AUGUST KOWALCZYK was a Polish theater, film and television actor born in 1921. He was also one of the few prisoners who escaped from Auschwitz. He was born in 1921 in Southern Poland.
When World War II started, Kowalczyk wanted to join The Polish Army in France formed under the command of General Władysław Sikorski. However, he was arrested while traveling West through Slovakia and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in December 1940. His inmate number was 6804. While in Auschwitz, Kowalski was forced to work: he joined other prisoners who unloaded construction materials, built the German Buna-Werke chemical plant, dismantled the bombed synagogue in Oświęcim as well as houses of expelled Poles in a nearby village of Monowice.
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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Escape from Auschwitz
As a punishment for establishing and maintaining relations with local civilians from the town of Oświęcim, the Nazis transfered Kowalski to a lifelong ‘penal company’ in May 1942. On June 10, 1942, he escaped from Auschwitz-Birkenau during the so called rebellion of the penal company. He hid in a nearby forest and a field of grain where he was discovered by the local civilian Polish women. They disguised him in female clothes and took him to a secure hiding place.
“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
For the next seven weeks, Kowalski remained hidden in a hideout at the attic of one of the houses in Bojszowy village. After securing fake identification documents, he went to Krakow and joined the Polish Home Army. He fought as a Polish resistance soldier until the end of WWII in 1945.
On November 9, 1945, he made his theater debut. He continued to work as an actor until he became the director of the Adam Mickiewicz Theater in Częstochowa (1962-1966) and the director of the Polish Theater in Warsaw (1968-1981). He retired in 1981.
After 1981, August Kowalczyk devoted his life to educating the youth about Auschwitz-Birkenau. He contributed to the International Centre of Education on Auschwitz and the Holocaust of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum and hosted the ceremonies commemorating anniversaries of the camp liberation.
His memoir, “A Barb Wire Chorus,” has continued to hold the interest of readers since its first publication in 1995.
He was also involved in the creation and construction of the Memorial Hospice in Oświęcim. Kowalczyk considered the creation of the hospice as a symbolic gift of gratitude and a commemoration of those civilians from Oświęcim who risked their lives to help prisoners from Auschwitz-Birkenau. The hospice was completed and opened in June 2012.
One month later, on 31 July 2012, August Kowalczyk died in that same hospice.
Editor: Séamus Bellamy and Maria Zalewska
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