Kopelman Leon

Leon Kopelman - Personal data
Date of birth: 26th April 1924
Place of birth: Warszawa
Date of death: 21st August 2021
Place of death:
Occupation: Holocaust survivor, participant in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Warsaw Uprising; businessman
Related towns: Warsaw

Kopelman Leon (codename “Lolek”) (born 26.04.1924, Warsaw, Poland – died 13.08.2021, Israel) – survivor of the Warsaw ghetto who fought in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and in the 1944 Warsaw Uprisng (Radosław unit – regiment Broda 53, volunteer soldier in „Zośka” Battalion).

Leon Kopelman was born on 26.04.1924 in Warsaw, Poland, to Icchak Ari Kopelman (born 1896) and Brejndla „Bronis” nee Ehrlich from Lublin (born 1900). His sister was Guta (Genia, born 1918) and they both came from a religious family. He graduated from the yeshiva school in Ger / Gora Kalwaria. Leon recounted that his family ran a tailoring supplies store at No.7 Krucza Street in Warsaw which ensured they were well-off: “We were not very wealthy, but lived well. I spent my younger years without encountering any troubles.”

He began his education in a Polish public school on Poznanska Street in Warsaw, and then went on to study at a high school (“gymnasium”). He was also a member of the Makabi sports club in Warsaw.

Even before the outbreak of WWII, Leon's sister and father managed to leave for Palestine. Leon and his mother were packed and ready to follow them, but the German invasion made their departure impossible. In 1940, they were both forcibly moved to the Warsaw Ghetto and lived in an apartment on Ceglana Street. Leon was made member of a 30 strong chain gang taken to work on Narutowicza Square. There he unloaded and reloaded coal trains, as well as working in the German police stables. As he recalled for a project called Polish Roots in Israel: “Our situation was not too bad compared to others in the ghetto, especially since it allowed me to contact Polish workmen who were paid for their work by the Germans. We (Jews) would hand over some of our possessions in exchange for food which we took back to the ghetto. In addition they allowed us to take food from their staff mess.”

Things changed in 1942 as ghetto prisoners began being deported to the Treblinka II Nazi death camp. Kopelman's mother was captured in a street round-up and was sent to Treblinka in June of 1942.

Following this event, Leon Kopelman joined the Jewish Combat Organisation (Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa) and during round-ups on 18 January 1943 together with his co-workers on Narutowicza Sq. he hid in one of the bunkers: “The doors were already covered with snow. Meanwhile, we showed a gendarme who came to collect us where our hiding place was. The Germans needed us to do work, they were completely helpless without us. During the January campaigns. Hans – this was the name of the gendarme from Narutowicza Sq. – drove up in an armoured truck to the ghetto. He knew where to look for us. He drove up to the snow-covered doors of our bunker and called out: 'This is me, Hans, come out!'. We emerged from our hiding place. He said he was there to take us to work. We wondered whether he was telling the truth or whether he intended to finish us off. Some of us hid in a shelter in the house opposite. We conferred, seeing as we were unsure of what to do next. Whether to call our friends to come out of the shelter across the street or to pretend we did not know where the rest of our work gang had got to. In the end we decided that if we were lost then we'd go together, we and the rest of our group. We went to get them and they emerged from their hiding place. The gendarme drove us out of the ghetto, while the deportations went on, although not for long.”[1.1].

Kopelman's gang worked on Narutowicza Sq. until the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising broke out on 19 April 1943 – Kopelman said: “The Germans surrounded the whole ghetto with plenty of soldiers, readied artillery positions and started burning the houses down one by one. We had all sorts of shelters and bunkers in them, but there is no way of getting away from fire. This forced everyone, including those who were members of underground organisations and fought against the Germans, to come out and surrender. The Germans took everyone to Umschlagplatz. I decided I did not want to be burnt alive, discarded my weapons and came out along with everyone else.”

Kopelman surrendered and was taken to Umschlagplatz, where following selections he was taken to work in the Ostbahn Lokomotiven Werke railway workshops. Next, along with 30 other workers he ended up in Gęsiowka (a Warsaw prison situated in the Volhynia Barracks – Koszary Wołyńskie on the corner of Gęsia and Zamenhofa Streets), from which the whole group would be taken to work in the car repairs garage on Dynasy Street. From Gęsiówka, Kopelman's group was then taken to Pawiak Prison, but they carried on being taken to the same place of work.

On 1 August 1944, Leon Kopelman was once again imprisoned in Gęsiowka. On the 5th of August he was freed by Home Army insurgents: “A few days later, I don't recall the precise date, Pawiak was taken by Home Army units. Then they took us to Gesiowka. We were most pleased, and the insurgents detained those who had been guarding us, Ukrainians and Germans”. He joined battalion “Zośka”, fought in the Old Town, then went down the sewer canals towards Warecka St., and from there to Czerniaków. There he was caught by the Germans – first held in a Gestapo prison on Szucha Alley, then taken to Wola and on to the camp in Pruszków. In camp Dulag 121 in Pruszkow he managed to get a forged personal ID card with the name Andrzej Białobrzeski. A friendly nurse got him a fake certificate diagnosing him as sick with pneumonia which allowed him to be moved to the hospital in Milanowek.

He returned to Warsaw soon after it was liberated in January 1945. He settled in the Praga district, and soon after began applying to emigrate to Palestine. Through a few DP (displaced persons) camps in Prague, Salzburg and Milan he reached the port of La Spezia. From there, after a few weeks of struggles, in May 1946 he reached Palestine by ship.

His father and sister awaited him there, and he took part in The 1948 Palestine War, the fighting over the Suez Canal, and the Six-Day War. In later years he ran a company which imported car parts. He died on 13.08.2021 in Ganei Tikva close to Tel Aviv. He was considered to be the last surviving participant of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the world.

Piotr Ostrowski

This biographical profile was created based on testimony given by Leon Kopelman:

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Footnotes
  • [1.1] Powstańcze relacje świadków. Wojenne wspomnienia Leona Kopelmana [online] https://f.1944.pl/BiogramFiles/2/e/a/2ea7c97c40c08848434243f9dbd873bd.pdf, [accessed: 05.04.2024].
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