The Last Klezmer: A Holocaust Survivor's Musical Revenge

Leopold Kozlowski, 94, is a cultural figure in Poland, where he is known as 'the last klezmer.'

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

KRAKOW, Poland - At noon last Wednesday Leopold Kozlowski walked into his regular cafe, Klezmer Hois in this city's Jewish Quarter. As he does every day, Kozlowski ordered a cold beverage and sat down at his own reserved table.

Kozlowski, 94, is a cultural figure in Poland, where he is known as "the last klezmer."

"Music saved my life," he says, adding, "I was in a concentration camp, in a ghetto and in the forest. Music gave me strength. Hitler destroyed Judaism, but not its music. It lives forever."

Despite his advanced age and the suffering he endured during the Holocaust, Kozlowski still plays professionally. This year he has performed in Madrid, Venice, Berlin and Toulouse, and this week in Lviv. He played in Israel in 2007.

He plays to full houses, to the many Poles who have taken an interest in Jewish culture in the past several years. Proof of this renewed interest is amply evident on every corner of Kazimierzin, the city's Jewish Quarter, where cafes have Hebrew names and the bars and restaurants play Jewish music.

Does Kozlowski see a future for Judaism in Poland? "There's a future, but no Jews," he says.

There has been a revival of klezmer music, but genuine klezmorim, from before the war, are few and far between, making Kozlowski's sobriquet an accurate one as well as the title of a 1994 documentary, "The Last Klezmer: Leopold Kozlowski, His Life and Music."

"I'm the last klezmer who stayed real and with a Jewish soul," he says. "The others are new, with chords and a different harmony, musicians who profess to be klezmorim but play modern music," he says. "Genuine Jewish music isn't a melody - it's a story, the story of what is in the heart."

He tells the young musicians he teaches in Krakow to keep the sheet music at a distance and their instruments close to them. "In Jewish music the notes are in the heart, the heart will tell you how to play," he says.

It is difficult to believe that behind this joyful, colorful, vivacious man is a story so sad, difficult and convoluted. Kozlowski, whose original name was Kleinman, was born in the Polish town of Przemyslany, near Lviv (now in Ukraine, and spelled Peremyshliany ), in 1924. His grandfather Pesach Brandwein was a famous klezmer. His father, Zvi, and Zvi's 11 brothers were also musicians. "They even appeared before Kaiser Franz Joseph," Kozlowski boasts.

Kozlowski's brother Yitzhak-Dulko was a gifted violinist. "Were he alive today he would be known worldwide," he says. When they were teenagers, he relates, Dulko won first place in a music competition for the entire Lviv province. Kozlowski took second place.

Before the war half of Przemyslany's 7,000 inhabitants were Jews. In September 1939, after Poland was divided between Germany and Russia, the town became part of Soviet Ukraine. In 1941 Przemyslany nearly doubled after many Jews fled there to escape the Nazis. The German army entered the town in July of that year; within four month a number of labor camps were built nearby. Two years later, in late May of 1943, Przemyslany was declared Judenrein, "cleansed of Jews."

When the Germans came Kozlowski, his father and his brother fled and joined the retreating Russian soldiers. His mother stayed behind because she believed the Germans would not harm women. The three of them got as far as the outskirts of Kiev, where they hid in a cemetery, "right among the graves," Kozlowski emphasizes.

One night they were stopped by an SS patrol. "My father asked for permission to play something before they killed us. Bit by bit you saw their rifles go lower and lower. The Germans were incapable of shooting during the music," Kozlowski says.

The three of them returned to their town. In November 1941 the Gestapo ordered all the Jewish adults to assemble in the town square. "My father went, together with 360 other Jews," he says. "They brought them to the forest and shot them all."

His mother was murdered shortly after that, while hiding in a barn. Kozlowski and his brother joined the partisans in the summer of 1943. Dulko was stabbed to death by "Ukrainian criminals" during that time.

Kozlowski spent several months in labor camps; in one he taught a Nazi officer the accordion in exchange for food, in another the Nazis forced him to compose a "death tango" and play while other Jews were led do their deaths.

After the war he settled in Krakow where he married and raised his daughter. For 23 years he was the conductor and musical director of a military orchestra. He has composed music for films and the theater, and even acted in "Schindler's List."

What is it like for a Jew his age, a Holocaust survivor, to live in Poland?

"My father, my brother, my whole family lie in this soil, I cannot leave them."

How long will he continue to play?

"Music is my revenge, my life, I intend to keep playing to the last moment."

Leopold Kozlowski during his 2007 Israel tour. Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

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