AUGUST KOWALCZYK is a Polish theater, film and television actor born in 1921. Upon finishing high school, August planned to enter the seminary and train for the priesthood. These plans fell to the wayside with the eruption of the Second World War and Nazi-Germany’s occupation of Poland. In reaction to the occupation, he decided to leave his plans behind in favor of joining the Armia Krajowa (Polish Home Army) as a resistance fighter. However, while traveling to Slovakia to enlist, he was captured by the Nazis and labeled as a political prisoner.
August was sent to KL Auschwitz in December of 1940. As part of his processing into the camp, he was assigned inmate number 6804.
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Like many of the inmates of KL Auschwitz, August was forced into physical labor. His kommando was responsible for dismantling the remains of a bombed-out synagogue and the homes of Poles expelled by the Nazis and their collaborators in the town of Oświęcim and the nearby village of Monowice. August’s work party used these materials to aid in the construction of a Buna Werke Schkopau chemical factory, which was built near KL Auschwitz so that the free labor provided by the camp’s prisoners could be leveraged.
Working under grueling conditions, August managed to stay out of trouble for close to half a year. However, in May of 1942, while working in Oświęcim, he was caught speaking to a number of the town’s locals by his Nazi overseers. For the offense of making contact with the civilian population, he was transferred to a penal company.
Escape from Auschwitz
One month after his transfer to the penal company, August and 42 other members of the prisoners revolted against their Nazi captors and attempted to break out of the camp. During the revolt, 13 prisoners were killed. 20 of the escaped inmates were recaptured and returned to KL Auschwitz – only August and eight others managed to earn their freedom. To avoid being recaptured, August hid in the forests that surrounded the concentration camp and found shelter in the home of a sympathetic Polish citizen, hiding in an attic for seven weeks.
“The beginning I remember as if it was a slow-motion film. I approached the clothing without any anxiety, put on my trousers, shirt and an overcoat. I had earlier ripped off the rags with my number on them in order to keep the escape anonymous. I approached the previously prepared shovel , put it on my shoulder, took a few steps towards the SS man, took aim and lunged, but he sprang to his feet as if he were really on a spring. My mates fled. I dropped the shovel on the ground and tried to get out of the SS man’s field of view. I saw Mietek Kawecki running in front of me, but he was already wounded, slowing down the run, until he dropped to the ground. The neighbouring group was to escape as well, but ‘their’ SS man didn’t know about it and our flight started first. That’s why he focused on me and tried to cross my path. He shot… 10 metres, 8, 6… He whacked me with the gun barrel on the shoulders. I turned back. Another fugitive emerged, the SS man followed him, I turned again, and with two other mates we ran into the bushes and went on running. I started the ‘striptease’ I had planned earlier. One boot went one way, the other-the other way. I put on the running shoes that I had managed to take from one of the German Kapos. The idea was to deceive the police dogs that the SS used. The jacket, the shirt, and the trousers followed the boots-I tossed them all the way into the bushes. I was only in my boxer shorts and the trainers.” – Excerpts from an account by August Kowalczyk, recorded at the meeting held on 10 June 2012 on the 70th anniversary of his escape from the Penal Company
After finding a prisoner missing, during control verification of the number of prisoners in their workplace or during roll call in the camp, an orderly officer was notified immediately, and he was responsible for ordering the launch of the alarm siren. One of them was located on the roof of the Theatergebäude (old theatre building) near block 11 in the main camp, while the other on the roof of the main guardhouse tower in Birkenau. At the sound of the siren, the SS men on duty in the alarm subunit immediately started their search operation. They drove to the escape zone where, supported by dogs, they searched the place where the escapee could have hidden. Driving, they were able to cover quite a large area, usually efficiently foiling the attempt to escape.
When the pursuit failed, telegrams were sent from the camp radio station to the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), the Economic and Administrative Main Office of the SS (WVHA), the Reich Criminal Police Office (RKPA), secret state police (Gestapo) posts, criminal police (Kripo), border police (Greko), as well as to the police unit which sent the prisoner to the camp. Telegrams included prisoner’s personal data, camp number and usually physical description. The pursuit operation lasted for three days, when this time passed and the prisoner was not caught, the search was interrupted and large guard chain posts removed. The prisoner was deleted from the camp register and his name was recorded in search books, which were systematically updated and their copies were sent to all police units. If the escapee was caught within subsequent search operations, the police unit informed camp authorities about this fact. The escapee was then transported to the camp.
At the time of the escape, falsified travel papers were arranged for August, but instead of using those to escape to safety, he used them to travel to Silesia (a region of Central Europe which currently contains parts of Poland, Germany and Slovakia) where he finally made contact with Armia Krajowa, who he fought with until the end of the war.
On November 9, 1945, August made his theatrical debut as a stage actor with the Polish Theatre in Warsaw. Between 1962 and 1966, he worked as a director at the Adam Mickiewicz Theater in Częstochowa before returning to the Polish Theatre in Warsaw as a director in 1968: a position he would hold until 1981. During the 1970s and 1980s, August directed and acted in a number of Polish movies and television dramas.
For many years, August used his fame to promote the Auschwitz Memorial Site and the International Centre of Education on Auschwitz and the Holocaust. On a number of occasions, he hosted the ceremonies commemorating KL Auschwitz’s liberation. The memoir of his time as a prisoner at the concentration camp, ‘A Barbed wire refrain,’ serves as a trusted chronicle of the hardships and horrors heaped upon Polish political prisoner at Auschwitz.
In the decades that passed since the end of the Second World War, August never forgot the city of Oświęcim, nor the sense of gratitude that he felt for those who helped him in the weeks after he escaped captivity. He was instrumental in the planning of the Oświęcim Memorial Hospice: a building dedicated to those who risked their lives to aid the prisoners of KL Auschwitz.
On July 31st, 2012, not long after attending the observation of the 70th anniversary of his escape from the concentration camp, August Kowalczyk died of cancer at the age of 90. His last days were spent in Oświęcim at the hospice he helped to build. He is survived by two children and the generations that will come of them.
Editor: Séamus Bellamy
Sponsored by: Michael Frank Family Charitable Fund.