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  • Leopold Kozłowski26 November 1918‒12 March 2019
  • Antony Polonsky (bio)

Leopold Kozłowski, who died on 12 March having reached the venerable age of 100, was often described as the 'last klezmer'. Born in Przemyślany (now Peremyshlany in western Ukraine), near Lviv, into a musical family, his original name was Kleinman. His maternal grandfather, Pesach Brandwein, was a famous klezmer violinist, and his father, Zvi (Herman), and Zvi's eleven brothers were also musicians. According to Leopold, 'They even appeared before Kaiser Franz Joseph'. Another of Pesach Brandwein's sons, Naftule, a clarinettist, emigrated to the United States in 1908, where he had a successful career in the 1920s. Leopold's brother, Yitzhak-Dulko, was a gifted violinist, the winner of a pre-war music competition in Lwów province in which Leopold won second place. After graduating from Gymnasium, he studied piano at the Lviv Conservatory.

Leopold and his family suffered greatly during the war. Przemyślany, a town of 7,000 people, half of them Jews, was annexed by the Soviets after the Polish defeat in 1939. Its population nearly doubled as Jews fled there to escape Nazi rule. After the invasion of the Soviet Union in July 1941, however, it was occupied by the Nazis; a ghetto was established, and many Jews were sent to nearby labour camps and to the death camp of Bełżec. The final destruction of the ghetto took place in May 1943, and the town was now declared 'Judenrein'. When it was liberated in July 1944, only a few dozen survivors returned from their hiding places in the town and surrounding forests.

Leopold, his father, and his brother initially fled eastward with the retreating Red Army soldiers. His mother stayed behind, believing that the Germans would not harm women. The men got as far as the outskirts of Kiev, where they hid in a cemetery, 'right among the graves', in Leopold's words. Subsequently they returned to Przemyślany, where in November 1941 the Gestapo ordered all the Jewish adults to assemble in the town square. According to Leopold, 'My father went, together with 360 other Jews … They brought them to the forest and shot them all.' His mother was murdered soon after, when her hiding place in a barn was discovered. Leopold spent several months in the labour camp at Kurowice. He recounted that he taught a Nazi officer the accordion in exchange for food, and that, on another occasion, the Nazis forced him to compose a 'death tango' [End Page 513] and play while other Jews were led to their deaths. He and his brother Dulko escaped and joined the partisans in the summer of 1943, but Dulko was stabbed to death by Ukrainian collaborators.

Leopold survived and resettled in Kraków, where he studied conducting at the Higher State Music School. He recalled that he went there for the first time as a soldier after the war ended in the spring of 1945: 'I knew nothing about this city, even less about Kazimierz. I went there, I saw around me the landscape of death: houses without people, mutilated blinds, silent stones, and I felt that these stones needed music, my klezmer music, which was so brutally taken from them.' For twenty-three years he was the conductor and musical director of a military orchestra. He subsequently became musical director of the Jewish Theatre in Warsaw and of a Roma musical ensemble. He composed music for films and the theatre, and even acted in Schindler's List, also serving as an adviser on the music of the ghetto. He produced six versions of Fiddler on the Roof. Music was central to him. In his words, 'Music saved my life. I was in a concentration camp, in a ghetto and in the forest. Music gave me strength. Hitler destroyed Judaism, but not its music. It lives forever.'

He performed widely in Poland, Europe, the United States, and Israel, and continued to play until the end of his life, appearing annually at the Kraków Festival of Jewish Culture. The subject of a 1994 documentary film, The Last Klezmer: Leopold Kozlowski, His Life and Music, made by...


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