Remembering Alex Ossowski, the Catholic who joined the Polish resistance

Melvyn Lipitch remembers the life of a Starograd native who relocated to Britain after helping Jews flee the Nazis


Alex had Catholic parents. He grew up with his brother in Starograd, a small town near Gdansk — then Danzig — in Poland.

When war broke out in 1939 and the German occupation began, the SS immediately took hostages including local dignitaries, Jews, priests, and teachers, ordering them to do menial tasks. This was when Jews were forced to wear a placard written with the words: “I am a dirty Jew”.

Alex's brother Edmund was among 30 other boy scouts arrested by the SS in 1940. He later died in custody; a grievous event that was to steer Alex's future course.

When the war with Russia began, he was conscripted to the Wehrmacht but, feeling such animosity towards the Germans, he instead fled to Warsaw, obtained a false identity and joined the resistance.

Every week, numerous Jews from the ghetto were selected for the transports to the Treblinka camp.

The Germans rewarded anyone that denounced Jews. The resistance warned collaborators to desist; those that continued were shot and a notice placed on their bodies stating “this man denounced Jews”.

After the collapse of the ghetto uprising, Alex hid several Jews that escaped at the home of a musician. He knew the penalty for hiding Jews was death, but this did not deter the resistance.

Determined to catch any still hiding, the Germans cynically offered them US citizenship. Some went to Hotel Polski to surrender, but soon realised the deception.

Alex was sent on assignment to the hotel to assassinate Lolec Skosovsky, a Jewish SS officer, but was immediately arrested. However, he managed to convince the Gestapo that he was not an assassin and dispatched to the ghetto prison.

Shortly afterward, he was transported to Birkenau-Auschwitz. He arrived at night, confronted by the frightening spectacle of bright red flames issuing from the crematorium chimney, together with the awful smell permeating the air.

The officer at disembarkation pointed to the chimney and announced: “you will live here for two months and the only way to freedom is there.”

Dehumanised, the prisoners endured constant hunger, coldness and routine beatings. Due to his command of German, Alex was given work in the hospital, where conditions were less severe.

One Jewish patient selected for “transport” pleaded with Alex to spare him this ordeal; on an errand of mercy, Alex obtained for him a lethal pill from the chemist in exchange for some much-coveted garlic.

There was a regular influx of thousands of French Jews to the camp. A lingering memory that affected Alex as much as the daily horrors inflicted by his captors was hearing these prisoners despair at their betrayal by neighbours who “gave up” Jews for profit.

With the Russians approaching Auschwitz, the prisoners were transferred to Buchenwald and eventually liberated by the US army.

The American soldiers, clearly revulsed by the human deprivation, gave the prisoners weapons to shoot any guards they wished, but Alex later recounted the prisoners believed this too simple a punishment and devised a more macabre method: lining up the guards and making each guard hang the guard next to him.

“The prosecuted became the prosecutors,” he later told me, adding that he himself eventually turned away, not wanting to lose the last drop of humanity he still possessed.

After liberation Alex travelled to Italy and joining “Anders Army”, a Polish unit under British army command. There he met his future wife Maria and later in 1946, their first son Matthew was born.

In Rome, he met the filmmaker Michal Waszynski, who engaged him to act in several films, including the lead role in The Long Road.

His film career ended on his being discharged from the army and relocated to a displace persons' camp in Scotland.

Alex and Maria began their new life in Britain entertaining Polish troops stationed throughout the country.

They then moved to London, where Alex studied sculpture. In 1960 he opened a shop in Pimlico dealing in antique carvings.

I knew Alex for over 40 years. His genial demeanour belied a tragic past.

He was happy living in England, describing it as a country whose values he admired more than any other, but after Maria died in 2011, he decided to return to his native Poland, continuing to sculpt.

His experiences in bearing witness to the Holocaust at close hand engendered his philo-Semitism and, by extension, his empathy with Israel. 

His remarkable life came to an end on January 29, 2018 and he was laid to rest in his hometown of Starograd.

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