The young Catholic man spirited his Jewish girlfriend out of Auschwitz in 1944, saving her life. Yet it took 39 years for them to see each other again.
Jerzy Bielecki, a German-speaking Polish inmate at the same Nazi death camp, lived to age 90 and died peacefully in his sleep Thursday at his home in Nowy Targ in southern Poland, his daughter, Alicja Januchowski said Saturday.
Januchowski, a New Yorker, spoke to The Associated Press from Nowy Targ, where she had been with her ailing father.
The Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem awarded Bielecki the Righteous Among the Nations title in 1985 for saving the girlfriend, Cyla Cybulska. It all happened in July 1944, when the 23-year-old Bielecki used his relatively privileged position in Auschwitz to orchestrate a daring escape for both of them.
Bielecki was 19 when the Germans seized him on the false suspicion he was a resistance fighter, and brought him to Auschwitz in April 1940 in the first transport of inmates, all Poles. He was given number 243.
Cybulska, her parents, two brothers and a younger sister were rounded up in January 1943 in the Lomza ghetto in northern Poland and taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her parents and sister were immediately killed in the gas chambers, but she and her brothers were sent to work.
By September, 22-year-old Cybulska was the only one left alive, with inmate number 29558 tattooed on her left forearm.
They met and their love blossomed, making Bielecki determined to find a way to escape.
From a fellow Polish inmate working at a uniform warehouse, Bielecki secretly got a complete SS uniform and a pass. Then dressed as SS officer, he pretended he was taking a Jewish inmate out of the camp for interrogation. He led Cybulska to a side gate, where a sleepy SS-man let them go through.
The fear of being gunned down himself reverberated through his first steps of freedom.
"I felt pain in my backbone, where I was expecting to be shot," Bielecki told the AP in an interview in 2010.
For more than a week they hid in the fields during the day and marched during the night, until they reached the house of Bielecki's uncle. There, they were separated, as the family wanted Bielecki back home in Krakow, and Cybulska was sent to hide with a farm family.
They failed to meet back up after the war.
Bielecki stayed in Poland and settled in Nowy Targ, where he raised a family and worked as the director of a school for bus and car mechanics. Cybulska married a Jewish man, David Zacharowitz, with whom she went to Sweden and then to New York.
Sheer chance allowed them to meet again. While talking with her Polish cleaning woman in 1982, Cybulska related her Auschwitz escape story.
The woman, stunned, said she had heard Bielecki tell the same story on Polish TV. She then helped Cybulska find Bielecki in Poland.
In the summer of 1983, they met at the Krakow airport. He brought 39 red roses, one for each year they had spent apart.
Cybulska died in New York in 2002.
Bielecki is survived by his wife, two daughters, four grandchildren and a great-grandson. A Catholic funeral Mass and burial are to be held in Nowy Targ on Monday.
"He did not think he was a hero, but he was. He will be missed," said Stanlee Stahl, a vice president at the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.