A father’s harrowing memoir
Columbia resident Morey Kogul’s recently published book is about an immigrant who illegally makes a border crossing to escape almost-certain death, and who then, after incredible hardships and adventures, is able to settle in a free country and raise a loving family.
But while the story seems pulled from today’s headlines, the protagonist of this hair-raising non-fiction story is Kogul’s father, a Polish Jew who fled the Nazis during World War II.
Van Wolf Kogul escaped Nazi-occupied Poland by crossing the border into the Soviet Union, was conscripted into the Russian Army, fought against the Germans on the Eastern Front, went AWOL after the war from an officer’s training school in Moscow, was snuck into Italy by a Jewish underground group, and finally immigrated to the United States in 1949.
“I promised my father that I would write his memoir and share his story,” said Kogul, an urban planner who works at the U.S. Department of Defense, where he arranges public-private infrastructure projects (bridges, roads, ports and the like).
He fulfilled that promise with Running Breathless: An Untold Story of World War II and the Holocaust, published in June by Mascot Books. The book, written in the first person, was created from interviews Kogul had with his father plus additional research.
Keeping memories alive
Kogul, who recently gave a book presentation at the Miller Library in Ellicott City, noted that sharing his father’s story has led to him learning “the importance of passing the lessons of his story to future generations, so that we all never forget.”
Kogul’s father died in 2014, at the age of 91. Kogul is only 43, comparatively young for a Holocaust survivor’s offspring, as he was born was his father was 53. He feels that helps him relate to a younger generation of readers, as he tells them about “the dangers of dehumanizing others not like us.”
The book, while factual, “reads like historical fiction, with a narrative arc and suspense,” said Kogul, who, in addition to his graduate degree in urban planning, also has a degree in English literature.
“But the book is not a novel; it is a true story,” he said. “It is a narrative told in the first person based on my father’s words in interviews, along with supplemental research. I wanted the reader to have the experience I had hearing the story from him.”
Kogul added that writing the book provided him with “something very rewarding that I didn’t realize at first.”
By telling his father’s story, he realized he was giving “voice to the voiceless,” in so far as his father’s personal story could help others fight inhumanity based on bigotry.
When Van Wolf Kogul came to America, he was still young enough to be drafted during the Korean War into the U.S. Army. He was stationed at Ft. Carson, Colo., and settled in Denver after discharge. There he became a dental technician and raised a family.
About 25 years ago, he took his family — including son Morey — to Washington, D.C. for a visit. One of their excursions was to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum near the National Mall.
In addition to its powerful historical exhibits, the museum maintains a Holocaust Survivors and Victims Database and collects testimony from thousands of Holocaust survivors like Van Wolf Kogul.
At the time, Van Wolf didn’t want to have his story recorded for the museum. But later, at his son’s request, he sat for long, recorded interviews.
Kogul recalls that it was not easy to get his father to speak about his wartime experiences. The interviews were “very, very difficult,” Kogul said. The conversations sometimes brought both interviewee and interviewer to tears.
At first, Kogul’s father agreed to spend a few days answering the questions of his then-17-year-old son.
“I was not prepared to deal with the burden my father bore,” said Kogul. “He agonized over the loss — tearing at himself, blaming himself. He initially refused to discuss his mother, a topic so painful that he became physically sick just talking about it.
“When a topic became too emotional, he shifted immediately to pride — underscoring the accomplishment of defeating the Germans, averting the scars left by war.”
It was five years later, after Kogul graduated from college, that he succeeded in getting his father to dedicate one more week to filling in the gaps.
“This was the last time we discussed the intimate details of his survival. The conversations were just as painful the second time, and again I found myself struggling to contain my own emotions.”
Kogul said it wasn’t possible to learn everything — some things his father couldn‘t recall. “Other things he refused to share, somehow hoping that this would erase the nightmares from his memory.”
A survivor’s guilt
Among the things that most deeply pained his father, said Kogul, was survivor’s guilt, as Van Wolf was the only member of his immediate family to live through the war.
When he fled his hometown of Dubno, which was then part of Poland (it’s now in Ukraine), he saw it as a first step for arranging his family’s escape. He convinced his brother not to come with him.
Of the 15,000 Jews in Dubno at the time, only 300 survived. Kogul never saw his brother, sister or parents again.
After the last interview, Kogul reviewed a 40-page outline with his father, collected a binder full of notes, and put them on the shelf with the recorded interviews.
That became the basis for Running Breathless, which Kogul wrote from late 2016 to early 2017, while he was on paternity leave for his son, Jonah. He and his wife, Rachel, a native of Baltimore, also have a daughter named Rachel, who is 12.
While Kogul emphasized that all the events described in the book actually happened, to enhance the reader’s experience he “created dialogue and narrative description that approximate what might have plausibly occurred, based on my father’s testimony.”
He plans to dedicate a share of the proceeds from the memoir to both the Holocaust Museum in Washington and to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, Israel.
Among those commenting online about Kogul’s book was Miriam Isaacs, a retired University of Maryland professor of Yiddish language and culture, and a former visiting fellow at the Holocaust Museum.
She said Running Breathless was “well written and thoughtful.…Most of the Polish Jews that survived that war did so because they found themselves in the Soviet Union. Some, like the author’s father and mine, were able to fight and contribute to the defeat of the Nazis.”
Isaacs said her own father wouldn’t have survived if he hadn’t illegally migrated to the Soviet Union from Poland, “so I have great empathy for those who cross our (nation’s) border illegally,” she added.
Among the public presentations that Kogul will be making about the book in the coming weeks are the following:
March 18, from 7 to 9 p.m., at the Jewish War Veterans, VFW Post 521, 214 Tollgate Rd., Owings Mills.
March 22 and 23, at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl. SW, Washington, D.C. Call (202) 488-0400 for more information.
March 30, from noon to 4 p.m., at the Barnes and Noble at the Power Plant, 601 E. Pratt St., Baltimore.
April 15, from 10:30 a.m. to noon, at the Elkridge 50+ Center, 6540 Washington Blvd., Elkridge.