Born: Bircza, Poland
February 3, 1915
Jan was born to a Catholic family in the small Polish town of Bircza. His father, a World War I veteran, moved the family to Brzozow shortly after the war. Brzozow was a small manufacturing town in southeastern Poland. After graduating from secondary school, Jan enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow.
1933-39: Cracow was a beautiful old city; we studied its remarkable churches and synagogues in my classes. By September 1939, however, the war engulfed the beauty of Cracow. I left to escape the advancing Germans, and hoped to join the Polish army, but as I neared the Soviet border I realized the Red Army was also approaching. I didn't know which way to go. Since I feared Soviet rule, I returned to Cracow and faced the German occupation.
1940-44: I joined the Polish underground and was arrested near the Hungarian border. In June 1940 I was sent to Auschwitz. Four of us devised an escape plan. Over many months we collected parts of a German army uniform, so one of us could pose as a guard. We stole documents from the camp office to forge an ID and then I painted a German uniform on a photo to complete the fraud. Our "guard" got us by the gate as a work detail in December 1942. We then gathered civilian clothing, left for us by the underground, and escaped.
Shortly after his escape, Jan was re-arrested and spent two more years in various camps. He was liberated from the Dachau concentration camp by U.S. troops on April 29, 1945.