From Nazi-Persecuted Child to American Soldier: How Hugo Zulawski Fought Back
Hugo Zulawski was just 13 when he escaped from Nazi-controlled Vienna, Austria, in the spring of 1939. We don’t know much about his life before then. We do know that a year before he got out, German troops marched into Austria, which Germany had annexed, immediately enacting antisemitic legislation that forced Jews out of their jobs and businesses, cut them out of society, and subjected them to vicious attacks and humiliation. It was an unimaginably harrowing time for Jewish families like Hugo’s.
Thousands of miles away in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the organization Brith Sholom was trying to do something for Jewish youth trapped under Nazi rule. In January of 1939, they approached member and attorney Gilbert Kraus about leading an effort to save Jewish children from the escalating persecution in parts of Europe. Gilbert and his wife, Eleanor, sprang into action to acquire the governmental support and the financial commitments needed from their community to sponsor 50 children to immigrate to the United States at a time when immigration quotas were severely limited and many Americans wanted to keep refugees out of the country.
Hugo was one of the 50 children the Krauses brought back with them from Vienna just months before World War II began — 25 boys and 25 girls between ages 5 and 14 who escaped the devastating fate of millions of other Jews in the Holocaust. Upon arriving in the United States, Hugo and the other children stayed at Brith Sholomville camp in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. Hugo then went to live with a cousin in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were able to acquire visas and make their way to England first and later to the United States in 1940.
Just five years after Hugo fled Austria, he joined the US military’s fight against Nazi Germany at age 18. He trained at Camp Ritchie in northern Maryland, now known for the once-classified military intelligence unit called the Ritchie Boys. About 2,000 of these soldiers were Jewish refugees to the United States, whose knowledge of their home language and culture were integral to winning the war.
During their training, Ritchie Boys learned to read and draw maps, recognize and understand enemy troops and their movements, and artfully extract intelligence with coercion instead of physical force. Hugo went on to serve in the Intelligence Corps in Germany from 1944–46. After returning to America, he earned a degree in civil engineering from City College of New York and worked on New York City construction projects including the Long Island Expressway. He and his wife had three children and four grandchildren.
The work of Ritchie Boys like Hugo was declassified in recent years, and the unit was honored with the Senate Resolution 349 honoring their heroic efforts in World War II. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also recently honored the Ritchie Boys with the 2022 Elie Wiesel Award, its highest honor, for their heroism and remarkable actions in helping to defeat the Nazis, ending the Holocaust and the war.
Read more profiles of people who served at Camp Ritchie:
- From Street Fights to Secret Intelligence: Jewish Brothers Who Fought Back against the Nazis
- From Nazi Germany to the US Military: One Woman’s Story
- From a Linguistic Talent to a Vocation: Aaron Finger’s US Army Journey
- From the Austrian Army to US Army Intelligence: The Many Lives of Otto Perl
- From Medical School to D-Day: How Charles Stein Escaped the Nazis and Became an American Soldier