Photo Credit: Courtesy

This is the story of a widely known and admired tree in Poland and the lives that it saved.

On an autumn day, around the year 1350, an acorn drops to the ground in Wisniowa, a town in southeastern Poland. Over time, it develops into a magnificent, majestic oak tree, named Oak Josef. This tree has long been a symbol of Polish pride, so that a replica of the tree is engraved on the Polish 100 zloty note.


Local legend has it that during World War II, two Jewish brothers by the name of “Hemi” had escaped from Krakow-Plaszow, a forced labor camp. They survived by hiding in the hollow trunk of  this huge tree. This was reported by a local Catholic woman, Rozalia Roszak, who knew the brothers and knew they had survived. She even knew that one of the men married a woman from nearby (our mom).

In December of 2021, two Jewish Polish scholars – Aleksandra Janus, PhD, an anthropologist, and Natalia Romek, PhD., an architect – contacted my sister Helen and me. This team was researching architectural hideouts – where Jews hid, during the Holocaust. In 2022, their findings were exhibited at Polin, the Warsaw Jewish Holocaust Museum.

How they managed to find us is a story in itself:

The researchers visited Cieszyna, our father’s birthplace, and met with a pair of retired teachers, Mr. and Mrs. Salamon. The couple had researched and published a book about the last 150 years of education in that general area of Poland. The Salamons learned about the local Jewish families of their town and knew of the Denholz family. Their book included a photo of the local school. Furthermore, their research uncovered our father’s and his siblings’ school records. The school was next door to our paternal grandparents’ home. On the opposite side of the street were two of our uncles’ homes as well.

With the aid of Google, Natalia and Aleksandra tracked down my sister, Helen Denholz Schwartz. We all met on Zoom and were asked if our father told us about a tree they learned about. The only story I recall about his experiences hiding during the Holocaust was that he and his brother once climbed a tree. When a Nazi soldier pointed his rifle at my father, ready to shoot, my Uncle Paul suddenly shouted, “Shoot and you are also dead!”

Fortunately, and miraculously, the soldier backed away and left. I recently learned that a hundred yards from that tree is a large manor house that was taken over by the Nazis during the war.

What courage it took for them to have hidden so close by.

How did the “Hemi” brothers fit in? My grandfather’s name was Nechemia, but he was called Chemia. The Polish people could not pronounce the “ch” and so they called the brothers “Hemi.”

“During WWII in occupied Poland, about 50,000 Jews survived outside of the ghettos.

Some of them passed themselves off as Poles with forged documents. But many others had to hide to survive, often using a variety of hiding places. Some hiding places were used for just a few hours or days; others were inhabited for years.”

(Stewart Dowell, The First News, Polish Press Agency, April 1, 2022)


The Salamons were able to share amazing stories about these brave brothers. This corroborated the stories our father had told us. The local people were stunned at the brothers’ attachment to each other. Once, our Uncle Paul had an extremely high fever. In his delirious state, he ran towards the Nazis, but my father lifted him onto his shoulders and carried him back to safety. Paul’s hair turned  white overnight  from fright! Then my father left him with a farmer and went, on foot, to a nearby town to get him medicine. It was very risky for a Jew to travel, especially in the extremely harsh winter, but our father miraculously managed to return with medicine, and Paul recovered.

Another time, a local farmer saw my father walking through a field in broad daylight.

The farmer told him, “Quickly go and hide or they will kill you!” But my father kept walking replying, “I can’t hide all the time!” The people were so impressed with his indomitable courage. (Note: My mother said, in her “Shoah” interview, that while in hiding, she never went outdoors in daylight; she only walked from place to place at night. She trudged several times back to her parents’ home to get clothing to give to the people who were hiding her.)

It took tremendous courage, street smarts and mazel to survive. The author’s father and uncle remained committed to each other throughout their lives.

My father and his brother Paul survived inside a hollow tree, in the extremely cold Polish winter. How? The answer is that a tree’s bark is full of air spaces enabling the interior of the tree to preserve heat. Even if the tree trunk becomes hollowed out, the tree remains intact and strong. Being hollow does not mean it is dead. These characteristics of trees amazingly enabled my father and uncle to survive inside this enormous tree, named Oak Josef.

Romik and Janus used an endoscope and laser scanner to map out their hideout. There are a dozen or so wooden beams with metal brackets within the trunk, which the Chemi brothers used to climb in and out. On the left there is a wooden plank and on the right a metal bar wedged into the trunk at the top entrance. The interior design of the oak was ideally suited for hiding:

The hollow trunk included two levels, each with its own orifice resulting from  a sawn-off branch; the lower one served as a hideout, the upper as a lookout. Due to the history of this tree, in 2017 it earned the distinction of European Tree of the Year.

All these events happened so long ago, and it is remarkable for us to discover them now. Coincidentally, my maiden and married names include “holz,” which means wood. After learning my father’s accurate birth date from his school records, I realized he was born on Tu B’Shvat!

My father and uncle remained  committed to each other  throughout their lives.  It took tremendous courage, street smarts and mazel to survive.

My sister and I will never look at a tree again without the awe and respect these experiences have had on us. The words “Etz Chaim” have taken on a deeper meaning for us.

Recently, Helen and I dedicated a sefer Torah in memory of our loved ones, those that we lived with and cared for, as well as for the grandparents we never knew.


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