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Nowak Bakery

by Robert Nicholson 11 months ago in family

A small-town tale of survival during a big war

Photo Credit: Victoria Shes @victoriakosmo

Tarnow, Poland, May 1939

Toothbrushes were set to the cobblestone streets as lawyers, bankers, reporters, and the communities elite scrubbed each inch of their towns busiest street. Soldiers prevented the street cleaners from leaving their assigned task. A crowd gathers to watch men in suits scrubbing the street. Initially, there was silence. A German soldier, not more than nineteen years old, walks slowly to a store filled with many fruits and vegetables. He grabs an apple and throws it at an older man who has just stood and asked to use the restroom. The soldiers all start laughing and rushing to grab a fruit. The townspeople start cheering as the community's upper class are pelted with food and then furniture, and finally, the scene grows very dark. Wives try and protect their husbands, and then the soldiers take the wives.

Renowned Polish baker Antoni Nowak watches with a broken heart as his town cheers the German soldiers. Nowak would tell you about the good people in his small Polish town. They are the same faces as those who cheer on the destruction of their Jewish friends and neighbors. You never really know what a man will do when a gun is placed on his neighbor's head. Cheering with the soldiers appeased them and prevented the soldiers from damaging the town further. Nowak grabbed a bread and began offering warm bread to the soldiers to encourage them to pass through. He raced home to tell his wife about the horrors his eyes have seen. There was so much hope for the 1940s, yet now there is so much pain and agony.

Tarnow, Poland, March 1935

Nowak and Ludwika Targowski, married for sixteen years, and their family is blessed with their own bakery and six children (Louis, Anton, Thomas, Roman, Edward, and Agnes. Just a few years ago, Antoni Nowak opened his bakery with the most expansive menu in the small town. Nowak had apprenticed as a boy in Warsaw, Poland, and finally had saved enough money to open his own bakery. Ludwika Nowak helped Antoni tremendously by doing odd jobs and watching over children to cover expenses. Everyone in the town came to see the delicious baked goods; you could find wheat, rye, multigrain, Grahamka, and the most delicious obwazanek krakowski anyone had ever tasted, which would look a lot like a circular pretzel, but it's a delightful Polish treat.

Antoni was known for his delicious loaves of bread and his generosity to the poor and needy. He was known for sharing his leftover bread every day on his walk home. So well-known was he that the poor and needy would line the path Antoni walked every day, ensuring each a morsel of his bread. Most of the town's leaders adored the kindness Antoni showed the poor except the Mayor, Henryk Olszewski, who thought feeding the poor only attracted more beggars to the town.

The tension was mounting between Antoni, the baker, and Mayor Henryk when the Mayor decided he would stop the giving by imposing an additional tax on any loaves of bread unsold at the end of the day. An auditor would be assigned to count the inventory of all bakeries and levy the tax. It would prevent Antoni from making any extra bread to feed the poor. The Mayor had found support for his "bread tax" among other business owners who believed the Mayor was right and the poor were starting to flock to their town. Antoni was visited by many of his friends who purchased more loaves of bread, cakes, and cookies and encouraged him to stay strong despite the Mayor's best attempts to change his ways.

Many others were afraid to visit the Nowak bakery. A Mayor is an influential person and to go against his wishes is to bring great tribulation against yourself. The Mayor told all of his friends not to visit the Nowak bakery, and many listened. One day, the Mayor was not satisfied with the decline of Nowak's bakery. So he stationed a police officer outside to record the names of those who supported the bakery in a small black notebook. Each day the police officer would provide the Nowak bakery's customer names to the Mayor, who passed them along to the auditor for special attention from the tax department. Business for the Nowak bakery was declining to barely anything at all once word spread of the Policeman's list of names.

Ludwika Nowak was a strong woman who felt very comfortable visiting their neighbors' homes and discussing the Mayor's misplaced anger at Antoni. She was enjoying tea and sharing stories with Jan Mateja when Jan asked Ludwika about the homeless people. Who are they? Ludwika had an idea and jumped from the table and ran to the bakery. She threw open the door and found Antoni speaking kind words about the Mayor to a customer she did not know. I know what to do – Ludwika declared. Antoni smiled at his wife's words and finished bagging the customer's obwarzanek krakowski.

Ludwika grabbed a small black notebook and started visiting the poor who lived on the streets begging for food. She spent time speaking with them and listening to their stories. Ludwika occasionally stopped to take notes and, of course, offered small pastries for each person she spoke with. It took several days for her to collect the stories of the people who Antoni was helping and several more to draw them out of the small black notebook, but she did her absolute best. Abraham Kogan was a reporter for the local newspaper, and he was shocked when he received a phone call from Ludwika.

Days before the local government would decide on the fate of the "bread tax," a story was brewing. It was a Tuesday when Abraham Kogan published his article about the poor people who Antoni fed. Fourteen veterans, three single mothers, and every single one of them was born nearby. Not a single one of the people Antoni was helping was a migrant seeking a free ride. In fact, many were war heroes who couldn't work due to injury and had lost their families or faculties. Antoni held his wife close as they read the newspaper's coverage to their six children. Cheers filled the home as Antoni finished reading and kissed his wife. She smiled ear to ear with delight as the story was sure to turn the tide and restore Antoni's businesses to prominence.

The entire Nowak family went to work at the bakery the next day, and it was a good decision because the number of people who stood outside their front door could not be counted. Every time the line grew smaller, more people just showed up. Around noon, there was joy and applause as Abraham Kogan walked into the door. Ludwika screamed and ran to hug him. A single tear ran down Antoni's cheek as he shook Kogan's hand. Kogan's son Benjamin was enjoying every bite of some delicious cookies with the Nowak children. It was a wonderful moment for the Nowak family, and before they were finished enjoying it, the room became suddenly quiet. Mayor Henryk walked into the Nowak bakery and ordered a loaf of rye bread. Antoni sliced it and packaged it for the Mayor with pristine care. Not a single child or person said a word. The Mayor paid for the bread and then asked Antoni to share it with those in need. Everyone broke out in cheers and laughter. After all, the mayor loved his town, and whatever bad idea got in his head that started his battle against the Nowak bakery was finally put behind them all.

Tarnow, Poland August 1942

A spark and the fire jumped from the soldier's hand and glided through the air colliding against the home. The window caught the flame and let the violent intruder shatter its glass. Old cloth curtains felt the heat and quickly allowed the fire to spread through the home. Tiny hands pushed against the door, desperate for freedom. A father slams his shoulders into the door repeatedly while a mother's tears race down her cheeks and then quickly evaporate while her voice screams for help. Soldiers listen outside as the fire does its work. One of the soldiers announces to the crowd that any found harboring Jews will share the same fate as this family.

Antoni Nowak witnessed the soldier's brutality and closed his bakery immediately. He boarded up the windows and took every bit of food he could carry with him. Arriving at home, he saw the Kogan family outside his front door. Ludwika was just letting them inside when Antoni parked the car. Abraham Kogan begged the Nowak family to hide them in their basement. The soldiers were taking every Jewish family and sending them away on trains to these camps. Antoni told everyone the story about their townspeople burned inside their home for harboring Jews. Mrs. Kogan started crying and squeezing her children. Abraham Kogan announced the risk was too great. Antoni objected that there was nothing more important than this risk.

Ludwika immediately declared the cellar as the best temporary home for the Kogan family. She assured them they would have plenty of food and shelter. Without a word from their parents, the Nowak children grabbed blankets, pillows, jars of water and began arranging beds and food for the Kogan family. Abraham thanked the Nowak's for saving his family. Ludwika pointed out that it wasn't long ago that Abraham had saved the Nowak's business from sure disaster. Everyone embraced and got some much-needed rest.

Early the next morning, a man started pounding on the Nowak's door. Antoni walked to the door and opened it to discover Mayor Henryk outside with several German soldiers. Ludwika put on a fresh pot of coffee and invited everyone inside. The Nowak children were suddenly amazed at the German soldier's uniform and took great detail to ask many questions about each detail of the soldier's uniform. If the Kogan's had any doubt about the guests' nature upstairs, the general curiosity or quick thinking of the Nowak children answered every question they had. The Kogan family hid inside trunks, behind walls, and occasionally in the bakery storage room.

Mayor Henryk instructed Antoni that he needed to open the bakery and start feeding the soldiers. The German soldiers explained they needed to search the property. Antoni and Ludwika both agreed to re-open the bakery as the Mayor and soldiers instructed. They really didn't have a choice. The Nowak family cared for and hid the Kogan family for several years and were completely undetected.

Tarnow, Poland, 1967

Ben Kogan had returned to a place he had not been for many years. Walking down the streets of Tarnow, Poland opened a box of memories in his mind that he had closed long ago. Much of the town is filled with new buildings blended with the old that feels very authentic to Tarnow. It's quite pleasant really to see life emerging and change showing on these old roads. Ben's father passed away, and he was returning to sort through some belongings.

After a few days, Ben discovered an old trunk filled with belongings saved from their family's experience in the war. Inside, he found a small black notebook, and when he flipped through the pages, he discovered Ludwika Nowak's writings. He grabbed the notebook and drove quickly to the town to find the Nowak bakery still selling their delicious baked goods. Ben ran inside and asked if Antoni or Ludwika was there. Thomas Nowak told the stranger that his parents had passed away years ago, but he offered help. Ben ran into Thomas's arms and squeezed him as tight as he could. Thomas was shocked. Ben reminded Thomas that his parents saved his family many years ago. Ben pulled out his checkbook and wrote Thomas a check for $20,000 or the entire sum of money the Kogan's received in reparations from the war.


Robert Nicholson

Read next: The Time a WWII Veteran Crashed Into Me at a Liquor Store

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