Like many of the young men in early months of the war, Jan Komski, a Polish Roman Catholic, was arrested on the Poland/Czechoslovakia border attempting to reach the newly formed Polish Army in France. He was carrying false identity papers under an assumed name of Jan Baras. He was first taken to the prison at Tarnow and then sent to Auschwitz, arriving there, along with 727 other Polish men, on June 14, 1940.
It was the very first prisoner transport to arrive in Auschwitz. The prisoners were given numbers 31 -758. Mr. Komski was given number 564. These early numbers were not tattooed on prisoners’ arms, a lucky thing.
After two and one half years in the camp, Jan Komski and three comrades, Mieczyslaw Januszewski, Boleslaw Kuczbara, and Otto Küsel, participated in one of the most famous escapes in the history of that infamous camp. This escape was significant because it was among the first to be organized by the illegal camp resistance movement, and with the help of the local population.
In the morning of Dec 29, 1942, a two wheel cart drawn by two horses passed the gate at Auschwitz in the afternoon. It carried Kuczbara, dressed in a stolen SS uniform. Alongside walked three inmates, seemingly being escorted by the SS-man. They aroused no suspicion as Otto Küsel was known to all the Blockführers (SS Block Commanders). When they reached the check point at the border of the big sentry chain, Kuczbara showed the guards a cleverly forged pass. His uniform and the pass convinced them to allow the cart and the prisoners through. The men simply walked out of the camp.
They made it to the village of Broszkowice where they met a resistance woman who gave them civilian clothes. They spent the night at the home of Andrzej Harat, who actually rented the apartment above them to an SS officer.
Mr. Komski eventually reached the city of Krakow, where he was arrested in a routine roundup as he was sitting on a train awaiting departure for Warsaw. Any escaped prisoner would have been hanged very soon after his return to Auschwitz. But, Komski was not recognized and his identity papers now bore a different name.
All the people arrested in the round-up were taken in trucks to the Montelupi Prison,where they were unloaded and made to march through a gauntlet of guards. Komski was the last in line. Afraid he would be sent back to Auschwitz where he would surely be recongized, he pushed two armed guards out of the way and bolted into the street. Many guards pursued shouting and firing their rifles. Bullets whizzed by his head. One struck him in the ankle and he fell. The guards rushed up and started talking about killing him on the spot. They did not know he understood German. Mr. Komski says, he was certain he was going to die, and saw his friends and family all flash before his eyes. A visual thinker even in these circumstances, he even saw himself dead. But then one of the guards said they couldn’t just shoot him in the street. They had to do it in the prison. They beat him, knocked him unconscious and brought him inside the walls. Revived somehow, he heard them say they were taking him to the prison hospital instead. There, bloody and beaten, his wound was bandaged and never changed. Luckily it did not become infected.
Three months later, his wound healed, he was sent to Auschwitz.
Approaching the front gate, he was afraid of being recognized by the SS. One prisoner, actually an informer, did recognize him but instead of turning him over to the SS, went to the prisoners who ran the office. Unbeknownst to him, those men were part of the camp resistance movement. They managed to cut orders sending Komski immediately to Auschwitz II, Birkenau, about 2 km from Auschwitz I. There he was never recognized.
Mr. Komski was eventually sent to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, then back to Krakow for interrogation, than to another camp in Poland, Gross Rosen. From there he was shipped to Sachsenburg and then finally Dachau. General Patton’s boys liberated that camp on May 2, 1945.
After the war, Mr. Komski immigrated to the USA, became a US citizen, and worked for the Washington post as an illustrator for many years. At 86, he is painting every day and, weather permitting, walks every day as well.
Mr. Komski passed away in 2002, at the age of 87. Till his last days, he remained alert, lively, very courteous and caring of others.
Photo taken an hour after Komski’s arrival in Andrzej Harat’s
house after his escape from Auschwitz.
From left: Mieczyslaw Januszewski, Jan Komski(standing), Otto Küsel,
Boleslaw Kuczbara, Andrzej Harat and his daughter Wladyslawa Harat.