An Anniversary Hard To Forget
Forest Hills, N.Y. .. When Walter Kolodziejek, a Polish Catholic survivor of Auschwitz, sees the American flag displayed around his neighborhood, it always evokes a sense of gratitude in his heart.
The 91 year-old resident of Forest Hills was only a teenager when Nazi Germany invaded his native Poland in 1939. It began a reign of terror and brutality that lasted nearly six long and painful years.
In photo on right: Walter Kolodziejek was one of the first Polish prisoners the Germans sent to Auschwitz in 1940. These early inmates had their camp number put on their chest, not their forearm. His was 2254. Photo by Polish American Congress Downstate N.Y.
“I thank God for America and her soldiers who came over to stop this terrible evil Hitler brought to Europe,” he always says.
The Stars and Stripes intensify his sense of gratitude especially when America observes National Flag Day on June 14th. That’s when his thoughts and memories go back to June 14, 1940, the day the Germans opened and began operations at Auschwitz and the day they sent the first transport of 728 Polish prisoners to the concentration camp.
He has valid reason for being haunted by his nightmares about Auschwitz and that specific day in 1940. Although he was not one of the 728 original Poles, he did end up there in one of the next transports. Hitler’s SS guards branded the number 2254 on his chest upon his arrival.
“For the first two years I was in Auschwitz, most of the prisoners were Polish Catholics like me,” he said. Mass transports of Jews began coming there in 1942 after the Germans decided on their “Final Solution.”
Kolodziejek and the other early prisoners had their camp number tattooed on their chest. Prisoners who came later had the number placed on their forearm.
Michael Preisler, co-chair of the Holocaust Documentation Committee of the Polish American Congress and a friend of Kolodziejek, came to Auschwitz a year later in October, 1941. By that time, the Germans had already switched to the forearm and branded Preisler with 22213.
It was the early prisoners on whom the German camp doctors began their infamous medical and genetic experiments. Kolodziejek recalls several of the experiments they tried on him. His youth and strength helped him withstand the fiendish German tests. He survived so many of them that the Nazi doctors gave him a German nickname that translates as “hard as a rock.”
Kolodziejek always expresses thanks for surviving Auschwitz and surviving the war. His cheerful smile seems inconsistent with the terrible ordeal the Germans forced him to endure.
But the one thing that puzzles and upsets him is the way the media “try to blame the Polish people for the crimes the Germans committed and try to trivialize our suffering during the German occupation.” Particularly troubling for him has been the media’s continual reference to death camps like Auschwitz as “Polish death camps” and not “German” as they really were. Kolodziejek sees this problem the same way as the Holocaust Documentation Committee’s Michael Preisler describes it. “Nowhere else is Holocaust history as distorted and as misrepresented as it is about Poland,” says Preisler.
This point of view is not only a Polish one. The problem had become so acute that the United Nations had to step in and issue a directive against such misrepresentations. In 2007, the United Nations Agency, UNESCO’s official declaration clearly identified Auschwitz as a “German Nazi” institution. Nonetheless, the UNESCO statement is often ignored.
“The American people also became victims of what Nazi Germany did in Europe. So many of their soldiers lost their lives so others could live. More than anyone else, Americans deserve to be told the truth,” Kolodziejek says.
– Frank Milewski