Century Club: Centenarian calls long life a victory over Nazis

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Manuel Kolski will not forget, cannot forget what happened to him in Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a Nazi concentration/extermination camp in Poland. When he was 96, he returned there with his family, sometimes wiping his eyes as he recounted what he had seen. From memory, he quietly repeated a tour guide’s reading of the words of Elie Wiesel remembering his first night at Auschwitz:

“Never shall I forget these things, even if I’m condemned to live as long as God himself.”

Mr. Kolski will not live that long, but he celebrated his 100th birthday Saturday with family and friends in Squirrel Hill. The theme of the party was Chazak v Amatz, which means strength and courage in Hebrew. He is not as strong as he once was, but he believes his long life is a victory over the Nazis, one he shares with his mother and the other 1.2 million people murdered at Birkenau — 1.1 million Jews and 110,000 Gentiles.

Manny Kolski was born Aug. 28, 1914, in Isbiza, Poland, the youngest of Asher Kliesewski and Chana Kolski’s four children and the only boy. When he was 6, he helped support his family by selling fruit-flavored soda water. Several years later, he and his family moved to nearby Lodz. 

In the late 1930s, he served in the Polish army and was posted to the Russian border. He was captured and spent time in two German concentration camps, Ahlem and Gross Rosen. He was released back to Lodz and worked as a fireman in the Jewish ghetto. When he was in his 20s, he helped dig his father’s grave. Four years ago, he returned to Lodz and went looking for that grave, as shown in a documentary by Shaul Lilove, “Poland, Personally.” (http://vimeo.com/27477353)

The film tracks Mr. Kolski as he leads a large group of family, teachers and students from Pittsburgh to places that he knew in Poland. At Birkenau, he recounts how guards separated him from his mother as soon as they stepped off the train, screaming at the terrified Jews.

“’Schnell! Schnell! Schnell!’ Everything fast,” he said, adding that he believed both of them would be gassed. Only she was.

“I didn’t tell her anything. What’s the use? Better to say nothing.”

He was freed by the British army in 1945 and returned to Poland to look for the rest of his family, but none had survived. At a displaced persons camp, he met fellow survivor Elka Akin and they were married in Germany. Their first daughter, Annette Kolski-Andreaco of Squirrel Hill, was born in 1947. Two years later, they immigrated to the U.S. and eventually settled in Highland Park. Their second daughter, Margie Segal of Los Angeles, was born in 1952.

Mr. Kolski worked for 25 years at United Baking Co. on the South Side. He and his wife had five grandsons. She died March 2, 2005, and Mr. Kolski moved to Maxon Towers Apartments in Squirrel Hill, which held a birthday party for him Thursday.

Ms. Kolski-Andreaco said her father attributes his longevity to his positive attitude and will to live.

“He doesn't waste time complaining about anything. He moves forward. He's resilient in the truest sense of the word,” she said, adding that he also eats chicken soup every night without fail.

Despite what he has seen and experienced, he remains fun-loving and charismatic, she said.

“I believe he lives well as a way of denying the Nazis victory. If those experiences changed him, it was to solidify his commitment to living a full life.”

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