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The Tragic End of Polish Movie Star — and Nazi Resistance Fighter — Witold Zacharewicz

In the years before World War II, Zacharewicz shined at Cannes and was wooed by Samuel Goldwyn but when the Nazis occupied Poland, he was sent to Auschwitz for defending his Jewish countrymen: "For him, the choice was easy."

Over 1,100,000 people were murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz. The vast majority of them were Jews, but 100,000 were not: Soviet prisoners of war, Romani nomads and Poles deemed a threat to the Third Reich also met their end in the notorious concentration camp. Witold Zacharewicz — a rising star of Polish cinema, famous throughout Europe — was one of them. One year before Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, triggering World War II, Zacharewicz had received an offer from Samuel Goldwyn, who’d summoned him to Hollywood to star in a string of features for United Artists. He signed the contract — what should have been the career break of a lifetime.

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Zacharewicz’s young bride, Halina, and their toddler son, Kiejstut, survived the war. Halina died in 2009 at 89; her son died at 79 in February 2020 after a long battle with cancer. But Kiejstut had a daughter. Zuzanna Zacharewicz, 48, is Witold’s only living descendant. She resembles her grandfather — particularly in his nose and eyes. She lives in Warsaw, where she works a government job and regularly visits his grave in the city’s largest cemetery. (It’s a symbolic grave, as Witold’s body, like so many millions, was never recovered from the Nazi camps.) There she lays fresh flowers and sends loving thoughts to the movie-star grandpa she never met.

“There was a film of his, [1936’s] Barbara Radziwillówna (Love or a Kingdom), that was shown in Cannes,” explains Zuzanna of her grandfather’s discovery by Hollywood. “Someone from Paramount Pictures must have been there, because the film was dubbed into English [and got U.S. distribution].” The movie tells the story of how Poland’s 16th century King Zygmunt II August (played by Zacharewicz) fell deeply in love with a beautiful commoner (Jadwiga Smosarska, then Poland’s biggest female movie star) — like a bygone Meghan and Harry. The Hollywood Reporter did not cover it, but Variety raved in its Dec. 9, 1937, review, “Witold Zacharewicz swashbuckles his way through the characterization of August.” Notes Zuzanna, “He acted beautifully in the film. And from there Hollywood started talking about him. He spoke English fluently, so they just liked him.”

Barbara Radziwillówna was already the sixth film credit for Zacharewicz, who was just 22. He would star in another six between 1936 and 1938 — an amazing trajectory for a poor kid from Plock, a town 70 miles west of Warsaw.

Zacharewicz was born on Aug. 26, 1914. At 5, his parents divorced and his mother, Wanda, raised him alone. After graduating high school in 1932, he enrolled in Polish studies at the University of Warsaw and took classes at the State Institute of Theater Arts. By 1933, he was performing in theater. His first credit was as an extra, in a choir scene in the 1933 World War I drama Pod Twoja Obrone (Under Your Protection).

His striking presence — 6-foot-2 with wavy black hair and piercing blue eyes — drew the attention of Józef Lejtes, a Jewish writer-director now widely considered Poland’s most influential prewar filmmaker. (Lejtes survived the Holocaust by fleeing on foot toward Hungary. He arrived in Budapest 12 weeks later, almost starved to death, and was taken in by a director who recognized him from a brief introduction years before at Cannes. Thanks to that twist of fate, Lejtes — and later his wife and daughter, who were permitted to leave the Warsaw Ghetto to join him, were spared. Lejtes died in Santa Monica in 1983 after decades working as a TV director on such shows as Bonanza and Marcus Welby, M.D.)

Lejtes was foremost a patriot and made films celebrating Polish identity. He cast Zacharewicz in 1934’s Mlody Las (Young Forest) as a turn-of-the-century Polish student opposing the rule of Imperial Russia. It won him his first acting award — at the 1935 Soviet Film Festival in Moscow, where the judges declared him a “pure cinema actor.” Zacharewicz and Lejtes would collaborate again on 1936’s Róza: Set against the Russian revolution, it featured a bearded Zacharewicz playing — in an ominous foreshadowing of events — a Polish freedom fighter betrayed by a confidant and thrown in prison.

Halina Schneidrówn, at the time a shy beautiful teenager, had been enamored with Zacharewicz since seeing Mlody Las. To her surprise, she was told by her mother that the handsome matinee idol was a good friend of her Uncle Janusz. One summer’s day in 1936, Janusz paid Halina, then 15, a visit with Zacharewicz, then 21, tagging along. “He had stubble,” Halina once told Zuzanna, which her granddaughter transcribed for posterity. “He was growing a beard for Róza. I had a gray-and-blue plaid dress with a white collar. My hair was in two braids and pinned at the back of my head in a figure eight. Since I had, unfortunately, not very even teeth, I was ashamed and pressed my lips together when I smiled.”

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Halina Zacharewicz and her toddler son, Kiejstut, before Witold’s arrest by the Nazis. Courtesy of Subject

Thus began a courtship that lasted several years. Witold and Halina would take in a movie or a play or an auto race. It was at one of the latter that Witold confessed to Halina how taken he was with her aquiline nose. “If I ever marry, it would be with a woman with such a nose,” he said. A few months later, he accompanied her to a society ball. “Witold and Uncle Janusz were the only ones in tailcoats,” Halina later remembered. “Witold played the piano and sang. He watched me dancing with friends. Then, when we went out on the terrace for air, he said, ‘I love you.’ ” Their first kiss happened at her grandmother’s house by the sea: “Witold felt thirsty and asked for a glass of milk. Then I went to my room, straightened my hair and powdered my nose — a stalling tactic. Witold followed me, hugged me and kissed me for the first time on my pursed lips. I closed my eyes, then opened one and peered into the mirror next to me to see what we looked like.”

All of this unfolded as his career began to take flight. Released back-to-back in 1936, Róza and Barbara Radziwillówna established Zacharewicz as a bona fide star and sex symbol in Poland and beyond. Coming off its buzz at Cannes, Barbara Radziwillówna earned an honorable mention at the fifth Venice International Film Festival in 1937. By 1938, Hollywood had taken notice of the debonair talent who could do it all — romance, drama, comedy.

“In order to give Mr. Goldwyn the best impression,” wrote a Samuel Goldwyn Inc. executive on Feb. 11, 1938, “it would be great if you could supplement the [screen] test with approximately 200 feet [of footage], in which you are shown in modern clothes, without a beard, and in which you are speaking the English language.” What Goldwyn saw impressed him enough to offer Zacharewicz a contract at United Artists.

But nothing — not even Hollywood stardom — could get Zacharewicz out of a yearlong mandatory military service in the Polish army. And so on Sept. 1, 1938, one year before Germany would invade, he reported for active duty. “It was a year of training,” says Zuzanna. “And by the time he finished his tour of duty in the army, the war had started.”

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A snapshot of Zacharewicz taken during his tour of duty in 1938. Courtesy of Subject

On Sept. 17, the Soviets invaded. United Artists offered to intervene and try to bring Zacharewicz from Poland to the U.S., but he declined. “For him, the choice was obvious to stay there and defend Poland along with all his friends and countrymen,” his granddaughter says. “So he actually said, ‘No, thank you,’ to Hollywood.”

Zacharewicz joined the Masovian Cavalry Brigade and engaged in battle with Nazi forces. A lieutenant kept detailed records of the unit’s movements. “Sept. 5, 1939: We stop at 7 a.m. in Ztor. Immediately after checking in, local people recognize Witold Zacharewicz and treat both of us to a delicious breakfast with cocoa. … Sept. 8, 1939: Patrols ran out of cable. I take the wheelbarrow and meet Zacharewicz. Witold still looks handsome, wears a helmet that is bent at the side and never ceases to be an actor.”

Meanwhile, Halina was living with her parents in the Polish countryside, watching in horror as German planes bombed her hometown of Paprotnia. “We witnessed our fighters firing at the German planes over our house and the casings flying onto our heads,” she later recalled. “Soon, refugees from the west of the country began to leave, carrying all their belongings on carts.”

Warsaw fell on Sept. 28, one-third of it destroyed by German bombs. Hundreds were executed in the streets every day or taken to Germany and forced to work in factories. By Oct. 6, the campaign had ended. Germany and the Soviet Union, which in August had signed the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, also known as the Hitler-Stalin pact, divided the country into two zones. The Soviets occupied the east while the Nazis annexed the western part of the country and began harassing Poles. Anyone with a German surname was encouraged to sign the Volkliste, a racial classification system devised by Heinrich Himmler.

Warsaw fell under Nazi rule. Zacharewicz found work there as a waiter, and throughout that harsh winter, Halina would make the 30-mile trek on foot from Paprotnia, crossing checkpoints along the way, to bring him groceries — butter, cold cuts, poultry — that were growing scarce in the city. In February 1938, Halina, then 18, learned she was pregnant and sent a letter to Witold informing him. “I got a permit and on May 4 I left for Warsaw,” she said. “The embrace we gave each other — well, you can just imagine.” They married on May 18, 1940; the baby arrived Sept. 19. “He was proud, radiant,” she said of the new father. “Witold devoted every free moment to him.”

Besides waiting tables, Zacharewicz performed at a Warsaw theater — acting, singing and playing piano. Plays were banned, but lighthearted musical reviews were permitted. The acting community was divided: Many felt that performing such shallow and upbeat material during such a dark time was morally wrong. However, Zacharewicz felt that the performances allowed them to celebrate Polish culture while keeping spirits high.

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A scene from 1936’s Barbara Radziwillówna, in which Witold Zacharewicz played the King of Poland. Courtesy of Polish National Digital Archives

 

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In his breakout role in 1934’s Mlody Las, Zacharewicz played an idealistic Polish student fighting Russian Imperial rule. Courtesy of Polish National Digital Archives

But that was not all he was doing. “After the battles stopped in the winter of ’39 to ’40, men went into the underground” as part of the resistance movement, explains Zuzanna. “They went into cells not bigger than 10 people. You knew only the people in your own cell. That way, if the Germans discovered your cell and arrested you, the other cells remained secure.” Zacharewicz’s cell consisted of himself and his mother, a priest, four municipal officials, the owner of a coal depot and a photographer known as “Mr. K.” The cell was responsible for the creation of false documents for Jews that gave them Catholic identities, which allowed them to move between borders, giving them a chance at survival. Mr. K took the ID photos and prepared the documents.

It was an extraordinarily dangerous undertaking. By late 1940, the Jews of Warsaw — 460,000 of them, 30 percent of the city’s population — had been herded into a walled-off district, the Warsaw Ghetto, measuring 1.3 square miles. By the time the first mass transports to Treblinka death camp began in the summer of 1942, 100,000 Ghetto residents had already succumbed to starvation and disease. If a Pole was found to be hiding a Jew, the Nazi order was that “he was to be killed and all his family and neighbors were to be killed,” says Zuzanna. But such heroic measures were not unique to her grandfather. “It’s a typical story of a man living in the time of the war under German occupation,” she says.

When his theater closed for a two-week summer holiday that August, Witold and Halina traveled with their son to Zakopane, a mountain town near the Slovakian border, for 10 days of escape from the events unfolding around them. “These two weeks were the happiest period of my life,” Halina said. “Alone in nature, we made long trips and picked mushrooms. I dried them and marinated them.” When they returned to Warsaw in mid-September, she smuggled back a hen in a briefcase. Witold spent those final weeks of September performing in a variety show at night and rehearsing for another.

On Oct. 1, 1942, Halina heard a frantic knocking at her door. It was Mr. K’s wife — her face ashen, her cheeks stained with tears. She said her husband had been arrested by the Gestapo, as had Witold’s mother. She wasn’t sure about the rest. Later that evening, Halina learned the entire cell had been arrested, Witold included. They were betrayed by a Pole — Halina referred to him as “Attorney Z” — who’d offered to distribute the false documents but was in fact working as a Gestapo informant. When Witold’s mother handed over the documents for inspection, an undercover Gestapo officer accompanying Attorney Z lifted his lapel to display the Nazi insignia underneath. “Get dressed,” he told her. “You will come with us.” (Attorney Z was later found guilty of treason by an underground tribunal and shot dead in the street, according to Zuzanna.)

A friend rushed to the theater to inform Zacharewicz that his mother had been apprehended and the Gestapo was on its way for him. The other actors urged him to flee on foot, but he refused. “He said that they had cars at their disposal, and if they didn’t find him, they would get to his house before him — and what would happen to his wife and son?” Halina recalled many years later to her granddaughter. “He let himself be taken away.”

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Photographs taken of Zacharewicz after being processed at Auschwitz as Prisoner No. 76174. Courtesy of Auschwitz Foundation

The following day, Halina went to the Gestapo detention center at 25 Szucha Ave. with her 2-year-old son in one arm and a warm coat wrapped in brown paper in the other. The official at the desk took the package from her and headed toward a staircase leading to the basement. “I asked him to take my son with him, so that his father could say goodbye,” she recalled. “He replied, ‘No. He might get too upset.’ ” She was then told to leave the building. “As we walked away, I peered into the basement windows, hoping Witold might see us.” (The prison still stands as a monument to the evils of Nazism.)

Frantic to save her husband, Halina was led to a German man who said he could get her husband out for 26,000 zloty (the equivalent of $80,000 today). One friend lent her 10,000 zloty, while the remainder came from family members and the sale of her mother’s jewelry and a valuable painting. The German collected the fee and took off, promising results. They never came.

At some point, Zacharewicz was transferred to the fortress-like Pawiak prison. Several long weeks later, on Nov. 19, 1942, a neighbor knocked on the door and handed Halina a slip of cardboard with a string attached. The neighbor said it had been tossed out of a cattle train and had been discovered by children collecting pieces of coal that had fallen onto the tracks. On one side of the cardboard, it read, “Departure to Oświęcim,” with 10 names listed underneath. On the back was her home address and Witold’s signature. Oświęcim is the town where Auschwitz is located.

Because he was not a Jew earmarked for immediate extermination, precise records were kept of Zacharewicz’s intake. Photos were taken of him in his Auschwitz uniform, his head shaved, his expression ambiguous, his hat cocked to the side — a small gesture of defiance. According to Dr. Wojciech Plosa, head of the archives at the State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, “Mr. Witold Zacharewicz arrived to the camp on Nov. 19, 1942, with the group of 63 other men who were sent to KL Auschwitz from the prison in Warsaw. They were registered in the camp under prisoner numbers from 76117 to 76180.” Had he been a Jew, he would have been sent not to Auschwitz I but to the adjoining Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a high-volume extermination camp outfitted with gas chambers. As Plosa explains, “Victims of the mass-murdering process did not register in any kind of documents after their arrival to Auschwitz.” His mother, Wanda, was sent on a separate transport to a newly constructed women’s barracks at Auschwitz II-Birkenau called Frauenkonzentrationslager, or FKL. Conditions there were so bad, according to survivors, corpses were almost indistinguishable from the still living.

The first letter from Witold was dated Jan. 17, 1943. Halina received it several weeks later. In it, he wrote — in German, the only language allowed in prisoner communications — that he was healthy and eager to receive packages. Relatives of prisoners were told they could send one half-pound package daily to their loved ones, and Halina dutifully shipped parcels of sugar, butter, onions, pasta, fruit and warm clothing to her husband and mother-in-law from the Warsaw post office. (She had no way of knowing that Wanda, fed only a diet of one glass of water and one scrap of bread per day, had already died of exhaustion Jan. 4.)

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A request from Samuel Goldwyn’s office that eventually led to Zacharewicz’s contract with United Artists. Courtesy of Subject

Halina received a second letter dated Jan. 24. The handwriting on this one was different: Only his signature was easily legible. The rest was shaky and hard to make out — “I figured it must have been written either in a fever or by someone else,” she later recalled — but it went on for several paragraphs, speaking of friends he’d made, of concerns for his mother (whose death he had not learned of), of his desire for more parcels and of his overall health, which he insisted was good. What he did not tell her, but which is now known, was that Zacharewicz was being subjected to sadistic torture techniques that included injection with diseases. “I know that my grandfather had four different illnesses in half a year,” says Zuzanna. “They were giving him illnesses like typhus as a kind of torture.” The third and final letter was dated Feb. 14 and postmarked Feb. 16. In that one, Zacharewicz’s handwriting seemed steadier. He spoke of working in a greenhouse and making baskets. He passed the evenings with a group of artists who raised the spirits of other prisoners with songs and recitations.

Halina sent care packages and love letters every day until March 16, when a letter was returned to her marked “addressee unknown.” She took it to the Gestapo headquarters, where she was assigned an interpreter and led to a room filled with filing cabinets on the first floor. There she was asked her name, birth date and place of birth. After a few minutes, a clerk dispassionately informed her, “Your husband is dead. He died of a heart attack on Feb. 16 at 3:12 p.m.” Stunned, she asked about her mother-in-law. They had no information.

Because he refused to cooperate with interrogators, Zacharewicz had been handed a death sentence. The method was lethal injection by phenol directly into the heart. (After experimenting with various solutions, phenol was found by SS doctors to be the most efficient. The use of Zyklon B also was being tested around this time and would be used to kill 1 million Jews in the Auschwitz II gas chambers.) The death typically took 15 minutes, but because phenol was in short supply, Zacharewicz was given a smaller dose than was required.

“Many years later, a man that survived Auschwitz said he remembered his death,” Zuzanna says. “He said my grandfather was dying for several hours, in convulsions, his whole body jumping over two meters from the ground. And it was the end of my grandfather.” He was 29.

***

That Halina and Kiejstut were not also killed by the Nazis is a miracle. Because her husband and mother-in-law were found guilty of forging documents for, but not physically hiding Jews, the family execution policy did not apply. But death hung over them. A few months after her husband’s murder, Halina was visited by police who’d been tipped she was hiding a Jewish woman. She had been renting out a room to a woman — but not a Jew, so the Gestapo moved on.

Halina eventually remarried, to a kind artist. But she never could fully accept that Witold was truly gone. “After the Nazis, we had the Soviet occupation,” says Zuzanna. “Then in 1989 we had a big revolution in Poland. For us, that was the true end of the War. Many Poles who’d feared arrest by the Soviets returned. I remember it as a year of hope for my grandmother, because she really hoped one of them might be Witold. That somehow he’d survived.”

But Zacharewicz never came home — except in moments when she stared at her son, who bore a striking resemblance to his father. Or when she stumbled onto one of his movies on TV. Every time, she lit up, “like a 20-year-old girl falling in love,” Zuzanna says. “I think she was in love with him till the very end.”

This story first appeared in the June 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.