NEW YORK -- Three Jewish sisters who hid under the floorboards of a Catholic family's house during the Nazi takeover of Poland recalled Thursday hearing the death schemes of German soldiers who occupied the home as headquarters.
'They said one Jewish family is left in hiding and we have to find them,' said Sarah Weiner, who appeared with her sisters at a news conference just days before their first reunion with the family that saved them.
'We heard them everyday telling their commanders, 'There are no more Jews in this town and in that town.'
'All the time, we couldn't even sneeze or they would find us,' said Weiner, who was 10 and one of three sisters who with their parents slipped out of a line of Jews behing herded into railway box cars for a journey to Nazi extermination camps.
They were among 4,000 Jewish residents of Nowy Korczyn, a town east of Krakow, called out of their homes by a loudspeaker blaring just before midnight in the spring of 1942.
A fourth sister, Rita, then 15, did not notice her family's escape into a Catholic friend's home and boarded the train headed for Bergen-Belsen camp, where Jews would later die. She survived, however, and now lives just miles from her sisters, all of whom have raised families in the metropolitan area.
On a crisp spring night in 1942, Joseph and Rita Radza and their friends Josef and Stephania Macugowski grabbed shovels and dug a hole under the basement floorboards of the Macugowski's home -- where seven Jews would hide for the next 2 years.
'It was 18-inches high and 5 feet by 7 feet. It was a grave,' said Miriam Oginski, who was 5 when she went into hiding with her family, a cousin and a neighbor's son. 'We could only go on our hands and knees. When one turned on his side, the others would have to do the same.'
With a kerosene lamp used sparingly for light, the family initially passed the hours with Louis Radza occassionally reading in whispers from a Bible.
The Macugowskis, who kept the secret from their children and parents for fear that a soft-spoken mistake could mean death for all, slipped downstairs several times each week with a portion of their rationed bread and to clean out a waste pail.
'Many times we pleaded with them to bring us poison or a gun,' said Zahava Burack, then 9, in an emotion-choked voice. 'They refused and told us, 'As long as we are alive, we will save you.''
An unbearable existance turned worse after two years when the Nazis occupied the town and picked the Macugowski's home as their headquarters. They threw out the young Catholic family, but eventually granted their requests to remain as caretakers -- a plan the Macugowski's knew was the only hope for saving their friends.
'This time they could only come down once or twice a week,' Burack said. 'They watched till all the German's were asleep and then they sneaked down.'
For six months, the Radzas listened to the click of Nazi boots overhead and the radio communiques of rising death Jewish tallies in labor camps they began to realize were extermination centers.
One day the officers said they sought one last Jewish family hidden somewhere in the town. Soon afterward, they radioed back that they had stopped their search because the Radza family had drowned and their bodies were found in the Wista River -- a rumor Josef Macugowski has successfully spread from another town.
'Suddenly one day we heard the signal, a knock on the boards, and they told us, 'The war is over,'' Burack said.
Russian soldiers were liberating the town December 1945 when the Radza family emerged from their shallow shelter, still hunched over in pain and squinting from the now unfamiliar daylight.
The family, reunited with daughter Rita, left Poland to eventually move to the United States with the agreement that they would never reveal their protectors.
After 40 years, the Radza sisters will join for the first time with the Macugowskis when the Polish couple accepts the Righteous Among Nations award from the Jerusalem-based David Yellin Teachers College at a dinner Sunday.