of the Roma woman, saying:

    (…) If today there is a Jewish nation, including many Jews from our country, as well as a certain number of Poles of Jewish origin who live in Poland today; if there is a Roma nation and a significant part of it, although not as much as in Slovakia or Hungary, lives in Poland, it is because there were people like you. And people like you deserve respect and admiration. And it was for such people that the institution of orders was invented, especially one of the highest decorations in our country, which is the Commander’s Cross with a Star. Back then, saving a life was not punishable by imprisonment or exile. This was punishable by death, and often by martyrdom. Thank you very much.”

    Obvious parallels with the well-recognised figure Irena Sendler – who helped save 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto by hiding them within Polish families, in orphanages and monasteries – have led to frequent comparisons between her and Sendler as well as the acceptance of the commonly used title for Noncia as the ‘Romani Irena Sendler’.

    Markowska died on 30 January 2021, at the age of 94. Three nations are especially grateful to her for her extraordinary heroism and achievements: the Roma because she saved Roma children and represents this nation with dignity, the Jewish because many of its representatives are still alive thanks to her, and the Polish because it has such an extraordinary citizen.


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