On September 1, 1939, Stanley Steyer, asleep in Warsaw, was awakened at 5:00am by aerial bombardments. The Nazi invasion of Poland had begun. By the autumn of 1940, the Nazis had forced Warsaw’s Jews into a ghetto, an area of the city for exclusively Jewish residence.
Around that time, Stanley made use of connections to acquire a false set of identity papers. This enabled him, when needed, to pretend he was not Jewish: to “hide in plain sight.” Inside the ghetto, Stanley was known as Stanley Steyer, or by his nickname, “Samek.” Outside the ghetto, on the “Aryan side” of Warsaw, Stanley removed the armband that marked him as Jewish and operated under the name “Stanisław Olgierd Sternikowski.” It was a name that boldly suggested a heritage of the old Polish nobility.
“Hiding in plain sight” required more than a set of identity papers: one had to “pass” as a Pole. This was not easy for Jews whose native language was Yiddish, or who differed from their Polish neighbors in cultural and religious norms. Thanks to Stanley’s particular upbringing, he was able to combine a confident demeanor with beautiful Polish, and mannerisms of the highly educated.
Making use of his false identity, Stanley became involved in the production of ersatz (false) coffee, a substance made primarily from chicory root.
The roles in this enterprise were highly compartmentalized. An underground factory in the Warsaw ghetto, staffed by Jewish workers, produced both the coffee and labels. Jewish policemen were bribed in order to smuggle raw material into the ghetto and to smuggle the finished product out. Stanley would travel throughout Poland, selling orders of coffee to shops and other dealers.
In July 1942, the Nazis initiated mass deportations from the Warsaw ghetto. Around this time Stanley decided to leave the ghetto for good. He was now known exclusively as “Stanisław Sternikowski,” and he lived on the “Aryan side.”
Forced to cut ties from the chicory factory, Stanley organized a similar business on his own, employing 15-18 Polish women in a basement to prepare and pack merchandise. In addition to chicory, the factory distributed vinegar essence, a staple for Polish peasant families. The basement doubled as a hiding place for Jews without identity papers; Stanley often hid friends and family there.
Stanley maintained contacts with members of the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, speaking to them on the phone in code. In 1943, in what would later be known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Jewish resistance rose up against the Nazis. Stanley, using the profits from his business, smuggled weapons into the ghetto.