Cyla Cybulska always regretted losing contact with the man who had helped her escape from Auschwitz during World War II. Believing him dead, the Brooklyn immigrant told her story in 1982 to a Polish cleaner, who recalled hearing a man on Polish TV tell a similar tale. Shortly afterward, the two were reunited in Poland, where Jerzy Bielecki greeted his former lover with 39 roses, one for every year they had spent apart.
Bielecki, a Catholic, was sent to Auschwitz at the age of 19 on the false suspicion of being a resistance fighter, said the Associated Press. Cybulska was later shipped to the camp with her family and thousands of other Polish Jews. Her parents and sister were immediately sent to the gas chambers, but Cybulska was put to work in the same warehouse as Bielecki. “They met, and their love blossomed.”
Bielecki soon began plotting their escape, said The New York Times. He secretly pieced together an SS guard’s uniform, and forged documents allowing him to transport a prisoner to a nearby farm. In July 1944, the pair executed their plan. Having been waved through a checkpoint by a “sleepy guard,” they fled to safety. Bielecki found a hiding place for Cybulska and, “though much in love,” decided to join the Polish underground instead of staying with her. “They would not see each other again for 39 years.”
Bielecki was named a Righteous Gentile by Israel’s Yad Vashem institute in 1985 for saving Cybulska’s life, and the pair remained close friends until her death, in 2005. He often lamented what might have been were it not for the war. “Fate decided for us,” he said. “But I would do the same again.”