Wladyslaw Kowalski was born in Kiev, Ukraine in 1896. He obtained an engineering degree but, before seeking a job in his chosen profession, enlisted in the Polish brigade to fight the Russians for Poland’s autonomy. In 1917 his parents, also supporters of Polish independence, were killed by the Russian Bolsheviks.
After World War I, Kowalski joined the Polish army. He served until 1935, retiring with the rank of colonel. However, Kowalski was a most unusual Polish officer. He was known to have a rare, positive attitude toward Jewish people. After leaving the army, he worked for Philips, a Dutch electronics firm, in Warsaw.
When Nazi Germany invaded Poland, on September 1, 1939, Kowalski headed the brigade that defended Warsaw. Though his commander ordered him to surrender, he insisted on fighting for another two weeks. He was then arrested by the SS and taken to a prison camp with thousands of other Polish officers. Due to his work for the Dutch Philips company, he was ultimately released.
Kowalski’s heroic rescue activities first began in the summer of 1940, when he met a sick and hungry 17-year-old boy wandering the streets of Warsaw, outside the ghetto. The boy, Bruno Boral, said to him, “I am a Jewish boy who is being persecuted. I haven’t eaten for three days. Could you please buy me something to eat?”
Kowalski took Bruno home, looked after him and obtained a forged Polish passport for him. Then he found him a place to live and a job at the Philips plant. Thanks to Kowalski’s assistance, Bruno survived the war and later moved to Belgium.
One August day in 1941, Kowalski, walking past a ruined Warsaw building, heard someone moaning inside. Investigating, he discovered a Jewish man, Phillip Rubin, starved and petrified. He begged Kowalski to help him and his brother and sister who were also inside the building. Immediately Kowalski took all three of them to his home.
His job at the Dutch Philips Company gave him a pass to enter the Warsaw Ghetto. He used it to save several Jews and smuggle in medicine and weapons.
In 1943, he helped a widow, Leah Bucholtz, whose husband had been killed by the Nazis, to leave the ghetto with her son. He found them a safe place to stay in the home of a Polish woman. Then he brought other Jews out of the ghetto and found hiding places for them as well.
His house in Warsaw soon became a shelter for Jewish refugees. He also found hiding places for others with his relatives and friends. Despite the danger, he provided the refugees with food and took care of them.
Although Kowalski was interrogated several times by the Gestapo on suspicion of helping Jews, he refused to divulge any information.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising lasted from August to October 1944 when all the inhabitants were evicted from the city. Yet, Kowalski refused to abandon the 49 Jewish refugees he was protecting. He found a bunker in the rubble and, despite the lack of food and water, remained with them for four months until the Russian Army liberated them all.
After the war ended, he married Leah Bucholtz, the woman he had saved four years earlier. They eventually immigrated to Israel together with her son from her first marriage. Most of the refugees saved by Kowalski also made aliyah after the war.
Like many other righteous Gentiles, he denied his heroism, insisting, “I did not do anything special for the Jews and I do not consider myself a hero. I only did my duty as a human being toward people who were persecuted and tortured. I did not do this only because they are Jewish, but rather I helped every persecuted person without regard to race and origin.”
“I admit I saved only 49 Jews,” said Kowalski in 1961, when he addressed a conference of immigrants from Poland in Tel Aviv.
In 1963 Kowalski was awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations. One of the testimonies submitted to Yad Vashem stated: “Mr. Kowalski saved many people through supreme personal sacrifice, of course without any monetary or other recompense. He worked and he devoted his salary to feeding or clothing the Jews he hid in his home. As the director of a firm in Warsaw, during the whole course of the war he did not allow himself to buy new clothes, he walked in torn shoes and he preferred to devote his income to saving people.”
Though regarded as a hero in Israel, Kowalski, aged 61, had difficulty adjusting to life there. He and his wife Leah had a daughter, Miriam, but the marriage ended a few years later. He worked at a neighborhood grocery store in a town near Haifa and later held a part-time job in the documentation department at Yad Vashem. After living for a while in a suburb of Tel Aviv, he spent the last years of his life at a convalescent home in a town southeast of the city. Shortly before he died, he requested: “After my death, do not distance me from the Jews. Bury me among them.”
Of the 25,000 Righteous Gentiles, only about one hundred chose to immigrate to Israel. Some of them are buried in the Kiryat Shaul Cemetery in Tel Aviv. Others, brought to Israel after their death, are buried in Christian cemeteries.
It appears Kowalski might have considered converting to Judaism and some sources report he had been circumcised. Still, at his death, he was a non-Jew and therefore most Jewish cemeteries did not want to honor his final request – until Kibbutz Yad Mordechai agreed. His grave is located between those of two Holocaust survivors.
Engraved on Kowalski’s tombstone is the image of the medal he received from Yad Vashem. Beneath it is inscribed: “He risked his life to save Jews during the period of the Holocaust.”
Strangely, Kowalski’s former wife, her son from her previous marriage, and their daughter have never contacted the kibbutz or visited his grave.
“We don’t know anything about them,” said a kibbutz member. “We’ve looked for the name Kowalski but maybe it was Hebraicized or changed. There are many Kowalskis in Israel but we still haven’t found the right one.”
“It is an honor to us that Kowalski’s body rests in the cemetery of our kibbutz,” said another spokesman for the kibbutz. “His wonderful character and his great deeds will serve us and our children as a symbol of the good and the pure in the human race and will reinforce in us the belief and hope that brotherhood of nations will ultimately overcome racial hatred and brutal nationalism.”