Józef Skowronek

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Józef Skowronek (1884 - 1940) was a very successful banker killed by the soviet NKVD as part of the Katyn - Lvov mass murders.

"Everyday is a bank account, and time is our currency. No one is rich, no one is poor, we've got 24 hours each." - Cristopher Rice.

He was born in Nowy Dwór Maz. near Warsaw, the town where my family had and still has properties; he was one of the brothers of my great grandmother, Hena Skowronek[1.14]. As most members of the family during the years of WWII he paid with his life for being a Jew, and for being successful[1.39]. The financial and banking business was – and despite the Holocaust still is – part of our familiar tradition; in one way or another, we all end up linked to it. Józef was no exception and in fact, he was a rising star; his bank prospered even under the great depression and the Skowronek family was expanding its activities around the world.

His two daughters and wife survived the war; aside from a couple of other cousins and a brother from my grandmother, who also survived, no one was left. The common factor among those members of the Skowronek family that survived the war and the Holocaust was that for one reason or another, they were not in Warsaw between 1939 and 1945.

The Skowroneks were bankers and financiers; Józef learned his trade in the bank owned by his father Shlomo, who was murdered during a robbery attempt (see The Skowronek Bank Robbery) and soon enough his sons and daughters inherited the family money.

Apparently because there was an ongoing quarrel between Józef and his three sisters on one side, and his two brothers, Motyl and Abraham on the other, they split the family bank in two and became competitors. Since the Skowronek bankers received an influx of investment when Hena, my great grandmother, married with Józef Blat, my great grandfather, who belonged to a family of arms dealers and the Blat family became shareholders into the bank that Shlomo Skowronek directed, after his death the Blat family became an investor in both banks created by the Skowronek brothers when they split apart.

His bank became very prosperous and made deals internationally until the advent of WWII. As the Nazis invaded Poland and advanced towards Warsaw, the Polish government moved all valuables, historical objects and money from the banks. In his position, Józef Skowronek certainly intervened in the plan.

As the Nazis advanced, he went to Lvov, a city that back then was part of Poland. His daughter Alicia went shortly after. The gold bars of the banks and other valuables moved to Romania and were later moved further to Canada (see M.S. Batory) but Józef, his daughter and her fiancee couldn't folow: the Soviets invaded the eastern part of Poland, and their frontline reached Lvov. Some other members of the Skowronek family were preparing to leave Poland as WWII started: They had reservations for a trip on the Batory that never came to be, since the ship, on arriving to New York on Sep 5, 1939, stood there and was later used as part of the Allied war effort. That would have been Batory's next trip across the Atlantic.

Some days later, they attempted to travel to Sweden, possibly thorough Slonim and Latvia, since in Slonim part of the family also sought refugee where at my grandparent's home. However, as they went to Lvov's train station, NKVD guards saw the hands of Józef. He was obviously not a peasant and was immediately arrested. The last thing that Alicia, my grand aunt saw of his father is how he was taken away by the NKVD guards.

She said that later, she tried to send him some money to the prison in which he was held, but heard nothing from him ever again. She was also arrested, beaten, tortured and sent to a "reeducation camp" - a gulag – in Arkhangelsk, in the Arctic. Later, she was delivered to the Anders Army and took part in its operations until the end of the war[95].

There she met her husband, a man by the family name Dmuchowski, and they were among the very few Poles that returned to the country after 1945; Barbara, Józef's wife and one of Alicia's sisters survived the war in hiding. Her sister went to the U.S.A. But the others stayed and endured all the years of communism.

Certainly, the Skowronek family had enough resources to move away from Poland before WWII started, had they wished to so it is odd that they stood there, but there were at least three reasons that explain why almost every member of the Skowronek family stood in Warsaw and Lódz, where they lived: First, they had their companies there, and since banks are based on trust, their owners couldn't just leave, giving the impression that all was lost and leaving their customers. By doing something like that, they couldn't expect to continue being bankers after the troubles passed.

Secondly, according to what my grandmother said after the war (see A Message From Israel), only a few members of the family actually thought that the situation with an eventual German invasion would be different than during WWI, when the German troops in general behaved well with the Polish civilian population. Most of those alive at the time had witnessed WWI and probably believed that they "knew" Germans well enough, and since money was or had already been moved away for the most part, they assumed that they would not be at much risk despite what had happened in Austria with Jews a year before.

Józef Skowronek moved to Lvov because he had to for reasons related to the movement of the reserves of his bank as well as those of the Bank Polski – the Polish Central Bank. Both his father and himself had been presidents of the banker's association and Jewish bankers were actually the biggest shareholders aside from the Polish state in the Bank Polski, which was a mixed-capital company, meaning that part of it was owned by the state, and part by private companies, mostly banks.

From relatives that worked in the branch of the Bank Polski in Kraków, we know that valuables and reserves of the bank were moved by truck to eastern Poland, and that the employees and executives of the BP, as well as their families whenever they wished to, traveled on those tracks, sitting on top of tons of neatly arranged gold bars; the government ordered the destruction of all actual physical money – bills and coins – and to take the gold reserves that backed up that money in order to leave the Nazis at a disadvantage in financial terms. The move proved effective because it crippled the whole economic system of occupied Poland and both the Nazis and later the Communists couldn't solve the problem until a hyperinflation did the trick at an enormous cost to the conquerors.

So, Józef was certainly involved in the planning and execution of the movement of those valuables that later went into the M.S. Batory to Canada. His daughter Alicia stood at home, and only a few days later went after his father; despite that she acted as his father's private secretary and had a general knowledge of the family banks and the banking system in general, she had little knowledge of what was going on with the money. Like my grandmother and a handful of other members of the family, they survived because they were all away from the cities, and not even all of those who were in that situation actually survived the war: Both my mother and uncle said that when able men were ordered by the Polish government to go away from the cities, Nathan and Khaim, brothers of my grandmother, as well as other relatives, went to the family house in Slonim, where my grandmother, grandfather uncle and mother lived. There were a couple of Schoenbergs in town too because they had a very lucrative license to sell alcohol there and their business was thriving in eastern Poland before the war, but aside from my grandmother's immediate family, only Nathan survived.

Józef Skowronek was caught by the NKVD, as well as my grandfather, Nathan and others. Seeing the NKVD victims' lists it becomes apparent that they knew very well what names they were after because whole families were arrested, killed or deported.

My uncle confirmed that NKVD guards, as a first check, usually looked at the hands of people in order to see if they were peasants or not; the same happened with the clothes they were wearing (see How Wojciek's Stamp Collection Began). On finding that a person had clean or soft-skinned hands, they would arrest the person and then interrogate – i.e. torture – the subject. Then, many were executed by shooting a bullet in the neck; that was probably the fate of Józef Skowronek, since he was included in the assassination list early in 1940. In Lvov, prisoners that had not been murdered by the moment in which Operation Barbarossa – the Nazi invasion of the USSR – began in 1941, were terminated by soon-to-retreat NKVD operatives with bayonets or simply hand grenades tossed into the cells they were kept in.

From Belgium, a country where Józef had some significant investments, people named Rozenstejn sent them packages with goods. One of the Rozenstejns was married to one of my grandmother's sisters. They perished in the Nowy Dwór ghetto[1.161][1.162].

No one ever heard again of Józef, but years after the fall of communism, his named appeared on a list of execution victims that someone had stolen from a building of the Russian government. Józef Skowronek was included in the "Lista Ukrainska"[98] and was executed around the Mar 15, 1940 along Polish officers and members of the establishment that would pose a threat in the communist Poland envisioned by Stalin.

Curiously enough, the Sugihara list of Japanese visas the names of Józef and Estera Skowronek, of Polish nationality. Chiune Sugihara was the Japanese General Consul in Lithuania. In 1940 he saved about 6.000 Jews by giving them visas for Japan against the orders of his superiors. Most of them remained in Japan until the end of the war. They managed to get there by travelling in most cases thorough the Trans-Siberian railway, paying the normal fare multiplied by five to the Soviets. After the war, the descendants of Mr. Sugihara received a perpetual Israeli citizenship.

Whether the person named Jozef Skowronek who was saved by Sugihara has any relation to the Skowronek family of Warsaw is still unknown.


The Nowy Dwór house
The Nowy Dwór house that belongs to the family at least since 1853, where Józef Skowronek was born.



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