Shlomo Wolkowicz, born in 1922, survived the Holocaust in Poland by channeling French adventure novelist Jules Vern. He later moved to Israel, where he used his story to educate and to hold the Nazis accountable for their atrocities. He died on March 10, at the age of 92.
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Wolkowicz was in the middle of exams at the gymnasium, or preparatory school, in Lvov, Poland, when the Germans invaded the city in the summer of 1941. Jewish, he fled without hesitation along the escape route taken by the Red Army — which had just suffered a massive defeat in the country — and headed for his parents' home in the Polish village of Jagielnica.
After walking 70 kilometers in three days, he reached the city of Zelechow, Poland, but could make it no further. “The German Army got there before me and had the place surrounded,” he said in testimony preserved by the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum and the Massuah Center for Holocaust Studies.
On the morning of July 3, 1941, the SS, with the collaboration of a group of Ukrainians, rounded up hundreds of local Jews, Wolkowicz among them, and took them to a Polish fortress that was being used as a prison.
“There, after severe torture all day long, they brutally murdered all the detainees in a pit in the yard of the fortress,” he said. “At a certain moment, I hear the cry, ‘Fire!’ They start shooting. It was a mass slaughter. I try to tuck my head between my legs. After about a minute, I hear another shout and the shooting stops. I lift my head and see a horrible scene. I wasn’t hurt … There was another shout, ‘Fire!’ and I ducked again. Something fell on me. Within seconds, I was covered by murdered Jews. In the middle of the night, I managed to get free and flee the place. I later found out that I was the sole survivor.”
Later, en route to his parents’ home, he was arrested by Ukrainian police officers and taken to a police station, where he was beaten and locked in a basement cell. “I was certain my end was near,” he said. “Then I recalled the books of Jules Verne, and I thought there must be a solution. I found a window — it was high up and locked. I searched in my pockets and found a pocket knife … I pried out of the wooden door the hook that held the lock that hung on the outside, then I opened the door and escaped.”
The next stop was his parents’ home in Jagielnica. His father, Reuven Wolkowicz, was a technical director at a local tobacco and cigarettes factory. He managed to keep his job even after the German Occupation and so save his family. Ludwig Zemrod, the man the Germans appointed to run the factory, gave shelter to 50 Jews, including Wolkowicz’s family, who were employed in nonessential jobs. Zemrod also supplied them with food, paid them for their work and covered for them, at great personal risk, when Gestapo officers sought to arrest them. Years later, Wolkowicz tracked him down in the phone book, met with him and invited him and his wife to Israel. In 1979, they were awarded the medal of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
In 1944, the Red Army liberated the Jagielnica area. In 1945, Wolkowicz left Poland for Austria, where he joined the Escape Movement, which helped bring Holocaust survivors to Israel. He arrived here in 1949.
In the 1960s, Wolkowicz testified against Nazi war criminals in court in Germany. He later wrote books about the Holocaust and gave talks to youth groups, university students and soldiers.
“Shlomo was a dedicated witness, who believed that bearing witness for the younger generation was a mission,” said a spokesperson for the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum. “He told his difficult story with great candor and courage, and not just in Hebrew — Shlomo also met with our visitors from abroad.” Wolkowicz also traveled to Poland and Germany every year to give talks. A few years ago, he was given a certificate of honor by Germany’s Brandenburg State after giving a number of lectures there.
He is survived by a daughter, a grandson and granddaughter and four great-grandchildren.