A proud Polish citizen, Leon Skurko fought to save his family and his country.
Born in 1919 in Łuków, Poland, Leon was the third of six children in a traditional orthodox family. He trained to be a tailor like his father. No longer able to find work in Łuków due to rampant antisemitism, he moved to nearby Warsaw in 1937. His father died of illness shortly thereafter.
In 1939, Germany invaded Poland. The mayor of Warsaw made a radio plea for all eligible males to cross the Vistula River and form a line of defense. Anxious to protect their homeland, Leon and his brother, Mordecai, left home. A few weeks later, the Soviets invaded Poland from the east. The brothers retreated further east into the Soviet Union to avoid the fray.
After some time, Leon went back to Łuków to check on his family. Upon his return, he found that his mother had died of illness. Doing the only thing he could, Leon took his eleven-year-old sister and his seven-year-old brother to Brest-Litovsk, Russia, and placed them in a children’s home. Tragically, they died a short time later when the home was bombed.
Like many of his Polish compatriots who fled to the Soviet zone, Leon was deported to a labor camp in Siberia after refusing Soviet citizenship. He worked for three years cutting trees for a future airstrip. Prisoners were forced to work long days in sub-zero temperatures with meager rations. Many froze to death.
Leon’s dream of fighting for his homeland was fulfilled when the Polish government-in-exile negotiated the release of the prisoners. He was able to return to Poland, this time fighting for the Polish army. Seventeen days before the end of the war, Leon was shot in the knee by a German sniper. Eighteen months in the hospital and six operations later, Leon was on his own.
Leon found his way to Pocking, Germany, a DP Camp in the American zone near Passau in 1947. He opened a restaurant in the camp and married Esther, a survivor from Germany. Their first two children were born in the camp.
With sponsorship from the Birmingham Jewish community, Leon was able to realize his dream of coming to America in 1951. In Birmingham, he returned to the trade of his youth, becoming a successful tailor. The birth of two more children completed his family.
Addendum: Leon Skurko passed away on May 12, 2008.