Seeking Kin: Kibbutz searches for descendants of Holocaust hero buried in its cemetery

Wladyslaw Kowalski, who rescued Jews during the Holocaust and was recognized by Yad Vashem with the designation Righteous Among the Nations, is buried at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai. (Hillel Kuttler)

Wladyslaw Kowalski, who rescued Jews during the Holocaust and was recognized by Yad Vashem with the designation Righteous Among the Nations, is buried at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai. (Hillel Kuttler)

Wladyslaw Kowalski, a Pole who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, spoke at a 1967 ceremony for those designated Righteous Among the Nations who were living in Israel. (Yad Vashem)

Wladyslaw Kowalski, a Pole who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, spoke at a 1967 ceremony for those designated Righteous Among the Nations who were living in Israel. (Yad Vashem)

The “Seeking Kin” column aims to help reunite long-lost friends and relatives.

KIBBUTZ YAD MORDECHAI, Israel (JTA) — In a far-off corner of this quiet farm a handful of miles from the Gaza Strip as the rocket flies, down a dirt road that peels off from an old Arab well’s housing, Wladyslaw Kowalski rests with his people.

Like him, most of those buried in the kibbutz cemetery were immigrants from Poland. But unlike many others interred here, Kowalski was not himself a kibbutz member.

In 1963, Kowalski was designated as one of the first Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel’s central Holocaust commemoration institution. He is credited with smuggling Jews out of the Warsaw and Izbica ghettos, hiding and feeding them. After his death in 1971, he came to rest at this kibbutz, founded in 1943 in memory of Warsaw Ghetto revolt leader Mordechai Anielewicz.

Vered Bar-Semech, a Yad Mordechai native and the director of the kibbutz’s museum, hopes to locate Kowalski’s daughter, stepson, granddaughter and any other descendants. Meeting them, she hopes, will enable her to learn more about Kowalski’s life. Bar-Semech would like to include the Kowalskis in programs run here for visiting students and soldiers, or collect from them personal items and documents to exhibit in the museum.

Yet what’s become of his family is a mystery that baffles the kibbutz museum’s staff.

The last trace of Kowalski’s family came four decades ago in a note sent by Kowalski’s daughter to Bar-Semech’s father, Artek Wieneman, who was then serving as the kibbutz secretary. In the note, Miriam Vardi, who lived in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam, penned the words she wished to appear on a wreath to adorn her father’s grave: “To our unforgettable father, from his wife Lea, children Miriam and Michael and granddaughter Ruti.”

That was on May 11, 1971, four months and eight days after Kowalski’s death in a Gedera nursing home. Since then, nothing. Bar-Semech has scoured kibbutz archives for names, addresses or phone numbers. She has looked online and asked Yad Vashem, Bat Yam municipal officials, even the nursing home for information. Bar-Semech was interviewed on the Israeli radio program "Hamador L’chipus Krovim" (Searching for Relatives Bureau).

“I’m curious to know where the family disappeared to, whether they have come to visit the kibbutz or the grave, whether there was a connection to the kibbutz and, if so, why it stopped,” Bar-Semech told a visitor on Tuesday. Kibbutz members occasionally touch up the black lettering on Kowalski’s headstone, Bar-Semech said as she brushed off some stray leaves that had fallen on it.

According to Yad Vashem’s “Encyclopedia of the Righteous,” from 1940 until the war’s end, Kowalski “put all his energy and money into saving Jews,” keeping them in his Warsaw home and with relatives and friends. After the Nazis suppressed the city’s revolt and emptied its population, Kowalski “refused to abandon the Jewish refugees hiding under his care; he prepared a bunker amid the rubble of Warsaw and stayed there” until the Russians liberated the area in January 1945, the entry continues.

A document in Yad Mordechai’s archives credits Kowalski with saving 56 Jews “in various ways,” and states that he was a World War I veteran who earned a degree in ergonomic engineering and worked in Warsaw for Phillips.

In 1947, Kowalski married Lea Buchholz, one of the Jews he rescued. Buchholz already had a son, Michael. The three moved to Israel in 1957, where another kibbutz document states that Miriam was born.

When Kowalski died on Feb. 3, 1971, at age 75, Israel’s rabbinate and Jewish cemeteries refused to inter him because of his Christian faith. Bar-Semech thinks that Kowalski was in the process of converting to Judaism and perhaps even was circumcised in preparation. She also referred to his will expressing his desire to be buried “among my brothers the Jews.”

With the intervention of future Tel Aviv chief rabbi Yedidya Frankel, Yad Mordechai agreed to accept him for burial, and Wieneman delivered the eulogy during a funeral held in a torrential rain.

“We are too small to appreciate and understand the superior motives of this man who risked his own life to save tens of Jews from the sharp claws of the Nazi beast,” Wieneman said. In the next sentence he slammed those who had prevented Kowalski’s burial as a Jew.

“But we are still enraged at those who were obligated to respect this man after his death but saw an opportunity to disgrace him in the eyes of the modern world and of his family,” Weineman said. “It’s our honor that Kowalski’s body lies here in our kibbutz cemetery. His great character and his great actions will serve as a symbol to us and our children of all that is pure and good in humankind, and will strengthen our belief and hope that the brotherhood of nations will ultimately defeat racist hatred and brutal nationalism.”

Seven weeks ago, on a chilly but clear day, Bar-Semech and Shira Rubinstein, a museum educator, laid flowers on Kowalski’s grave on the 41st anniversary of his death.

“Since we can’t find his family, I did it to show that we do remember him and do appreciate what he did,” Rubinstein explained. “If we find them, it would be something great. It would solve this riddle.”

Please email Hillel Kuttler at seekingkin@jta.org if you know the whereabouts of Wladyslaw Kowalski’s descendants or if you would like the help of “Seeking Kin” in searching for long-lost relatives and friends. Include the principal facts and your contact information in a brief (one-paragraph) email.

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