Friday, 16 October 2020

‘She told me of the last Jew here,
one that closed a chapter …’

Walter Byokowski, one of the few remaining survivors of Auschwitz, died in Cork earlier this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

News media in Cork, including local newspapers and radio stations, yesterday reported the death of Walter Byokowski, one of the few remaining survivors of Auschwitz.

Walter Byokowski, known locally as Wally, lived near Drimoleague in west Cork for almost 40 years. He died last Sunday [11 October 2020] at the age of 98.

Wally, who was married to a Cork-born woman Kathleen, died at the Mercy Hospital, and is being buried in a private ceremony because of Covid-19 restrictions.

Walter Byokowski was originally from eastern Poland. He spent many years in Auschwitz, where he was known as prisoner 708. Over 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz, the largest Nazi concentration camp, between 1940 and 1945, before it was liberated by Russian troops. Trains brought people who included Jewish, Polish, Roma and Sinti people, Soviet prisoners of war and Jehovah’s Witnesses to the camp to be killed.

Walter Byokowski rarely spoke about his experiences in Auschwitz. He and Kathleen met in London, where he worked as an accountant for many years, and they have lived in west Cork since 1981.

Neighbours and friends described him as ‘a gifted man when it came to stone work and timber work,’ ‘a great cook’ and ‘a great photographer.’ They said he was a private person who liked gardening.

Tributes to the Polish-born man have been pouring in, including many from people who did not know him but who were moved by his story.

‘I didn’t know you, but you survived Auschwitz and for that you are my hero. Rest in peace – you have earned your rest,’ one message says.

‘You survived a hell called Auschwitz, I visited the place and it was hell. You surely are a hero, I salute you Walter,’ reads another.

‘RIP Walter. You endured more in one lifetime than any other man should have in two.’

As I think about this week’s news of the death in Cork of one of the last survivors of Auschwitz, my thoughts and reflections for Friday evening return to Jewtown, the collection of poems by Simon Lewis published in 2016, and which I came across during my visits earlier this year to Jewish community and historical sites in Cork.

Death Notice by Simon Lewis:

She walks her dog in Shalom Park
once the radio announces the deaths,

passes by former neighbours’ homes
now rented out to strangers

from the Baltic states, the same
as in her mother’s time.

She saw me looking at a sign
and asked me where I was from

and relieved to hear my accent,
she told me of the last Jew here,

one that closed a chapter in this street,
just a death notice on the radio.

Shalom Park in Cork … once at the heart of the area known as ‘Jewtown’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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