Alexander Kozlowski died in his Tacoma home Monday, an 81-year-old retired car salesman with many friends.
Few of them knew his life story. That was intentional. Kozlowski told only two of his four wives about himself and, until recently, none of his four children.
Two years ago, sitting in his backyard with his niece Anne Marie Davies, he surprised her with a question.
Would you help me write my biography? he asked.
Over the months that followed, Kozlowski told the story of his life. Davies took it down and put it in manuscript form at her Port Gamble home.
He started at the beginning when his name was not Kozlowski.
He was born Olec Scheidt in Poland around 1932, Davies said. The past haunted him and he battled that for a lifetime. I think in the end, he wanted to explain to his children. He was a wonderful uncle, but not a good father. He had lost so much in his life, I think he was afraid of losing them, too.
He knew he was dying. He was urgent but not emotional.
Kozlowskis earliest memories were of his grandmother, mother and five aunts and of being beaten by Polish children for being Jewish. Before the start of World War II, his country was invaded by Germany from one direction, Russia from another.
I remember speaking Polish in first grade and Russian in the second grade, he told his niece. There was no third grade.
By the time he was nine, the Germans had taken Poland, and Kozlowski and his family were forced into a Jewish ghetto camp. His father was taken and never seen again. His uncle was shot dead. Food was scarce, and Kozlowski remembered constant hunger.
The Germans took his grandmother away, then his mother died. An aunt, Zosia, took him and, with her husband, hid him until they bribed their way out of the ghetto and into a series of small apartments.
Kozlowski told his niece how from one apartment, which he was forbidden to leave, he saw Jews hung from fire escapes. Others starved on the streets below.
He and Aunt Zosia took a train to Warsaw, living in another series of apartments, aware that being discovered meant death. Zosia worked and would bring her nephew books, which he learned to read.
In 1945, with a cousin, Kozlowski took a series of trains out of Poland. The war was over, but Jews were not wanted in many places. He got through Czechoslovakia, Hungary, then walked the final 50 miles into Austria.
Using a forged birth certificate in the name of Alex Kozlowski he was granted a childs visa.
He reached America at age 15 and started life again.
His widow, Gloria Kozlowski, said that new life wasnt easy.
Hed never gone past second grade, but here they put him in 12th grade because of his age, she said. Everything he learned was self-taught. So much had happened to him early in his life, he just didnt tell anyone about it.
Kozlowski joined the service at 16, lying about his age. He planned to stay in it for two years, instead made it 20, serving the newly founded Air Force in intelligence in Europe. He retired after flying with a highly honored rescue helicopter crew in Vietnam.
Alex was married four times, married for 35 years to my aunt, who died 10 years ago, Davies said. Alex loved women and was a bit of a bad boy. My aunt knew his story, but she never told anyone.
Kozlowski came to Tacoma right out of the service because he liked the climate and the region. He began a career selling cars, working for South Tacoma Chevrolet.
None of his children, all from his first two failed marriages, had a relationship with him.
After his third wife died, Kozlowski met Gloria at an Elks Club dance.
I was there to dance, he was there in the back playing poker, and when he came out we were introduced, Gloria said. He asked someone if she thought he could call me. I handed him a card with my name and telephone number on it that said Love me, love my dog.
Alex said, I already love your dog. We went out to dinner and that was that. We were meant to meet.
When Kozlowski began his biography, Gloria heard some stories for the first time. As he neared the end of his life, much of what he said became poignant.
Im coming to the pine box age and I want to put a little closure on things, which is very hard to do, he said. Im not afraid of dying. Its not like Im the only guy its going happen to. Everybody dies.
Ive outlived so much that death doesnt scare me. I beat the odds against Hitler and lived, so every day after that has been a bonus.
There will be no services for Kozlowski, who died of cancer. Instead, Gloria said, he asked that anyone who cared to could donate to Tacoma-area food banks.
All his life, he remembered being hungry, seeing people starving, she said. I was going through some papers and saw hed been making donations to (Friends In Service to Him Food Banks) and the Tacoma food bank as long as hed lived here.
Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638