The true story of Aleksandra, the resistance fighter to whom Jonathan Glazer dedicated his Oscar

Aleksandra Kołodziejczyk: the resistance fighter Jonathan Glazer dedicated his Oscar to
Aleksandra Kołodziejczyk: the resistance fighter Jonathan Glazer dedicated his Oscar to
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The Zone of Interest which has won two Oscars, for Best Sound and Best International Feature, scrupulously dramatises the home life of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss and his wife, Hedwig, on the other side of the concentration camp wall.

Its chilling pseudo-documentary approach is broken when we glimpse a young girl hiding apples in the mud near the camp. Nearly silent and filmed in negative with a thermal camera, these intermissions have an eerie, fairytale-like quality: the background is a dull black, whereas the girl and everything she touches is smudged with light. At first, it’s unclear whether these are dream sequences, or something stranger. But over the course of the film, it becomes clear the girl is smuggling food to prisoners working in the fields.

The girl is a real-life figure and acknowledged by Glazer in his acceptance speech. He talked of: “Aleksandra Kołodziejczyk, the girl who glows in life as she does in this film... I dedicate this [award] to her memory and to her resistance,” he said.

Kołodziejczyk was born in July 1927 in Brzeszcze, a town less than six miles from the site of the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp. Her father was a surveyor in the local mine and her mother helped found the town’s hospital. Resistance ran in her family: her great-grandfather fought in the doomed 1863 January Uprising, when Polish nationalists took on the Russian Tsarist occupiers. “He was a Polish patriot and he tried to raise his children in this spirit,” Kołodziejczyk recalled.

In April 1940, the occupying German army sacked the town’s mine where Kołodziejczyk’s father worked, capturing him alongside other Polish officials. They were held by the Gestapo for two weeks before being transferred to Dachau concentration camp. The conditions were terrible: the prisoners were made to do hard manual labour and fed one slice of bread a day and a thin gruel made of beetroot leaves and groats. Their hunger was so severe that they would gnaw the bark off trees; one day, they found a rat in the soup pot and the starving prisoners fell on it instantly.

Kołodziejczyk is an eerie presence in Glazer's film
Kołodziejczyk is an eerie presence in Glazer's film

Kołodziejczyk’s father remembered one parade where a fellow prisoner collapsed with exhaustion, dropping a rosary. Her father quickly scooped it from the mud, and hid it in his pocket. He was approached by a guard, “the worst, a scoundrel” – yet when the guard searched his pockets, he didn’t find the smuggled rosary. It was a “miracle,” said Kołodziejczyk.

Eventually, her father was released. “For the first time in my life, I fainted when I saw him,” she recalled. “He looked like a ghost. Just skin and bones. He went into the camp weighing 89 kg – when returned, he was only 32.”

By 1941, the Nazis had begun the expansion and construction of the Auschwitz complex. It eventually consisted of more than 40 camps, including the extermination camp, Auschwitz II, which the Höss family lived next to. This project involved the widespread displacement of the local Polish population.

“The Germans displaced up to 9,000 Poles from Oświęcim and the nearby villages,” Paweł Sawicki from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum tells me. “In addition, the entire Jewish population of Oświęcim – a total of approximately 7,000 people were deported to the nearby ghettos. In total, eight Polish villages were destroyed and more than a hundred buildings located in the city of Oświęcim, in the immediate vicinity of Auschwitz I, were demolished.”

James Wilson, from left, Leonard Blavatnik, and Jonathan Glazer
Jonathan Glazer, the director of Zone of Interest, right, accepts his Oscar for best international feature film - Chris Pizzello/Invision

Kołodziejczyk once recalled: “We were anxious to see what colour the sign on our house would be. Red – displacement, green – [meant we were free to stay]. It was terrible. You could take a few kilos on your back and that was it. The rest had to be left behind. So we took what we could.”

Those deported were taken to Upper Silesia and Bielsko County; some young people were deported to forced labour camps – a fate which clearly haunted Kołodziejczyk.

Though she was only 14, Kołodziejczyk joined the ZWZ-AK resistance movement in 1941. Spun off from the pre-war Polish “Home Army”, this movement came to attract more than 1,200 Poles in the area surrounding Auschwitz. “[They] risked their lives and the lives of their families to help the prisoners,” says Sawicki. “People were arrested by the Germans and incarcerated in Auschwitz for their help. [Kołodziejczyk] and her family were in danger.”

As she was young, Kołodziejczyk – who was code-named “Olena” – and her sister could more easily act as liaisons between prisoners and the outside world. Under the guise of working in the mine, Kołodziejczyk smuggled food, medicine, winter warm clothes and messages to the prisoners working in the nearby fields. She worked mostly at night, stashing supplies in the fields where the prisoners could find them – hence the scene in The Zone of Interest where she buries apples in the mud.

Crucially, the resistance also passed on secret messages hidden on scraps of material, including evidence which was later used to prosecute Nazis after the war. They even helped facilitate prisoner escapes as well as arranging face-to-face meetings between loved ones. “Some secret messages were very sad,” said Kołodziejczyk. “The authors had a feeling that they would not return home [the Germans would often tell prisoners they would be killed in the morning].”

As the film shows, Höss took great pains to disguise the reality of Auschwitz from his four children (a fifth daughter was born in 1943). Kołodziejczyk was not so fortunate, witnessing awful scenes at the camp. They took their toll. “We didn’t have a childhood,” she said. “We entered adult life immediately.”

One day she recalled seeing an SS guard torturing a prisoner. The guard shoved his fingers in the man’s windpipe to choke him. With immense bravery, Kołodziejczyk dashed to the commander and begged him to stop the brutality. He relented and the prisoner – a Belgian Jew who claimed to own a diamond mine in the Congo – thanked Kołodziejczyk for sparing his life. “From that day on, they called Juden Tante, Jewish aunt, because I defended a Jew.”

After the war, Kołodziejczyk stayed in the same town. She graduated from technical college, but was unable to pursue further study because the Communist authorities didn’t like her resistance activities.

Jonathan Glazer wins the Oscar for Best International Feature Film for The Zone of Interest
Jonathan Glazer wins the Oscar for Best International Feature Film for The Zone of Interest - Gilbert Flores/Variety via Getty Images

Nonetheless, she was happy to share her experiences with Glazer during the decade it took him to bring The Zone of Interest to the screen.

“She lived in the house we shot in,” he said. “It was her bike we used, and the dress the actor wears was her dress. That small act of resistance, the simple, almost holy act of leaving food, is crucial because it is the one point of light. It felt impossible to just show the utter darkness, so I was looking for the light somewhere and I found it in her. She is the force for good.”

Sawicki agrees. “On one hand you could say that Aleksandra Kołodziejczyk herself was not very important. She was a teenage girl engaged in underground activity. On the other hand, she was very important. Her bravery and heroism is undisputed.

“She and many others found motivation to do something to save the lives of others.”

Glazer began making The Zone of Interest in 2014. Kołodziejczyk died during its making, only a few weeks after she met Glazer

She never saw the film dedicated to her memory. Yet thanks to his Oscar-winning film, her courage will now be better known.

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