Jan Kaminsky obituary: Holocaust survivor and travel agent

Kaminiski opened up eastern Europe to Irish holiday makers


Jan Kaminski
March 30th, 1932
Died: May 21st, 2019

The extraordinary life of Jan Kaminski, who has died aged 87, is a particularly salutary lesson for an age when racism and migration are once again to the fore of international politics.

At the age of 11 he was a child soldier, a “mascot” in the Polish division of the Soviet Union’s army as it fought Nazi Germany during the closing years of the second World War. He had survived the annihilation of his Jewish family in the southeastern Polish town of Belgorcz, in November 1942, by fleeing the ghetto in which his fellow Jews were confined after the Nazi invasion of 1939, into nearby woods.

Kaminski found a place at UCC which he was obliged to leave after being caught on the premises with a young woman after hours

Aided by local farmers, he survived and eventually joined the advancing Soviet forces in 1943-44. At the end of the war he was evacuated to a refugee camp in Italy, from which, eventually, he was transferred to Edinburgh, where, with other Polish émigré children, he attended Holy Cross Academy, a prominent Catholic school in the Scottish capital. Thereafter, from 1949 to 1954, he led a colourful life which, among other things, involved him working in London’s Dorchester Hotel as a bus boy.

Through the good offices of Count Stanislaw Grocholski, a member of the Polish government in exile in London during the war, Kaminski finally found a place at University College Cork which he was obliged to leave after being caught on the premises with a young woman “after hours”. He switched, again with Grocholski’s assistance, to Trinity College Dublin, where he obtained a degree in economics and political science in 1958.

While at TCD, he took a very active part in student life, playing soccer on the university’s Second XI, becoming deputy editor of the student newspaper, Trinity News, and chairman of the Association of International Affairs, and vice-chairman of the Association of Polish Students in Ireland.

There was, of course, a deeply sad undertone to his life at this time. In today’s world, apparently obsessed with identity, it was profoundly telling that for much of his life Jan Kaminski was reticent, to put it mildly, about the fact that he was Jewish, and it is remarkable that an article about him in 1958 in Trinity News makes no mention of this fact.

His daughter, Jadzia, told The Irish Times this week that her father “never allowed anyone to define him” as a result of his horrendous experience during the Holocaust, and that it was for a very long time, well into adult life, “very frightening for him” that anyone should know that he was, in fact, Jewish.

It is perhaps arguable that in his teenage years he may have pretended to be a Catholic, the better to network among Poles in Britain, and, in consequence, get a decent education, though his reticence about his early years ensured that this is simply unknown.

His Polish background was to come into focus in a remarkable way in the 1960s, when Kaminski launched himself into a career in Dublin as a travel agent, founding Concorde Travel and specialising, very unusually for that period, in travel to eastern Europe, then, of course, still locked in isolation behind the Iron Curtain and governed by communist regimes effectively controlled by the Soviet Union.

Jan knew eastern Europe at a time when people in Ireland thought you might as well have been talking about Mongolia [as talking about eastern Europe]

His remarkable linguistic skills – he spoke seven languages, apart from English, including Italian, Russian, Spanish, French, Serbo-Croat and, of course, Polish – facilitated his entry to this then-unknown market sector for Irish people.

He became the Irish agent for the Yugoslavian government’s agency Yugotours in 1968, and brought to the Irish travel industry what Liam Lonergan, a long-time fellow travel agent of the Dublin firm Club Travel, described to The Irish Times this week as “a different dimension to the business; he was innovative, creative . . . always thinking outside the box, doing things which other people weren’t even thinking about at the time. Jan knew eastern Europe at a time when people in Ireland thought you might as well have been talking about Mongolia [as talking about eastern Europe].”

This had unexpected results, including the fact that “a less likely person than you could have imagined” as Lonergan puts it, (ie Kaminski) became one of the first organisers of pilgrimages to Medjugorge, now a very popular destination for Irish people. “The fact that he could relate to that pilgrimage [conservative Catholic] community was amazing,” adds Lonergan.

Culinary skills

Before his venture into the travel business, Kaminski, using culinary skills garnered at the Dorchester, operated two of Dublin’s first “late night” restaurants, The Last Post, on Ellis Quay, and The Baggot Mews on Baggot Street, and also ran The Atlantic Hotel in Kilkee, Co Clare, to which he would bring busloads of customers down from Dublin on a Friday in the 1960s and 1970s, having preceded them himself on a Thursday to prepare the food.

Before his ventures into hospitality and tourism, he worked after graduation with ICT Computers, one of the first computer industries to be established in Ireland, in the late 1950s.

There was, however, an enduring shadow over his life which remained until his death. Jan Kaminski was an assumed name, one he was advised to adopt by members of the Polish resistance who helped him to survive as a child, when he was told to forget who he was, to conceal his racial and religious identity from the Nazis.

Kaminski was, in fact, born Chaim Srul Zybner to parents Mindla and Saul, a poor Jewish family of traders. His parents, and his sisters Chana-Matla and Ryvka, all perished, probably in the Belzec concentration camp, about 70km from Belgorcz. A younger brother, whose name he later could not recall, had earlier died in infancy.

Jan Kaminski is survived by his children, Orla, Jadzia and Jas. He was predeceased by his wife, Margaret (nee Breach), formerly a model with the (now closed) Dublin department store, Switzer’s.