The underground hideout of a famous concentration camp victim who escaped the notorious Treblinka Nazi death camp twice has been uncovered after nearly 75 years.
The secret hideaway was so well hidden in a barn that even the owner Joanna Bak, from the town of Otwock, near the Polish capital city of Warsaw, had no idea it was there and had always believed the man her grandparents rescued had been hidden in the attic.
She made the discovery of the real hiding place as she cleared out the old barn which was set for demolition to make way for a new motorway.
Ms Bak, whose grandparents saved their Jewish friend from the Nazis by hiding him in their home during World War II, found the hiding place after opening up a wooden box.
At the bottom she spotted a wooden flap which she lifted up to reveal a rickety old ladder leading down to a secret underground hideout.
She quickly realised it had been built by her grandparents Sabina and Aleksander Smolak, who hid their Jewish friend Moshe Bajtel from the Germans during WWII.
Mateusz Szpytma, the deputy president of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), said: “It was a real shock for her because the family has always believed that Moshe Bajtel was hidden in the attic.”
Lukasz Kubacki, from the Museum of Polish History in Warsaw, added: “When we found the cover to the hideout it came away in our hands as it was so old. We managed to recover some fragments of the ladder but it had also mostly rotted away.
“The discovery of something like is hugely significant, particularly because of the person who was hidden there.”
To confirm the secret underground compartment was indeed the hiding place of Mr Bajtel, Ms Bak got in touch with his son.
She said: “He confirmed that he had heard about the hiding place from his father but he wasn’t sure where it was.
“Moshe escaped from Treblinka twice. He and his family were sent there from the Otwock ghetto, but he managed to escape from the camp when the electricity in the barbed wire surrounding the camp was switched off briefly.
“Unfortunately, he was caught again and sent back to Treblinka, but he managed to escape from the transport.”
Mr Bajtel, a tailor, had been friendly for years with his neighbour Aleksander Smolak, a blacksmith, who was not Jewish, and he asked him for help after he jumped from the train.
The Smolaks took him in and hid him in the attic of their home, even though they had a six-year-old daughter of their own.
Their house and blacksmith workshop stood near the main road between Warsaw and Lublin and Germans travelling on it would stop there for repairs.
Mr Bajtel hid with the Smolak family for two years until the liberation of the Treblinka camp in the summer of 1944.
Throughout that time, they provided him with food and clothing without requesting anything in return.
Aleksander and Sabina Smolak were recognised as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ by the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in 2004.
Up to 900,000 Jews and 2,000 gypsies were killed by the Nazis at Treblinka between July 1942 and October 1943. Only Auschwitz had a higher death toll.