Alex Colman

Title: After forty years silence
Author: Alex Colman
Publisher: Jewish Holocaust Centre
Place of publication: Melbourne
Year of Publication: 1990
Location of Book: Sir Louis Matheson Library, Monash University Clayton Campus
Cities/town/camps: Austria: Bielitz (pre 1918; same as Bielsko)Poland: Mokotow (Prison), WarsawBielsko (post 1918; same as Bielitz), Bialystok, Ursus
Note: those cities/towns/camps underlined are those which are most central to the narrative

Colman presents an account of life in Poland from 1938 to 1946. He focuses predominantly on his time in Warsaw under Nazi occupation (120 pages), while briefly describing pre-war life (5 pages) and the period from Russian liberation to Colman’s arrival in Australia (25 pages). Colman’s account was first published in German in 1985; the English version was published in1990.

Alex Colman was born Simon Sigmund Zollman in 1906 in the Austrian town of Bielitz (renamed Bielsko and incorporated into Poland in 1918). He was schooled in the German language and his fluency in German was perhaps his greatest tool for survival. He had two older sisters and an identical twin brother. After completing school, Colman joined the textile trade at the well-known firm, Jankowski’s, in his home town. In 1926, Colman was sent to Jankowski’s Warsaw branch where he worked until war broke out in 1939.

Soon after the outbreak of war, Colman attempted to escape to the town of Bialystok, in Russian-occupied eastern Poland, in an effort to avoid German persecution. Upon arrival, Bialystok failed to provide him with the security he was seeking, so after a short time, Colman made the return journey back to Warsaw. In May 1940, Colman was arrested by the Gestapo for not wearing his Jewish armband and spent six months in prison. After being released in November of the same year, Colman returned to the house in which he had previously lived. Soon after, this house became a part of the Jewish ghetto. In this sense, Colman was lucky; unlike many Jews, he did not need to search for a place to live inside the ghetto.

In August 1942, Colman married his long time sweetheart Lilly, but soon after, she was deported to the gas chambers, together with her young niece. After this, Colman escaped the ghetto and obtained false papers identifying him as a Pole. He then moved in with his friend Gunther, an SA officer with Jewish ancestry who secretly helped some Jews, and Gunther’s mother. In the lead up to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Colman illegally began passing on to the underground information he obtained by secretly listening to the BBC. He earned a living by supplying Jews from the ghetto with false papers. When the Polish underground movement succeeded in driving the Nazis from much of Warsaw, fear spread at the possibility of Nazi reoccupation of the city and brutal revenge. Realising that to stay put and wait for reoccupation was suicide, Colman escaped from the area occupied by the Polish resistance, only to be arrested again by Nazis in a neighbouring area. It was here that he became a member of a work party performing various tasks for German soldiers. With the end of the uprising, Colman was placed on a train heading for Germany. Along the journey, he jumped to freedom, but shortly afterward he was rearrested and sent back to Warsaw. Early in 1945, after the Russians liberated Warsaw, Colman met his future wife, Janka. Together with their two sons, they would later immigrate to Australia.

Throughout the book, great attention to detail is paid. Colman relays – as best as one can so many years later – the thoughts and feelings that he experienced during the war years. Songs, poems, photos and drawings intersperse the text. Colman provides the reader with a sense of the struggles of war, the ills of humanity and the kindness that some people showed even in the most difficult of circumstances. Colman comes across as a modest man who does not believe himself to be brave or heroic, but rather a man who encountered many hardships and lucky escapes. Colman’s memoir is an honest account, written from the heart.