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The King Kong from Auschwitz

Jakub Kozelczuk – an accomplice of the Nazis or a righteous Jew?

Who was he then, Jakub Kozelczuk – the infamous Jewish “Kapo” from Auschwitz? Until recently in Poland and the Czech Republic he was included on the list of Nazi criminals involved in the liquidation of Soviet prisoners-of-war and members of the Polish and Czech anti-Nazi movements. And how should we feel about a person who served the Nazis, who bought his life at the price of turning one of the tiny cogs of the monstrous death machine?! But according to reports by witnesses and new research by historians, the figure of Jakub Kozelczuk, better known to Israelis under the name of Shishmon Aizen – “Samson the Hero” – is not as straightforward as it had seemed all these years. Yes, he was a “Kapo”, i.e. a prison warden at Auschwitz. But he was not quite an ordinary “Kapo”…

There are hundreds of reports from former Auschwitz prisoners who saw Kozelczuk with their own eyes: he was an enormous man of almost two meters in height with broad shoulders, and probably weighed 150 kilograms. When he appeared before you, he seemed to fill up all the space with his gigantic figure. His mere appearance caused fear among concentration camp prisoners. And at the same time, among prisoners there were vague rumors that at night Kozelczuk brought bread and broth to weak inhabitants of barracks, and that he sometimes saved people sentenced to death, sending them away from Auschwitz, where it was impossible to survive, to neighboring Treblinka, where the chances of survival were slightly higher, or even to other camps with less terrible living conditions.

Sometimes behind his back prisoners would call Kozelczuk the “Jewish King Kong”, or the “good Jewish King Kong”. Many of them still remembered the times when this “King Kong” shone in the arenas of all Polish circuses…

The boy from Krinki

According to existing information, Jakub Kozelczuk was born in 1902 in the small town of Krinki, near Bialystok. At the age of seven he was already large and strong for his age, and he liked to amaze his neighbors, when his parents sent him to fetch water from the well, by coming back holding the full bucket in his teeth, without spilling a drop. At the age of eight Jakub Kozelczuk became an orphan, but managed to feed himself by doing odd jobs for rich landowners. When in 1916 the Poles, living in Krinki side by side with the Jews, tried to start a pogrom among their neighbors, the 14-year-old Jakub took a thick iron bar and went out on his own towards the crowd that was seething with hatred and craving blood. And a miracle took place: when they saw the young Jewish hero, who was clearly ready to fight to the death, the crowd of pogromists cooled down, and began to disperse slowly – none of the Poles wanted to be hit on the head by this teenager.

In 1920, Jakub Kozelczuk left his native Poland, and eventually made it to Cuba. Here he married Hana Levina, and found work at the Havana port, as an ordinary loader. Although he wasn’t quite ordinary – Jakub Kozelczuk was considered to be the strongest, and therefore the highest-paid loader at this port. When he had a spare moment at work, he liked to organize all kinds of games and competitions: once he held games of tug-the-rope, with 60 other loaders at one end, and at the other, him, Jakub Kozelczuk.

Obviously, with such outstanding physical abilities, Jakub Kozelczuk was bound sooner or later to find a more profitable and interesting activity than working as a port loader. He soon became a member of a team of circus wrestlers and athletes, and he travelled all over the Americas with them, from Argentina to Canada, and in 1937 he went to tour Europe with an enormous circus troupe. Two years later this troupe reached Poland, holding “world wrestling championships” in Warsaw, Poznan, Lodz and other cities of the Rzecz Pospolita.

“Only here – the real Jewish hero Jakub Kozelczuk! The champion of the world and Europe, the king of Grecian wrestling!” the circus playbills screamed, which were hung on the Polish city streets. It need hardly be said that the Jewish public, which made up a considerable part of the population, all rushed to see the shows, and when Kozelczuk appeared in the arena with an enormous Star of David on his wrestling tights, the circus drowned in applause! The Jews of Poland were proud of their hero, genuinely loved him, and many bought tickets to all of his shows.

The fights in the arena always took place according to the same scenario: Jakub Kozelczuk laid all of his opponents down on the ground one after another, and in the finale he lost the fight to a Polish wrestler, after which the Polish national anthem was proudly played under the dome of the circus tent.

In August 1939, the troupe’s tour came to an end, the circus artists and wrestlers returned to America, while Kozelczuk stayed in Poland – during the tour he fell in love with a Jewish girl from Sokolka, and forgetting the wife and two children he had left behind on Cuba, he decided to marry her. And on 1 September 1939, as we know, the Second World War began…
The chief of the Jewish police

The war found Jakub Kozelczuk in his native Krinki, where he returned with his young wife and two young children when he was unable to find work in Warsaw. Here together with his family he met the Germans entering the town. Several days after the occupation of Krinki, a story took place which made the Germans pay attention to Kozelczuk and even feel some respect for him. It all started when after the Soviet air force bombed Krinki, one of the bombs weighing at least 100 kilograms fell on the town, but did not explode, and continued to lie there. Worried about the fate of the Polish town residents, the Germans ordered them to leave their homes immediately, naturally not worrying about what would happen to the Jews. And then Jakub Kozelczuk simply walked up to the bomb lying on the ground, put it on his shoulder, carried it to an empty field and carefully placed it there.

In November 1941, when the Germans created the Krinki ghetto, they summoned Kozelczuk to the commandant’s office and asked him to become the chief of the “Jewish police”

Yes, of course, Kozelczuk could have refused, preferring death to this humiliating and shameful position, and then he would remain in the memory of Krinki residents as a hero. But he agreed, and soon he was walking around the town in a special uniform with a yellow six-pointed star on the sleeve.

The first reports date from this time about the rather unusual attitude of Jakub Kozelczuk to his new duties. These reports come from a prisoner of the Krinki ghetto, and later Soviet partisan, Avraam Sofer.
Sofer escaped from the ghetto, but later returned to give his ill fellow Jews medicine he had found. On the way back he was arrested by the Gestapo. His fate would seem to be decided, but soon after his arrest Jakub Kozelczuk appeared at the Gestapo. How he managed to reach an agreement with the Germans remains a mystery to this day – Sofer himself believes that Kozelczuk gave a bribe to the investigator and guards. At any rate, when the door of his cell opened, Sofer saw Kozelczuk on the threshold.

“Come out, mate,” he said in Yiddish. “It looks like you were lucky – you’ve been saved…”

Before Passover in 1942, when Jews were burning a “khamets” on the ghetto streets, SS trucks suddenly appeared. The commander of the trucks, an SS Sturmbannfuehrer, calmly reported that he needed 300 Jews “for liquidation”. It was long known that the Germans exterminated the Jews, but they had never talked about this so clearly and directly, with this “holy simplicity”…

The gathering Jews waited with horror for the Germans to start selecting their victims, and at this time the chief of the Jewish police Jakub Kozelczuk came out of the crowd.
“If you want to shoot us, then start with me,” he said. “This is the first chest (and he pointed at himself) which will get a bullet!”

Then something strange happened – Kozelczuk started to hold talks with the SS, and in the end they came to the agreement that instead of 300 they would “only” shoot 33 Jews.

In November 1942, the Krinki ghetto was liquidated, and all of its inhabitants were sent to death camps. First in the echelon transporting women and children, Kozelczuk’s wife, son and daughter were placed, and then his turn came.

In the wagon that took the men from the Krinki ghetto to Auschwitz, Jakub Kozelczuk managed to break several boards in the floor, out of which his prisoners began to jump one by one. But Kozelczuk himself was too big to fit through the hole he had made.

In Auschwitz, given his physical attributes and his previous “services to the Reich”, Jakub Kozelczuk was appointed one of the “Kapo”, i.e. a supervisor of the infamous “11th block”, which the prisoners called the “death block”: those who entered this block never returned…

The Nazi henchman

Today in any textbook of modern history you can read that the 11th block of Auschwitz was essentially a department of the camp Gestapo, which combined a prison and torture chambers. Usually Polish and Czech underground members were sent to this block who were arrested by the SS, and also Soviet prisoners-of-war suspected of trying to prepare camp uprisings. Jewish prisoners from other blocks of Auschwitz and Treblinka – these gigantic towns of death – were often also sent to this block for various misdemeanors. The stay at the 11th block, which was divided into numerous prison cells, rarely lasted more than a week – after interrogations and monstrous torture, designed to get information, prisoners were taken into the backyard and shot in the head.

Whether Jakub Kozelczuk took part in these shootings or not is unknown – there is no evidence that can confirm or deny this theory, of course.

Officially, his functions included giving food and cleaning the block, and also carrying out corporal punishment, i.e, brutally beating prisoners. And here several reports have been preserved of the somewhat unusual behavior of Jakub Kozelczuk.

“The Jewish Kapo,” former Auschwitz prisoner Avraam Khar-Shalom writes in his memories “Chaim min ha-afar” (“Life of Ash”), “terrified all of the camp inmates by his mere appearance. But soon we noticed that he only tried to look brutal and merciless when the Germans saw him. As soon as they disappeared, he changed, and secretly brought us bread on several occasions, which was worth its weight in gold in the camp.”

By all appearances, Kozelczuk not only had bread in the camp, but real gold which he stole from the property of the Jews delivered to him. And he often used these treasures to buy off the camp leadership and save the lives of at least a few Jewish prisoners. When the 17-year-old Yokheved ended up in the 11th block for “seditious talk”, Kozelczuk offered an SS officer an expensive necklace in exchange for the girl’s life. As a result, Yokheved was sent from the 11th block to a Polish labor camp, and met Kozelczuk again in 1946, on a ship that was taking them from Turkey to Palestine.

On another occasion, he once more somehow secured the cancellation of the delivered death sentence for four Jewish men imprisoned in the 11th block, after which they were sent from Auschwitz to Birkenau – this was reported by the legendary Israeli pilot Zevs Liron, who was one of the four men saved by Kozelczuk.

Together with other prisoners of Auschwitz, Kozelczuk was freed from Auschwitz on 27 January 1945 by Soviet troops.

It also remains a mystery how he, who was aware of the most terrible secrets of the camp, was able to live to see this day – as we know, when they left the death camp, the Nazis exterminated all of the witnesses of their crimes. The only (and not very plausible) explanation is that during all the years that he spent in Auschwitz Jakub Kozelczuk played the role of a two-meter-tall moron who had absolutely no understanding of what was going on around him. When one of the prisoners told him that hundreds, or thousands of people were burnt in the crematoria every day, Kozelczuk just shrugged his shoulders and replied: “Rubbish! That’s impossible!”

But in fact, Jakub Kozelczuk, who spoke and read in seven languages (Yiddish, Russian, Polish, German, Spanish, English and Hebrew) was certainly not a “moron”.

At any rate, he survived.

And along with the camp number tattooed on his arm, he also had the reputation of a former “Kapo”…

The Samson from the ghetto

It is extremely characteristic that when he left the camp, Jakub Kozelczuk never tried to change his name, or hide that he had served the Germans in Auschwitz. In 1946, together with other former prisoners of the death camp, he went to Palestine. On the ship bound for the shores of Eretz Israel, there were many people who had passed through Auschwitz and seen Jakub Kozelczuk “at work”, but not one of them made any accusations against him, and did not inform the mandate and Jewish authorities about his criminal past. Can this behavior of former Auschwitz prisoners only be explained by the fact that they were afraid of Kozelczuk?

In his historical homeland, Jakub Kozelczuk opened a kiosk selling fizzy water. But soon he grew tired of this, rented out the kiosk, and began to travel around the towns and villages of Israel with circus shows: he bent and unbent iron bars, tore thick chains, with one blow he hammered 10-centimeter nails into boards and did various other miracles. Kozelczuk often asked the public if anyone wanted to wrestle him. Few people were brave enough to do so, and the outcome of this fight was always a foregone conclusion.

Jakub Kozelczuk usually performed under the synonym “Shimshon Aizen”, which in Yiddish meant “Iron Samson”, or just “Samson the hero”, and he really did resemble the biblical hero in his strength and size. In the late 1940s, Shimshon Aizen was very famous among the Israelis, journalists often interviewed him, and in one of them he complained that the famine in the young country honed his strength. “Even in Auschwitz I ate better,” he said. “Firstly, I was entitled to a quarter portion of food, and secondly food there was always prepared for a certain number of people, but by the time the meal was served some of these people had already been exterminated, and so there was always food left over..”

But in the early 1950s, Poland demanded that Israel extradite Kozelczuk as a Nazi criminal. Kozelczuk, who had already had to give testimony about his “cooperation with the Nazis”, was once more summoned to the police, interrogated and released, after which Israel sent an official notification to Poland stating that “evidence to confirm that Jakub Kozelczuk was a Nazi criminal has not been found.”

Nevertheless, Israeli newspapers immediately reported that the “Iron Samson” was a Kapo in Auschwitz, and a number of revelatory articles about Kozelczuk appeared, after which all his friends turned away from him. His new wife left him, and people from Krinki decided to boycott him. No one wanted to go to Shimshon Aizen’s shows any more, and most of the time Jakub Kozelczuk simply slept in his tiny apartment.

On 13 June 1953, Jakub Kozelczuk died in his sleep of a heart attack…

A Nazi criminal or…?

Until the early 2000s the Polish authorities continued to classify Jakub Kozelczuk as a Nazi criminal, and disagreed with Israel’s position not to consider him one.

Yes, said representatives of Poland, there really is a great deal of evidence that during his time at the camp Kozelczuk helped and even saved the lives of his fellow Jews. But we have just as much evidence that Kozelczuk had a pathological hatred of Poles, Czechs, Russians and all non-Jews, and as a camp “Kapo” took part in executions of prisoners of these nationalities. Additionally, it was believed that the SS took Kozelczuk with them to take part in punitive operations against Polish and Czech underground members… And accordingly, whether the Jews liked it or not, Jakub Kozelczuk really was a Nazi criminal!

However, over time other evidence also began to appear.

There were testimonies of two Polish underground members, who were captured by the Gestapo and sent to the 11th block of Auschwitz, that the Germans put them in solitary cells so they could not agree on their testimony. But Kozelczuk, who was in charge of cleaning the block, unexpectedly took them out to work early in the morning, put them together and then left them alone, deciding to check how the clean-up of other cells was going.

Other testimony by prisoners of the 11th block stated that Kozelczuk warned them several times when a Gestapo informer or provocateur was to be placed in their cell.

The next testimony: Polish prisoners of the block preferred to be tortured by the “Jewish Kapo” – for the simple reason that even after the 25th blow by his fist, not a single bruise was left on their bodies, and the prisoners could calmly return to their cells. The SS usually beat prisoners with gloves with a lead lining, and a few dozen of these blows were fatal for many….

The Polish intelligence officer Stefan Jaszinski who was in this block said that when the Nazis initially tried to torture him with starvation, Jakub Kozelczuk secretly brought him food and drink, and additionally passed his messages on to other prisoners. In gratitude Jaszinski carved a profile of the “Jewish Kapo” on the wooden door of his cell, no. 21, which can be seen to this day when you visit Auschwitz…

Kozelczuk’s relations with Poles, Czechs and Russians also don’t prove to be as simple as one would initially imagine…

The battle to restore Jakub Kozelczuk’s good name was started several years ago by former Auschwitz prisoner Meir Eldar, who saw with his own eyes how Jakub Kozelczuk behaved at the camp. Quite unexpectedly, the former fighter pilot Amir Geshkel joined this battle, who was born and grew up in Tel-Aviv. When he retired in 2002, Geshkel began to organize visits by IDF officers to Holocaust sites, and then joined the ranks of researchers of Holocaust history. After reading the notes of Meir Eldar about Jakub Kozelczuk, he began to take a real interest in his ambiguous personality. With Eldar, Geshkel found new evidence that Kozelczuk saved camp prisoners, then had his name excluded from the list of Nazi criminals, and finally wrote to his daughter from his first marriage (as it turned out, she married the nephew of the former Cuban dictator Batista and now lives in the USA), received 500 shekels from her, added his own savings and established a tombstone on Jakub Kozelczuk’s grave at the cemetery in Kiryat-Shaul.

Without a doubt, Jakub Kozelczuk would feel grateful to the people who decided to clear his name. But the former head of the Jewish underground in Auschwitz, now the chief historian of the Yad Vashem memorial museum, Professor Israel Gutman, has yet to find an answer to the question as to who Jakub Kozelczuk really was – a hidden righteous man, a hero or an accomplice of the Nazis.

“Kozelczuk is an ambiguous and mysterious person, with whom many questions are connected,” says Professor Gutman. “As we know, Israeli law-enforcement bodies were well informed of his past. In the late 40s-early 50s, many “Kapos” went to trial, but they didn’t touch Kozelczuk – this means that they knew something about him that was unknown to the wider public. It is noteworthy that not a single prisoner of Auschwitz ever tried to bring Kozelczuk to trial… On the other hand, it remains unclear why the Germans treated this Jewish “Kapo” so well, why they did not kill him, why they made him a “Kapo” at all, if there were members of all kinds of nationalities in Auschwitz who wanted to save or prolong their lives at the price of serving the Nazis, why did they need to resort to the services of a Jew?! Yes, he’s a mysterious and ambiguous figure…”

It seems that in this way – mysterious and ambiguous - the Jewish hero Jakub Kozelczuk will go down in the history of the Holocaust, and there is nothing we can do about it.

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