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Covid-19 claims life of Chicago-based Polish newsman Jan Krawiec, a Nazi foe and Auschwitz survivor

"We thought he would live forever," a friend said of Krawiec, who was 101
Image: Jan Krawiec
Jan Krawiec, a Polish Underground fighter who survived Auschwitz and went on to be a newsman in Chicago, died in October from Covid-19. He was 101 and had lived long enough to see his homeland freed from the Soviet yoke he railed against as editor of Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the leading Polish-language newspaper in Chicago.Dariusz Pilka / The Dziennik Zwiazkowy

The German invasion, torture at the hands of the Gestapo, the horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald — newsman Jan Krawiec survived them all and got his life's story out way ahead of deadline.

It was a silent killer called Covid-19 that did what the Nazis couldn't do. It took Krawiec's life last month at a nursing home in suburban Chicago. He was 101.

Krawiec (Yon Krahv-yets), the longtime editor of Dziennik Związkowy, Chicago's leading Polish-language newspaper, lived long enough to see the dream of his generation of exiles come true — his homeland freed from the Soviet yoke.

In his final years, Krawiec devoted himself to publishing books in Polish about his ordeal and telling the younger generations in English what happened to him and to his country during World War II. And he did so, friends said, with the timing of a practiced comedian who specialized in very dark humor.

Consider his description to a researcher for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum of what the Germans did to him after he was arrested in April 1943.

"They brought me to a basement," Krawiec said in precise but heavily accented English. "There was a hook in the ceiling. They tied my arms behind me and pulled me up so I was hanging with my feet off the ground. It was painful."

"And they went to lunch," he said.

The story and its delivery were quintessential Krawiec, said Amanda Friedeman, assistant director of education at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, in the Chicago suburb of Skokie.

"He was such an extraordinary storyteller," Friedeman said of Krawiec, who for more than a dozen years would go to the center and talk to groups of students about the war that left him with the number 153156 tattooed on his left arm. "And his story was so compelling."

To Sue Kowall, Krawiec was "Uncle John," who doted on his nieces and nephews and who would joke rather than complain about getting older.

"I would ask him how he was doing and he would say, 'Well, I got out of bed,'" said Kowall, of Hoffman Estates, Illinois. "He was a tough Polish guy."

Born June 15, 1919, in the southern village of Bachorce, Krawiec was serving in the Polish army and planning to become a journalist when the Germans invaded on Sept. 1, 1939, and touched off World War II, according to his testimony and obituary information from Dziennik Związkowy .

Sixteen days later, when the Soviets invaded from the east and the Polish defenses finally collapsed, Krawiec buried his uniform and sneaked back to his village, where he joined the underground and ran a clandestine newspaper until 1943, when he was arrested.

Krawiec said he wasn't picked up for running an illegal newspaper. In a case of mistaken identity, he was suspected of having killed a Gestapo chief in a nearby town, which is how he wound up being hung from the ceiling by his arms and beaten over several days, he said.

"Life is very complicated," he told the researcher.

Krawiec said that rather than let him go, the Germans placed him and hundreds of other Polish prisoners into a cattle car and transported them to Auschwitz. There, they were stripped, tattooed and shaved.

"They shaved us from head all the way down," Krawiec said. "That was also very painful."

It was September 1943, and while most of the Jews arriving at Auschwitz were immediately dispatched to the gas chambers, slave labor was the fate of Polish Catholic prisoners like Krawiec.

Krawiec said that from his barracks, he could see "from afar" Jewish families being marched to the gas chambers and the smoke belching from the chimneys of the crematoriums.

"When the wind blew, there was the very characteristic smell of burning flesh," he said.

Three weeks later, Krawiec said, he and the other captured Poles were abruptly transported to the Buchenwald concentration camp, which was in Germany proper and where the factories needed workers.

There, Krawiec said, he was put to work felling trees and was then made to slave away in munitions factories where the kapos, mostly imprisoned German criminals assigned by the Nazis to police the other prisoners, would beat them if they didn't work hard enough.

"Those who tried to escape and were caught were hanged publicly so we could all see," he said.

They were fed just enough to stay alive, he said.

With the Allied forces getting closer, the Germans evacuated Buchenwald in April 1945 and forced the prisoners to embark on a death march, shooting the inmates who couldn't keep up.

Krawiec said he and other Poles sustained themselves by eating stolen dog biscuits until they were liberated by U.S. troops.

"If not for those dog biscuits, I am not here," he said.

With a Soviet-backed communist regime taking over his homeland, Krawiec went into exile and arrived four years later in Chicago, which was then a mecca for Poles displaced by the war.

For the next decade, Krawiec worked as a mechanic for Canfield Beverage Co. before he restarted his journalism career as a writer for Dziennik Chicagowski, a Polish-language newspaper.

A few years later, Krawiec moved to the rival paper Dziennik Związkowy and was appointed editor-in-chief, a post he held until he retired in 1985.

His strong stance against the Polish communist government made him many enemies in Warsaw and allies in Washington. He was among the reporters who accompanied President Richard Nixon on his visit to Poland in 1972.

It was "the only way he could safely return to his homeland," his obituary said.

Joanna Marszałek, a Dziennik Związkowy reporter, said Krawiec was long gone by the time she joined the paper. But, she said, Krawiec remained a newsroom legend, and the old-timers would regale her with tales about how he handled complaints from unhappy readers.

"He would listen until he got fed up and deliver his standard line," Marszałek said. "He would say, 'Listen, if you don't like it, go to the top of the Sears Tower and jump.'"

In retirement, Krawiec kept to a strict schedule. On Mondays and Wednesdays, he went to the gym to lift weights and swim, Friedeman said.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he volunteered at the Holocaust museum. On Fridays, he drove into Chicago from his apartment in the suburb of Evanston and bought copies of the Polish newspaper for himself and his shut-in friends.

Krawiec, in his testimony, spoke a leaving behind a "true love" in Poland, and he never married.

"Some of us were meant to be bachelors, and that's OK," Friedeman recalled Krawiec's saying. "He was content."

Krawiec lived out of his last days at a rehabilitation center in Hoffman Estates, Kowall said. He died there on Oct. 28 after a two-week battle with the coronavirus, and the plan is to return his ashes to his home village in Poland so they can be buried beside the remains of his parents.

Friedeman said the last time she saw him was at his 100th birthday party, when he was served a cake with the words "Sto Lat," which literally means "100 years" and is the Polish equivalent of "Happy Birthday," written on top in frosting.

"He was quite proud of himself for making it that far," Friedeman said. "We thought he would live forever, and I think he thought so, too."