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The Extraordinary Life Of Leopold Kozlowski, The Last Klezmer Of Galicia

This article originally appeared in the Yiddish Forverts.

Leopold Kozlowski, the last active musician to have grown up playing traditional Jewish music in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, died March 12 in Krakow at the age of 100. A world-renowned expert on Jewish music and a teacher who trained generations of klezmer musicians and Yiddish singers in Poland, Kozlowski remained a dynamic performer until his final days.

The boy who some 80 years later would gain fame as “the Last Klezmer of Galicia” was born Pesach Kleinman in November 1918 in the town of Premishlian — then Przemyślany, Poland, today Peremyshliany, Ukraine — about 30 miles from Lwów, Poland (today Lviv, Ukraine). His grandfather, after whom he was named, was the legendary Klezmer musician Pesach Brandwein, one of the most famous traditional Jewish musicians of the 19th century, who with his nine sons performed both at Hasidic celebrations and for heads of state like the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph.

Brandwein, who strove for his sons to master both traditional Jewish and classical music, created a musical dynasty, with many of his descendants splitting off and forming family orchestras throughout Galicia. The clan also gained renown in America. Brandwein’s son, the clarinetist Naftuli Brandwein, settled in New York in 1908 and became a recording star known as the “King of Jewish Music.”

Because of the family’s fame, Brandwein’s youngest son, Tsvi-Hirsch, felt that in order to prove his skills as a musician he would have to strike out on his own and earn his reputation under a new name. He adopted his mother’s maiden name, Kleinman, and as a result, his sons were not widely associated with their famous uncle and grandfather. As fate would have it, Kleinman’s sons — Pesach, who would eventually be known as Leopold Kozlowski, and Yitzhak, also known as Adolf — would prove to be the greatest musical talents of all of Brandwein’s grandchildren.

Polket, as Kozlowski’s close friends and family called him until his final days, excelled at the accordion and later the piano. His brother, often called Dulko and 15 months his junior, gained renown as a violin prodigy.

Kleinman family

From right to left: Adolf (Yitzkhak/Dulko) Kleinman, Leopold (Pesach/Polket) Kleinman and Herman (Tsvi-Hirsch) Kleinman, 1930. Image by Courtesy of Yale Strom Archive

By the time the two began playing gigs with their father in the 1930s, musicians in Poland had fallen on hard times, as the Great Depression meant most families couldn’t afford to hire a band for weddings. So in 1933, Kleinman left Poland in search of work. With immigration to America effectively cut off for Jews, he set his sights on Argentina, settling in the city of Tres Arroyes, about 500 miles south of Buenos Aires. There, he founded a klezmer band and began playing in a classical orchestra, sending most of his earnings home to his wife and sons in hopes of eventually bringing them to join him. But times were tough in Argentina as well, and Kleinman was barely making enough to make ends meet. In 1937, he returned to Premishlian.

Like his own father, Kleinman strove for his sons to become accomplished classical musicians. As Kozlowski recalled decades later, his father would often tell him: “no conservatory wants you to play Jewish music at your audition!” The brothers devoted nearly all of their free time to practicing and performing. Their dedication paid off. When the province of Lwów, which at that time had about 3.2 million residents, held a contest to find its best young classical musicians, Adolf Kleinman was awarded the top honor and Kozlowski the number-two spot.

The brothers were admitted to the Lwów Conservatory, where they studied with the crème de la crème of Poland’s interwar classical music scene. They completed their studies in the spring of 1941; Kozlowski played Edvard Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A Minor” at his graduation recital.

Their time in conservatory was far from idyllic, however. After Germany and the USSR conquered Poland in 1939, splitting the country in two, Lwów Province, including Premishlian, became part of Soviet Ukraine. Kozlowski’s hometown was flooded with Polish Jews who gave increasingly dire accounts of the situation in Nazi-occupied Poland. Seeing the large number of refugees in Lwów (now Lviv) and Premishlian, Kozlowski had a premonition of terrible days ahead.

When Germany invaded the USSR on June 22, Kozlowski’s mother told him, his brother and his father to flee. Like most Jews in their town, the family believed that the Germans would only kill Jewish men of fighting age. So Kleinman and his sons slung their instruments over their shoulders and hurried after the retreating Soviet army, traveling 200 miles on foot in a little over a week until they were intercepted by the German army in a small town on the outskirts of Kiev. Realizing that capture meant near certain death, they searched for a place to hide; coming upon a cemetery, they dug with their hands and hid in caskets alongside the dead. But one can only remain hidden in a grave for so long; once they surfaced, they were immediately captured by German soldiers who aimed their guns. But just before the soldiers were about to fire, Kleinman asked them to let him and his sons play them a song. The soldiers assented, and the three musicians began playing. Slowly the soldiers lowered their rifles. After checking to see that they were not in view of any other Germans, the soldiers gave Kleinman and his sons some food and left. The three Jews returned to their coffins.

Not seeing any better options, Kleinman, the following morning, told his sons “The Germans are both here and in Premishlian. We might as well go home.” They made the long trek back to their hometown, traveling by night and hiding in the forests by day. Three times German soldiers captured them, and each time they were released after playing a song.

Reunited with his mother, Kozlowski lived at home until November 5, when the Gestapo came to his town and ordered all Jews older than 18 to assemble in the marketplace. From there the Germans led 360 Jews into the forest and shot them after making them dig their own graves. Among them was Kleinman. Kozlowski would later learn that his mother had been murdered soon thereafter, when German soldiers found her hiding in a nearby barn.

Hearing the gunfire, Kozlowski and his brother fled. They were quickly captured and sent to the Kurovychi concentration camp near Lviv, a satellite of the Janowska death camp. Both brothers were soon inducted into the camp’s orchestra. When SS officials learned of Kozlowski’s skill as a composer, they ordered him to compose a “Death Tango” to be played by the orchestra every time that Jews were led to their execution.

Recognizing Kozlowski and Adolf Kleinman’s talent, SS officers often brought the brothers to their drunken late-night carousals, ordering them to play dance music. There, they were frequently made to strip naked and play as Germans extinguished cigarettes on their bare skin. Despite the physical and psychological torture, Kozlowski saw in these “concerts” an opportunity to escape.

After befriending a Ukrainian guard with a drinking problem, the brothers and several other inmates devised a plan. While Kozlowski and Adolf Kleinman distracted a group of SS officers with their playing, a third inmate stole a bottle of vodka from them and gave it to the guard while he watched over the camp fence. After the guard blacked out, the inmates grabbed his wire cutters and made a hole in the barbed wire.

As soon as the inmates crossed the threshold, the camp’s searchlights lit up the fence and the sound of gunfire reverberated in all directions. Several inmates fell just outside of the fence; others were bitten by guard dogs and summarily executed. Running alongside his brother with his accordion over his shoulder, Kozlowski felt several sharp jabs in his shoulder blades. When he examined his accordion later, he found multiple holes; the accordion had blocked the bullets’ path, leaving him unscathed. (The accordion is now on display at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow.)

Soon after, the brothers joined a Jewish partisan unit. Both there, and later in the Polish Home Army, the brothers played Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, Jewish and Romani folksongs. During an interview with the Forverts, the musician and filmmaker Yale Strom, a longtime friend of Kozlowski, noted that music not only saved Kozlowski’s life several times, but also helped heal his psychological wounds. “This process began among the partisans in the forest,” said Strom.

By April 1944 the brothers were serving in a Jewish platoon of the Home Army. At the time, the Home Army in Galicia was fighting against both the Germans and the Nazi-allied Ukrainian Insurgent Army. On April 10 their platoon came to the aide of a Polish village that the Insurgent Army was attempting to ethnically cleanse. Suffering from festering blisters on his feet, Adolf Kleinman was unable to walk. Since the Home Army planned to send all able-bodied fighters into the village to protect its women and children, there were no fighters available to stay behind to guard their injured comrades. Adolf Kleinman and several other wounded men were hidden in bushes. But when Kozlowski returned from his mission, he found his brother stabbed to death.

“Polket could never forgive himself for not being able to save Dulko,” Strom said. “He would often think to himself: ‘Maybe if I had carried him on my back, maybe I could have done something differently.’ Of everything he went through, that was the main thing he could never make peace with.”

“Polket was well aware that he was a great musician and he was not shy to brag about himself,” Strom continued. “But as good as he was, he felt that Dulko was head and shoulders better than him. He considered him to be the greatest talent in the whole family.”

Kozlowski settled in Krakow shortly after the war ended. Orphaned, alone and in need of steady work, he enlisted in the Polish army, which had been integrated into the Soviet military. Although the Germans were gone, he still feared anti-Semitic violence, especially after a mob of Poles, including soldiers and police officers, murdered 42 of their Jewish neighbors in Kielce on July 4, 1946. He soon changed his Jewish surname to the Polish “Kozlowski,” which he retained for the rest of his life.

His military career took off; he was appointed conductor of Krakow County’s army band and awarded the rank of colonel. Later, he would conduct one of the most important army orchestras in Poland. Kozlowski served his fatherland for 22 years, until one day in 1968 he came into his office only to be told that he was being relieved of his command and discharged. Kozlowski immediately understood that, like many Jews, his career had fallen victim to president Wladyslaw Gomulka’s anti-Semitic campaign.

“He thought to himself: ‘I’ve already changed my name, already hidden my identity and I’ve served more than 20 years in the Polish army and yet I’m still considered ‘the Jew,’” Strom said. “‘I’d be better off not hiding anymore. I might as well play Jewish music.’”

So in 1968, when most Polish Jews, including the musical directors of the Polish State Yiddish Theater, left the country, Kozlowski saw an opportunity. He reached out to the theater’s remaining directors and was hired to compose original scores and coach the actors in singing with an authentic Yiddish intonation. He also began playing at community celebrations for Krakow’s Jewish community and teaching children Yiddish songs.

But it wasn’t until perestroika that Kozlowski was able to connect with klezmer musicians abroad. In 1985, he visited the U.S. and met the leaders of the nascent klezmer revival movement.

“None of us knew who he was at first,” Strom recalled. “I first met him in Poland in the beginning of the 1980s and it took a while until he felt comfortable talking about his family or what he had gone through during the war.”

In 1990, Strom released the documentary film “At the Crossroads: Jewish Life in Eastern Europe Today,” which includes several scenes of Kozlowski performing and speaking about his life.

“The response was tremendous,” Strom said. “That pushed me to make a whole documentary about him.”

But Strom wasn’t the only American filmmaker who was interested in Kozlowski. Stephen Spielberg met him in Krakow while scouting locations for “Schindler’s List.” The two hit it off, and Spielberg hired him both as a musical consultant for the film and to play a small speaking role.

“For Polket it was proof that he had made it professionally,” Strom said.

Strom’s documentary, “The Last Klezmer: Leopold Kozlowski, His Life and Music,” which was released in 1994, a year after “Schindler’s List,” transformed Kozlowski into a celebrity in Poland, where the film was shown several times on national television. Passersby began to recognize him on the street, and he was invited to perform at music festivals and workshops throughout the country, as well as in Germany, the Netherlands and Israel.

While shooting “The Last Klezmer” Strom arranged for Kozlowski to visit Premishlian for the first time since the day his parents were murdered some 50 years before. The evening before they were set to leave, Kozlowski, then in his 70s, told friends that he was afraid that he would suffer a nervous breakdown and remain in Premishlian forever. When he came to the mass grave at the site where his father was murdered he lit a memorial candle and fell to the ground weeping.

Kozlowski seemingly became more active and well-known with every passing year until his mid-90s. Besides international festival appearances and his regular concerts at the Krakow restaurant Klezmer Hois, he gave an annual concert with his students as part of Krakow’s international Jewish cultural festival. Even at 99 he was still the star of the show, playing piano for two hours, his virtuoso skills hardly diminished by his advanced age.

In his final years, Kozlowski spent much of his time in Kazimierz, Krakow’s historic Jewish quarter, which has become an international tourist attraction. He would often receive visitors from abroad at his regular table at Klezmer Hois. Among the Jewish cemeteries, synagogues that functioned primarily as museums, stores that sold Jewish kitsch and quasi-Jewish restaurants, Kozlowski himself had become a sort of tourist attraction, the last living link to the music of prewar Jewish life.

Kozlowski had mixed feelings about the future of klezmer music in Poland. On the one hand, he often said that a person cannot be taught to be a klezmer musician, that one must be born into a family of klezmorim and learn the music from birth. He called himself “The Last Klezmer” because he believed that he was the last person to have grown up in such a cultural milieu.

On the other hand, he dedicated himself completely to teaching his students, nearly all of whom were not Jewish, how to play Klezmer music and sing in Yiddish. And in so doing, Kozlowski insured that his music would live on for generations.

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