Dr Witold Kopczyński

How to cite: Zegarski, W. Dr Witold Kopczyński. Medical Review – Auschwitz. September 14, 2020. Originally published as “Dr Witold Kopczyński.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1969: 201–204

Author

Witold Zegarski, MD, PhD, 1920–1999, internal medicine specialist, professor at the Medical University of Gdańsk, Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg survivor (prisoner number 21345).

Witold Kopczyński, PhD, MD, a Stutthof survivor, well-known doctor and social activist, head of the Department of Health Protection of the Gdańsk Voivodship Sanitary and Epidemiological Station, died on 3 July 1967 at the age of 64. A minute’s silence in tribute to Dr Kopczyński was observed at the session of the Gdańsk branch of the Polish Medical Association on 21 October 1967.

Born in Brody, Lusatia,1 on 21 February 1903, Dr Witold Kopczyński spent his whole life in Danzig (now Gdańsk) where, as of 1912, his father ran the only Polish apothecary. Young Witold and his schoolmates Stefan Mirau (later a well-known Gdańsk doctor), Alf Liczmański and Wanda Marlewska, pioneered the Danzig division of the ZHP Polish scouts’ and guides’ movement, which was founded in 1917 in a merger of local youth organisations, including a koło filomatów (philomath circle).2

After finishing school and passing the Abitur3 from what was then the Städtisches Gymnasium Danzig (the Danzig City Grammar School), Witold Kopczyński read Medicine at the Universities of Munich and Berlin, and graduated in 1928. Next he was employed as an assistant physician in the Berlin internal diseases and neurological clinics. In 1932 he received a PhD in Medicine and returned to Danzig, where he worked as an internist for the Krankenkasse (the German public health insurance fund) and for the Polish State Railways; from 1936 he worked on commission from the Gdynia social insurance institution Ubezpieczalnia Społeczna w Gdyni looking after the health of Polish citizens resident in the Free City of Danzig.4

Since members of the Krankenkasse had the right to choose their general practitioner, most of Dr Kopczyński’s patients were members of the Polish community in Danzig and dockers. He also served as a voluntary social worker and healthcare provider for Polish sports organisations in Danzig. Dr Kopczyński carried on his family’s glorious tradition5 and was keenly involved in the activities of the Union of Poles in the Free City of Danzig and for Gmina Polska (the Polish Community), which was the chief Polish social organisation in the city.

The growing wave of Nazi German terror and the more and more frequent personal and professional harassment of Poles affected Dr Kopczyński’s family. Nevertheless, he firmly rejected the suggestion his friends made in 1938 to leave Danzig. At the time he did not know that his name was already on the German blacklist of Poles due to be arrested. The death of Dr Kopczyński’s father, the family’s senior, in 1938 was given a singular “obituary” in a Nazi German daily: “one of the Polish leaders in Danzig has died.”

The tragic story of the Kopczyński family—a predicament shared by numerous Polish families living in Danzig—started on 1 September 1939, the day World War II broke out. On that day Dr Kopczyński and his brother Stefan, a doctor of pharmacy, were arrested by the Nazi Germans. Alfons, the youngest of the three brothers, who had just graduated in Medicine, was shot while treating the wounded during the September bombardment of Warsaw. Their mother was arrested somewhat later and sent to Ravenbrück concentration camp, where she was confined for the rest of the War.

Immediately after his arrest, Dr Kopczyński was taken to the notorious transit camp for civilians in the Viktoriaschule girls’ school, transferred to Schießstange prison on 2 September, and subsequently sent to Stutthof6 with the first transport of prisoners. He was detained there during the winter of 1939/40, which was the time of the most aggressive violence, harassment and murders of Polish inhabitants of Danzig. For a few months Kopczyński worked as a prisoner-doctor in the Grenzdorf7 sub-camp. On his return to Stutthof, he was employed on roadworks till the spring of 1941 when, along with 80 inmates,8 he was sent to Oranienburg-Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and from there to Majdanek.9

Dr Kopczyński worked as a prisoner-doctor in Majdanek until its evacuation in February 1944.10 Even there, in the terrible camp conditions, he was cheerful and mild-mannered. He was liked and appreciated by other prisoner-doctors and the sick prisoners entrusted to his care. He never had any problems with the inmates, although conflicts often broke out among prisoners because of the dreadful conditions in the camp. In fact, his cheerfulness and optimism was an immense help to other inmates. Many a time Dr Kopczyński rebuked the “panic-mongers.” He firmly believed that Hitler and Nazism would be defeated and that he would return to his beloved, Polish city of Gdańsk.

Dr Kopczyński had a tremendous sense of solidarity with fellow-prisoners, which showed even when he was threatened with severe reprisals from the SS thugs. A telling example of this was the calamitous day when the number of patients in his ward reported during the evening roll call did not agree with the number given earlier. Dr Kopczyński realised that the incorrect number had been reported by one of the prisoners, but did not disclose his name. He took the blame on himself and subsequently, the SS overseers punished him by administering the “ropes” (also known as “the post,” a form of torture where the victim was hung up by the arms from a gibbet-post). He had his hands tied behind his back and was suspended on the post for 45 minutes with his feet 75 cm above the ground. After this draconian punishment, for quite a long time Dr Kopczyński needed assistance even to dress.

From Majdanek he was sent to the camps in Gross-Rosen, Aslau, Nordhausen, and, finally, to Dora near Nordhausen, where he lived to see liberation.

Dr Kopczyński experienced the most painful humiliation and physical suffering in the Viktoriaschule and Stutthof, as the Germans took their revenge on him for his faithful and openly manifested adherence to the Polish community in Danzig.11 As the other prisoners who shared his fate narrated, on entering the Viktoriaschule he was greeted contemptuously with “Here comes that damn dog Kopczyński” (Da kommt der Hund Kopczyński), brutally hit in the face and then beaten up by one Zarski,12 editor-in-chief of the Nazi daily Danziger Vorposten. In his incomplete memoirs, which Dr Kopczyński started writing just before his death, we read, “My imprisonment in Stutthof was the cruellest ordeal because I was well-known in Gdańsk and all the SS men hated me. They wanted to finish me off. I only managed not to be killed there because I was sent to another camp, where nobody had heard of me and I could easily make myself scarce in the crowd of prisoners.” If Dr Kopczyński had stayed in Stutthof, he would have died like his brother Stefan.13

Although Dr Kopczyński narrowly escaped with his life, his confinement in Stutthof and later in other camps, left deep, permanent aftereffects on his health. This was due not only to the generally known, terrible camp conditions, but also to the illnesses he contracted in the camps, especially typhoid and typhus fever, and excruciating punishments, like three-quarters of an hour hanging “on the post” in Majdanek, as described by Dr Kosibowicz.

Straight after returning to a now liberated Gdańsk, despite his poor state of health, he went back to work in the social health service that was being organised there. He was employed as a general practitioner but he also devoted a lot of time to other patients, especially concentration camp survivors. We all remember him from those years when we could come to his private surgery at any time of the day or night free of charge. Although he enjoyed a great deal of popularity and people relied on him, he did not adopt a commercial approach to his practice. Believing in the ideal of a social medical service, at the beginning of August 1945 he took up an extra job as an industrial doctor in the Gdańsk shipyard.

There he met many of his pre-war patients and found himself in an environment in which he felt useful. His popularity with shipyard workers, their trust as well as his ability to relate with people made it easier for him to get to know their problems and troubles. He tried to help them in any way he could, becoming not only their doctor but also their friend and counsellor. So his dedication to ensure proper working conditions in the shipyard—the biggest industrial plant to be restored in Poland—made him interested in occupational medicine, a field he remained faithful to ever since.

With the deep commitment and enthusiasm characteristic of him, he started organising an occupational medicine centre in the shipyard. The experience he acquired there and his professional achievements predisposed him for an appointment as the Voivodship Health Department’s industrial hygiene officer. Initially it was an extra post, but in 1948 industrial medicine became his main occupation. He organised and managed safety and hygiene at work in the whole voivodship, holding various posts: as an assistant in the Gdańsk branch of the National Institute of Hygiene, head of the Section of Health Protection, and head of the Department of Health Protection of the Voivodship Sanitary and Epidemiological Station.

An excellent professional specialising in industrial hygiene and medicine as well as in internal medicine, Dr Kopczyński worked indefatigably to organise new occupational medicine centres. He had the talent to make medics interested in social medicine, considering the fact that in those times the involvement of health personnel in industrial companies was neither attractive nor popular. He was able to persuade medical staff to take such jobs thanks to his own example and thanks to the training and courses he gave for doctors and health service staff. He also lectured on safety and hygiene for technicians and engineers, gradually increasing the number of safety and hygiene professionals. All the time Dr Kopczyński was in touch with the group of occupational medicine specialists. He became their consultant, counsellor and supervisor. This group staffed Poland’s first safety and hygiene outpatient clinics. Further, he started the first voivodship inter-services committee for industrial health protection in Poland. With the help of the Occupational Diseases Centre of Gdańsk Medical University, he set up mobile preventive medicine teams for the voivodship. One of his excellent and largely personal achievements was to eliminate lead poisoning as an occupational disease in the Gdańsk coastal area and stop the spread of pneumoconiosis.

The quality and effects of Dr Kopczyński’s professional administrative work in the institutions he ran or supervised were commended by the Polish Ministry of Health, which ranked these institutions among the best in the country.

Dr Kopczyński did not limit his activities only to professional and administrative matters. Apart from working for organisations like ZBoWiD (the Society of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy, the main war veterans’ association in Poland), the Society for the Development of the Polish Western Lands, and the doctors’ trade union, he was a co-founder of the Gdańsk Medical Cooperative. He took an active part in various learned societies, for example he was a co-founder and long-time member of the Management Board of the Gdańsk branch of the Polish Medical Association.

One of his undertakings to enhance industrial medicine in Poland was to organise the first Occupational Medicine Section within the framework of the Polish Medical Association (1956). As a member of the Section’s Board, and from 1964 as its President, he made a signal contribution to its scientific activities.

Dr Kopczyński’s scientific achievements include six published papers and 21 ones presented at scientific meetings and conferences in Poland and abroad. He published on health protection in industry and occupational diseases. Two of his projects, carried out jointly with Gdańsk Medical University research institutes and clinics, involved research on the health of large groups of shipyard welders and painters. In other publications, he presented the results of the first decade of the work of the industrial hygiene centres in the Gdańsk Voivodship, providing a detailed analysis of their successes and shortcomings, and putting forward a set of proposals concerning their structure, which the Ministry of Health later applied across the country. Another publication focused on the principles of co-operation between state sanitary inspectors and technical labour inspectors. On the basis of his own extensive experience, Dr Kopczyński drew up a set of rules of good practice for various bodies appointed to supervise the sanitary and working conditions in industrial plants.

His original contribution to the history of medicine in the Gdańsk region, which describes the organisation of occupational hygiene in the Free City of Danzig, deserves a special attention. On the basis of his knowledge of the pre-war relations and the records of the unit for hygiene at work, Dr Kopczyński compared the state of workers’ safety and health protection in various branches of industry and small businesses in the interwar and post-war periods.

Thanks to his professional knowledge, engaging charm, great sense of solidarity with his fellows, his helpfulness and extraordinary modesty, Dr Witold Kopczyński was a great authority and enjoyed the respect of his colleagues and associates. His socio-medical activities were widely recognised, and acknowledged by the award of prestigious national distinctions: the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta and the Golden Cross of Merit. In addition, he received the Award for Exemplary Service in Healthcare, the Honorary Award for Merit for the City of Gdańsk, and the Medal for of the 10th Anniversary of the Polish People’s Republic.

On 14 November 1963, the General Assembly of the Polish Medical Association conferred its honorary membership on Dr Witold Kopczyński for his achievements in medicine and social work.

Dr Witold Kopczyński’s scientific publications

  1. Zur Frage des tragfähigen Amputationsstumpfes. Berlin, 1932, 28 pp. (doctoral dissertation).
  2. “Zasady współpracy państwowej inspekcji sanitarnej z techniczną inspekcją pracy.” Medycyna Pracy, 1956, no. 4, p. 281–284.
  3. “Zagadnienie poradni higieny pracy CPHP na terenie województwa gdańskiego.” Biuletyn IHP, Łódź, 1961, p. 357–360.
  4. “Stopień narażenia na zatrucie ołowiem malarzy-konserwatorów zatrudnionych w przemyśle okrętowym” (Co-authors: S. Byczkowski, T. Mincer, W. Seńczuk and W. Zegarski). Budownictwo Okrętowe, 1964, no. 5, 155 pp.
  5. “Stan zdrowia spawaczy zatrudnionych przy automatycznym spawaniu łukiem krytym.” (Co-authors: S. Byczkowski, J. Gadomska and W. Seńczuk). Gdańskie Towarzystwo Naukowe. Rozprawy Wydziału II, 1964, issue no. 1, p. 97–105.
  6. “Higiena pracy w Gdańsku w latach 1929 do 1939.” Archiwum Historii Medycyny, 1965, XXVIII, p. 125–129.
Notes
  1. Lusatia, also known as Sorbia, is a territory straddling the border between Poland and Germany.a
  2. Philomath Circles were secret Polish youth organisations which operated throughout the 19th century under Prussian rule in Pomerania, in towns like Chełm, Brodnica, and Chojnice. Most of their members were Polish grammar school students. The first to be set up was the Chojnice Mickiewicz Circle, which later changed its name to the Tomasz Zan Society. In 1937 it celebrated its centenary (see Teka Pomorska II, 1937, issue 11). The Pomeranian philomath circles looked back to the Philomath Society, the secret Polish student organisation operating from 1817 to 1823 at the Imperial University of Vilnius and co-founded by Tomasz Zan and Adam Mickiewicz.b
  3. Abitur—the traditional school-leaving examination from German grammar schools.c
  4. From 1920 to 1939 the Free City of Danzig was a semi-autonomous city-state consisting of the Baltic Sea port of Danzig and nearly 200 towns and villages in its environs. Danzig had a predominantly German population, Poles constituted 1% of its inhabitants. After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the Nazis abolished the Free City and incorporated the area into Reichsgau Danzig-Westpreussen. In the 1920s the Polish government developed the village of Gdynia, which was on the stretch of the Baltic coast accorded to Poland under the Treaty of Versailles, into a large city and port.a
  5. For the activities of his father, Dr Teofil Kopczyński, see Henryk Stępniak, Ludność polska w Wolnym Mieście Gdańsku 1920-1939, Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo Diecezji Gdańskiej “Stella Maris”; 1991: 221–223, 380, 402–403.a
  6. Unfortunately, the extant source materials for Stutthof do not include Dr Witold Kopczyński’s documents, so his camp number is unknown. We know he was in the first group of prisoners sent there, but the files of this group are fragmentary. His activities in Stutthof and Grenzdorf have been recorded by other survivors in their stories kept in the Archive of the Stutthof Museum, volumes II, IV, V, and VI.a
  7. Dr Kopczyński’s work in Stutthof and its sub-camps and in Westerplatte can be reconstructed on the basis of the survivors’ reports, see Marek Orski, Filie obozu koncentracyjnego Stutthof w latach 1939-1945. Gdańsk, Sztutowo: Muzeum Stutthof - Pracownia Historii Obozu Stutthof 1939-1945, 1992 and 2004, pp. 140, 174–175.a
  8. It seems fewer prisoners were on this transport. The list of transports dispatched from Stutthof to Sachsenhausen in the spring of 1941 gives two dates: 23 May 1941, the transportation of at least one person; and 11 June 1941, the transportation of a group of at least nine. The data are based on incomplete lists. We know that in 1941, 64 prisoners from Stutthof arrived in Sachsenhausen, 33 of whom are registered in the Stutthof records, see Danuta Drywa, “Ruch transportów między KL Stutthof a innymi obozami,” Zeszyty Muzeum Stutthof 1990 (9): 8–9 and 27.a
  9. Seven other prisoner-doctors, Jan Klonowski, Tadeusz Kurzętkowski, Ryszard Hanusz, Franciszek Gabriel, Włodzimierz Doktor, Tadeusz Kosibowicz and the Czech Rudolf Gluckner, were sent to Majdanek with Dr Kopczyński. On 1 November 1941 they were taken to Berlin, then via Poznań, the Radogoszcz camp near Łodź, Toruń, and the Pawiak prison in Warsaw to the prison in the Lublin Castle. On 27 November 1941 they were sent to the POW camp at Majdanek.b
  10. This information on Dr Kopczyński’s imprisonment at Majdanek was given by his fellow inmate Dr Tadeusz Kosibowicz from Będzin, who was held with him in Block I for 28 months.b
  11. For Dr Kopczyński’s conduct in the Victoriaschule and Stutthof on 1 September 1939, see Gdańsk 1939. Wspomnienia Polaków-Gdańszczan. Brunon Zwarra (ed.), Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo Morskie; 1984: 47, 59–60.a
  12. Danziger Vorposten was the official paper of the Danzig Nazi Party. Wilhelm Zarske was its chief editor from 1932. See https://www.gedanopedia.pl/gdansk/?title=DER_DANZIGER_VORPOSTENa
  13. Stefan Kopczyński died of an infectious disease in 1942. See Bogdan Siniecki, “Episodes from the history of the Stutthof prisoners’ hospital,” originally published in the 1975 edition of Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, English translation on this website.a

a—Translator’s notes; b—notes translated from the original; c—notes by Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa, Head Translator of the Medical Review Auschwitz project.


      

A publication funded in 2020–2021 within the DIALOG Program of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education in Poland.

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