When Alex Kozlowski died peacefully at home this week at age 81, those in Tacoma who knew him remembered him as a car salesman who loved playing cards.
What they didn’t know would fill a book ,which is what Kozlowski tried to do in the years before his death, asking a niece to help with his biography.
Anne Davies was happy to do so, and stunned by the stories the uncle she’d known for 40 years told her.
For one, he was born Olec Scheidt in Poland around 1932 to a Jewish family that incluced his grandparents and five aunts. In today’s column on Kozlowski, his widow, Gloria, and his niece talk of a life of fear, pain, secrecy and adventure two of his four wives never knew about.
Why did he choose to tell his life story so near his death?
“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, ” Ms. Davies said.
“He knew he was dying. He was urgent but not emotional.”
Kozlowski survived the holocaust thanks to an aunt who hid him, shuttling him from one small apartment to another throughout World War II. His parents did not, one uncle was shot and killed by Nazis and his grandmother was taken away and never heard from again.
After the war, he an a cousin worked their way across Europe, walking the final 50 miles, to apply for children’s visas to the United States. Using a forged birth certificate under the name of ‘Alex Kozlowski,’ he sailed to America and a new life.
No one except his last two wives knew he was Jewish, he had only a second-grade education and was 15 years old upon arrival.
At 16, he was in the Air Force, working intelligence in Europe, then as part of a highly-decorated helicopter rescue crew in Vietnam. Along the way, he married and divorced twice, fathered four children, was all but lost to each.
After retiring from the Air Force, he was flown to the Northwest and, liking the way it looked from the air, settled in Tacoma. He sold cars, married Ms. Davies’ aunt and they were together until her death 10 years ago.
When he married Gloria eight years ago, he said there were things about him she didn’t know. Slowly, she learned. On the inside of his front door, for instance, Kozlowski kept a Star of David.
Late in his life, Kozlowski reconnected with each of his grown children, and when he and Ms. Davies finished his ‘biography’ – condensed to just under 50 pages – each of the children got a copy.
“Alex went to his grave regretting his early relationship with his children,” Gloria said. “They had made amends the last few years.”
Alex Kozlowski is a reminder not to assume we ever know all there is to know about the people around us.