When Music Saved Poland's Last Klezmer From the Nazis

Leopold Kozlowski, a symbol of the revival of Jewish culture in Poland, taught a Nazi officer the accordion in exchange for food and played in the woods as a partisan. He died this month at the age of 100

"The Germans were incapable of shooting during the music,” Kozlowski says
Daniel Chechik

“Music saved my life,” the Jewish musician Leopold Kozlowski told “Haaretz” in an interview in 2012. “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.”

Kozlowski loved the nickname “the last klezmer of Galicia,” by which he was known in Poland. “I’m the last klezmer who remained authentic and with a Jewish soul,” he explained. “The others are new, with different chords and harmony. They pass themselves off as klezmers, but make modern music.”

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Kozlowski plays at a Jewish Festival in Krakow, Poland.

“Authentic Jewish music isn’t a tune, but a story. The story of what’s in the heart,” he said.

He was born in 1918 in Przemyslany, a town near Lviv then in Poland and today in Ukraine. His paternal grandfather, Pejsach Brandwein, was a famous musician in the klezmer musical tradition. His 14 sons, including Zvi, Leopold’s father, were also musicians. “They even appeared before Kaiser Franz Joseph,” Kozlowski said.

His uncle, clarinet player Naftule Brandwein, became world famous after migrating to the United States, where he became known as king of klezmer artists, or king of Jewish music. Kozlowski’s brother Yitzhak-Dulko was a gifted violinist. “Were he alive today he would be known worldwide,” he says. His father changed his last name to Kleinman, his mother’s name. Kozlowski changed the name again after the war to the name he kept to his last day.

FILE Photo: Leopold Kozlowski in Israel.
Daniel Chechik

His town, a typical shtetl, was captured by Russia in 1939. When the Germans came in the summer of 1941, 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 said.

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 shot his father dead, together with 360 other Jews. Kozlowski and his brother joined the partisans between the summer of 1943 and the winter of 1944 and hid in the woods. Later his brother Dulko was also murdered, stabbed to death by Ukrainians. Kozlowski continued playing despite the tragedy.

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. He played in the woods as well, as a partisan. “I carried an accordion alongside a rifle,” he said.

Later he joined the The Armia Krajowa, the Home Army, the dominant resistance movement in Poland, and later the Polish Army and took part in liberating Berlin.

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, in which he rose to the rank of a colonel. In 1968 he was ousted by the Communist regime. He worked as the musical director of the Jewish Theater in Warsaw, directed a gypsy orchestra, was an orchestra conductor, pianist and composer and wrote music for films and the theater, including “Schindler’s List,” which he acted in as well.

Over the years he became a symbol of the revival of Jewish culture in Poland and the flag bearer for preserving the tradition of klezmer music, even after no Jews were left in Poland. “I feel very good here. I’m famous, everyone knows who Leopold Kozlowski is – from the president to a baby. I have everything, more than the goyim,” he said.

While in a labor camp, Nazis forced Kozlowski to compose a “death tango” and play while other Jews were led to their deaths
Daniel Chechik

“My father, my brother, my whole family lie in this soil, I cannot leave them,” he added.

He taught his band members to sing in Yiddish. “They’re not Jews, but they have Judaism in their heart,” he said. He taught his students to stay away from the notebooks and close to the musical instruments. “The notes in Jewish music are in the heart. It will tell them how to play,” he explained. “No professor in the world can teach you to be a klezmer. A klezmer is born that way. He must learn it in his mother’s womb, feed on the klezmer sense,” he said in an interview in the movie “The Last Klezmer.”

“Music is my revenge, my life, I intend to keep playing to the last moment,” he said.

Kozlowski died this month aged 100, leaving a daughter. He was buried in the new Jewish cemetery in Krakow.

Kozlowski visits his hometown