Feb. 20, 1922 – Sept. 14, 2018
The death of Jozef Zawitkowski in Buffalo General Medical Center Sept. 14 was front-page news in his native Poland.
The last surviving soldier from his unit in the underground Polish Home Army in World War II, he had been interviewed and honored extensively in recent years.
Historians sought him out and used his wartime recollections to correct errors in textbooks. He was due to receive another medal in Poland later this year, which one of his nephews now will accept.
“He had this internal obligation and drive to continue sharing his experiences,” his daughter, Elzbieta Orlowski, said.
Born in Nisko, near the Ukrainian border, the oldest of three children, he was a high school student taking military officer training when the Germans invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. He soon became part of the resistance.
In 1943, he joined the Polish Home Army. He became a deputy commander in charge of some 300 members in the legendary “Ojciec Jan” unit, which hid in the Janow Forest in southeast Poland and frequently attacked German convoys and patrols.
His unit helped save the lives of a British flight crew after their bomber crashed while supplying arms to the Polish partisans. For their rescue efforts, Mr. Zawitkowski later was given honorary membership in the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society.
Speaking with Buffalo News reporter Lou Michel in 2017, Mr. Zawitkowski recounted how his unit survived an all-out assault by German forces that surrounded the forest in 1944 and escaped at night through an area filled with quicksand.
As the war ended, Polish Home Army soldiers continued their resistance, this time against the Soviet forces that occupied Poland. Mr. Zawitkowski was taken into custody.
“My dad was interrogated by the Communists,” his son, Jan, told Michel. “They threatened and tried to break him, but did not succeed.”
Mr. Zawitkowski returned to civilian life and, on Dec. 26, 1945, married Janina Machut, who also had served with the Polish Home Army, as an informant. A baker and housekeeper in a German officer’s residence, she listened to radio broadcasts and passed what she heard along to partisan forces.
They made a home in Namyslow, near Wroclaw in southwestern Poland, where he became a district auditor for a group of retail stores.
In 1964, he received permission to visit his brother, Wladyslaw “Walter,” who also had served with the Ojciec Jan unit. He had escaped to England during the war and started a new life in America.
After lengthy diplomatic negotiations, Mr. Zawitkowski, his wife and five children were granted visas to come to the U.S. Settling near his brother in Auburn, he worked in the machine shop in the Singer sewing machine factory Auburn and as a machine operator for Chrysler Corp. in Syracuse.
“When we came to the U.S., we were at the bottom of the totem pole. It was a big change,” his daughter said. “There weren’t any handouts. You had to be a survivor. You had to work hard and have pride.”
In 1970, the family moved to Rochester, where Mr. Zawitkowski worked for Xerox in quality control until his retirement in 1985. He was active in Polish-American veterans organizations there and frequently sent packages of consumer items to his friends in Poland.
When Poland’s communist government fell in 1989, his daughter said, he was overjoyed.
“It was like he never thought that he’d live long enough to see that moment,” she said.
The Polish Home Army finally was recognized for its accomplishments. He returned for its 60th anniversary celebration and reunited with members of his former unit.
He received many honors, including the Polish Officer’s Cross, the Polish Veteran’s Medal and the Order of Grunwald.
When he was given the Order of Independence Cross with Swords by Polish President Andrzej Duda, he declared: “I am accepting the Cross on behalf of all members of the Ojciec Jan unit, who have died fighting, were tortured, executed, spent many years in Communist prisons or Soviet gulags after the war, and on behalf of those who were unable to witness free Poland.”
He also received from Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak the Gold Medal for Contributions to the Defense of the Country and promotion to the rank of colonel.
He was a member of St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Church in Rochester. In recent years, started spending most of his time in Wilson, where some of his children reside. He attended St. Brendan on the Lake Catholic Church in Wilson and became a resident of Lockport Presbyterian Home.
His wife, who was honored with the rank of captain in the Polish Home Army, died in 2013.
Survivors include two other daughters, Kristina Zienciuk-Ignacak and Jadwiga Gucwa; another son, Andre; 13 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be arranged. Burial will be next to his wife in the military cemetery in the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa, Doylestown, Pa.