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Man of Mystery

A death certificate says Lucian "Schwindler" Kozminski is dead; an L.A. lawyer says otherwise.

by Tom Tugend

July 4, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Lucian Ludwig Kozminski was -- or maybe is -- a man convicted of swindling some 3,000 of his fellow Holocaust survivors. Kozminski did time in federal prison and died, according to his death certificate, on Jan. 19, 1993, in Los Angeles County.

Ordinarily, this would be the end of the sordid tale of a man who preyed on his own people. Instead, it is only the beginning of a mystery, full of intrigue and skullduggery, which Dateline NBC will telecast under the title, "Final Betrayal."

It is also the story of Mark E. Kalmansohn, a Los Angeles lawyer and former federal prosecutor, who for 20 years has sought to bring Kozminski to justice. Even today, Kalmansohn is not sure whether the man nicknamed the "Schwindler" (German for swindler) by Holocaust survivors and "The Weasel" by federal officials, is dead or alive.

Even Kozminski's birthdate and age are in dispute, but apparently he was in his early teens when the German army invaded Poland in 1939. In short order, the Nazis killed Kozminski's parents, two sisters and a brother, and sent the boy first to the Lodz ghetto and then to various concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen.

Despite his youth, Kozminski quickly rose to Oberkapo, the SS-appointed overseer of other Jews and, according to survivor testimony at his trial, walked around Gross-Rosen in boots and a heavy sweater, while other Jews tried to survive the winter in tattered clothes.

After the war, Kozminski settled near Munich, and between 1963 and 1967 was convicted of six crimes, including smuggling, bribing of officials, and running a scam involving the refurbishing of graves of Polish Holocaust victims.

Nevertheless, Kozminski managed to enter the United States on a visitor's visa, settled in the Fairfax area, and in 1969 advertised his services in Jewish newspapers as a "reparations counselor," who could obtain restitution money from the German government due Holocaust survivors.

Over the next decade, according to court records at his 1982 trial, Kozminski swindled some 3,000 of his clients, charging exorbitant up-front and service fees and pocketing the German checks intended for the survivors.

Kalmansohn, who as assistant U.S. attorney prosecuted Kozminski, estimates that he accumulated $1 million, which, with inflation and interest, would be worth $10 million today.

Two of Kozminski's victims, still living in the Los Angeles area, are Jacob Weingarten, a retired house painter, and Modka "Max" Wolman, a retired television repair shop owner. They took their complaints to federal authorities and the criminal case was assigned to Kalmansohn in 1982. After he and Postal Inspector Lou Kinzler obtained grand jury indictments, Kozminski pleaded guilty to eight counts of mail and bankruptcy fraud and was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison.

Records from the Bureau of Prisons show that Kozminski was released in 1989, even though he was spotted walking a street in Beverly Hills in 1987.

The trail appeared to be at an end when a death certificate bearing Kozminski's name was filed in Los Angeles County in early 1993, and the authorities closed the case.

Kalmansohn was by then in private practice, but his obsession with the case had only intensified after meeting with Holocaust survivors in Israel. He decided to scrutinize the death certificate, and found that it listed someone else's Social Security number, the description of the body in no way matched Kozminski's actual appearance, and the purported age at death was off by 10 years.

In addition, someone cashed Social Security checks in Kozminski's name for 26 months after his "death," and there were continuous reports that he had been sighted, most recently only two years ago.

On the basis of this evidence, and in the belief that Kozminski could have faked his death to avoid paying survivors their rightful money, Kalmansohn filed civil suits against Kozminski on behalf of Weingarten and Wolman. In 1999, Judge John W. Ouderkirk ruled that Kozminski's death certificate was "false and/or fraudulent" and that "Defendant Kozminski may be alive today at an unknown location."

A year later, a second judge concurred in the earlier finding.

Kalmansohn, now an entertainment and intellectual property lawyer in Century City, continues to be haunted by the case. He deals with it in his 440-page book, "Nothing Is Too Late," which he expects to be published by next year, and he hopes that the interest generated by the NBC program might lead to further clues about the elusive Kozminski.

"I really don't know whether Kozminski, who would be 76 to 78 years old, is dead or alive," Kalmansohn says. "To cite Winston Churchill's observation on Russia, the case remains 'a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.'"

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