Edmund Karl Kostka, a Soviet gulag survivor, expert on Schiller, scholar of comparative literature and possibly one of the last surviving veterans in the United States of General Anders’ “Polish Army in Exile” passed away peacefully at age 98 in New York City.
Edmund Kostka was born in Beuthen, Upper Silesia, then an eastern province of Germany (today Bytom, Poland) on October 1, 1915 the last of 5 children of Karl Kostka, a union representative at the Heinitz coal mine, and Albina Banek. An outstanding student, he attended the Hindenburg Gymnasium on a Prussian state scholarship until the Nazis banned his further studies due to his disaffection for Hitler’s regime. In 1934, after learning he was to be sent to a concentration camp, he fled to Warsaw, Poland, where he learned Polish and continued his studies, which were interrupted when war broke out in September 1939.
To avoid arrest by the Nazis when they occupied the Polish capital, although seriously wounded in the city’s bombing – until his death he had several shrapnel shards tucked behind his ear -- he fled eastward to the then Soviet occupied part of Poland. There he joined his sister and her husband, a Polish reserve officer. Together with his sister and brother in law, on April 12, 1940 Edmund Kostka was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet era secret police as a threat to the Soviet regime. Edmund Kostka, like other Polish deportees, was sent in cattle cars to Siberia to a series of forced labor camps, where he worked as a cattle and sheep herd and tractor driver.
Despite bouts of scurvy and other diseases, Edmund survived the Soviet gulags. He volunteered, like many other Poles deported to Siberia, to join the Second Corps of the Polish Army in Exile, formed under the leadership of General Wladyslaw Anders. In 1942, Edmund Kostka travelled via Central Asia to Persia (now Iran) which was under British control where he joined the 5th Kresowa Infantry Division Armed, uniformed and equipped by the British Army, he trained in Iraq and Palestine, rising to the rank of officer in the artillery. Edmund Kostka fought with distinction in the Italian campaign and was awarded a number of medals including the Monte Cassino Commemorative Cross. During the pivotal battle for the Abbey of Monte Cassino, a strong point in the German defensive lines south of Rome, his artillery battery – as he later learned – was firing shells at one of his best friends from high school who was then serving with the German paratroops that were defending the Abbey’s ruins. His friend also survived the war and they were reunited in New York. At the war’s end, he enrolled at the University of Rome, where he met -- and later married -- Bona de Panizza, who went on to teach Latin and Greek for many years at The Brearley School in New York City and later Italian at the Julliard School of Music.
As a stateless exile unable to return to his homeland which was now behind the Iron Curtain, Edmund Kostka together with his wife emigrated to the Unites States in 1947, eventually becoming a United States citizen. He settled in New York City where his sister-in-law Maristella de Panizza Lorch (now Professor Emerita at Columbia University) had come a few years earlier. He resumed his studies in comparative literature and in 1961, he obtained his PhD from Columbia University. Edmund Kostka is a recognized expert on the German writer Schiller and has also authored numerous works in the field of comparative German-Russian literature. For many years he taught German, Russian and other humanistic subjects at the College of Saint Elizabeth, at Covent Station, New Jersey. After his retirement in the 1980s, he continued to teach languages at the Julliard School of Music, and he was especially proud of the successful opera singers who were his students.
Edmund Kostka loved outdoor activities, including cutting firewood, and travelling. Until his 90s -- when his health no longer permitted it -- he lived with his wife in an isolated house overlooking the Shawangunk Mountains of New York State surrounded by deer, coyote and bear. He also wrote three books, two in German and one in English, about his family and his adventurous life in Siberia and during and after the war. Other than writing and travelling, he loved listening to music, especially Chopin, and feeding the birds in winter. Edmund Kostka is survived by his wife Bona, his sons Victor – married to Cheech Barber – residing in Rosendale, New York and Carlo – married to Donata Orlando – with two grandchildren, Andreina and Livia, residing in Milan, Italy. He will be buried in a private ceremony in a country cemetery in the Catskills.