Polish Catholic Auschwitz survivor Walter Kolodziejek
When Gen Rowny wishes Happy Birthday, he does more than send a card
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Brooklyn, N.Y. .. When retired U.S. Army General Edward Rowny saw this photo of Polish Catholic Auschwitz survivor Walter Kolodziejek on the Internet, it was a grim reminder of his own experiences during the time he was on active duty.
Gen. Rowny served in World War II and subsequently in Korea and Vietnam. He had a pretty good idea of the Nazi atrocities committed in the death camps on prisoners like Kolodziejek.
Not many were able to come out alive and able to tell their story the way Kolodziejek has been doing.
What puzzled the General about this picture was the number branded on the chest. There were only four numbers (2254). Other prisoners who came out to publicly tell their stories usually showed longer numbers and always on their forearm.
The photo was taken by the Downstate N.Y. Division of the Polish American Congress at its recent Christmas party (Oplatek) in Brooklyn. It turned into a birthday party when it was discovered Mr. Kolodziejek would be observing his 91st birthday in January.
Being of Polish ancestry himself, Gen. Rowny knew what kind of cruelty the people of Poland suffered during the time of the German occupation.
His curiosity why the number was tattooed on the chest instead of the forearm prompted him to call the New York Polish American Congress about it. He also told the Congress he not only wanted to personally wish Kolodziejek a Happy Birthday but also to do it musically.
Gen. Rowny is an accomplished harmonica player who has been playing that instrument from the time he was ten when a newspaper in Baltimore gave him one as a prize for doing such a great job selling their paper. He later played a duet with another harmonica artist, Ronald Reagan, at the time the President was sending him to Moscow as head of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT).
As Mr. Kolodziejek explains it, the Germans arrested him in 1940 and sent him to the new concentration camp they just opened in Auschwitz. Only the first Polish prisoners like him were branded on their chest. The Germans changed to the forearm shortly after.
In fact, when he took his daughter, Patricia with him to visit Auschwitz in 2011 and show her the place where the Germans tortured him, they were told something that now makes Mr. Kolodziejek a historic person.
The administration officials at Auschwitz – which is now a museum – told them they were surprised he was still alive. They were under the impression everyone of the first Polish survivors numbered on the chest had already passed away and Kolodziejek is likely the only one in the world still living.
Gen. Rowny held back with his birthday congratulations until the actual date, several weeks later. When that day arrived and the party his family and friends prepared for Kolodziejek was in full swing, the phone rang not long after the candles on the cake were blown out.
Sure enough, the General was on the other end with his harmonica ready. Not only the usual “Happy Birthday” song but also the Polish “Sto Lat” version of it.
As someone considered to be the only survivor of his kind in the world, nobody could have given Kolodziejek a greater honor and recognition than a U.S. Army General of Polish heritage like Edward Rowny. The General made him feel his 91st was the best birthday he ever had.