Elzbieta Gurtler-Krawczynska was a survivor.
As a 2-year-old in Poland in 1940, she was among 1.7 million Polish citizens who were deported to Russian labor camps. With her mother and grandmother, she was sent to Siberia in a cattle car. The journey took four weeks. The toilet was a hole in the floor.
Gurtler-Krawczynska finally returned to Poland in 1954. She became a physician. She moved to Atlanta with her husband, Krzysztof Krawczynski, in 1984. He was an internationally known expert in viral hepatitis who retired last year from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Thursday, the couple was killed in a car accident near their Norcross home when they were hit by a driver who was fleeing Johns Creek police. They were returning home from a dinner celebrating Gurtler-Krawczynska’s 78th birthday. Krawczynski was 77.
“They were just as devoted to each other as could be,” said John Lemley, a radio host who plays classical music and who knew Gurtler-Krawczynska from her involvement in the Chopin Society of Atlanta. “You could feel the love they had for one another.”
Gurtler-Krawczynska had retired from the Department of Radiology at Emory’s School of Medicine, but friends said she had been a cardiologist before she came to the U.S. Her husband was with the CDC for 31 years, and had just received privileges to return to the lab on an emeritus status.
John Ward, the director of the division of viral hepatitis at the CDC, who worked with Krawczynski for a decade, said the researcher was studying Hepatitis C before it had even been labeled. His long experience made him an expert, Ward said, and he was passionate about his work.
When they spoke on the phone Thursday afternoon, Krawczynski was discussing research he had been reading and was still engaged in the scientific community, said Saleem Kamili, a colleague at the CDC. Kamili first came to Atlanta as Krawczynski’s post-doc fellow. He said by asking about the wife and children Kamili had left in India for the year, Krawczynski quickly became a friend.
“I could be like your father,” Kamili recalled Krawczynski saying. “He really cared.”
At work, he was well-dressed and quick to greet people, Kamili said. He was cheerful, and never signed an email without a thank you.
Norman Pieniazek, who had known Krawczynski in Poland, said the couple met at university and had been married for more than 50 years. They had become his best friends in Atlanta, Pieniazek said, and would go to each other’s homes to cook Polish or Spanish food and drink good wine.
At parties, said Anna Holub-Standish, Krawczynski was a joker and a charmer, surrounded by people. Gurtler-Krawczynska was generous and firm, and was known for tiptoeing around with a camera.
“It’s very, very sad,” said Holub-Standish, who also knew Gurtler-Krawczynska from the Chopin society. “We are all heartbroken and grieving.”
Holub-Standish said her friend had been inspiring. She was a founding member of the Chopin society, which is dedicated to raising awareness of Chopin — a Polish composer — and hosts recitals and speakers. It is particularly interested in creating a love of classical music in children. She organized the first Atlanta Pierogi Festival, to celebrate the Polish food. The group has updated its Facebook page with a picture of a black ribbon to mark the loss. She was active in her church, sending the weekly electronic newsletter. And she was one of the founders of the Polish Club of Atlanta.
“She was very talented at getting people to volunteer,” Holub-Standish said. “She was just a wonderful treasure chest to know.”
In 2005, when Gurtler-Krawczynska spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a story about the declining health Polish Pope John Paul II, she said she had gone to Rome several years earlier with a petition to send a Polish-born priest to Atlanta. The request was granted.
“I was really in heaven,” she told the paper about being in a group of people who had received Holy Communion from Pope John Paul II in Rome.
Later that year, Gurtler-Krawczynska talked to The AJC about her experience being deported. Then, she said, she didn’t know how she was kept alive.
“She lived through some stories, there,” Holub-Standish said. “It was very hard for her to talk about this.”
The couple is survived by their daughter, Anna Pare, her husband and two granddaughters. Other survivor information was not immediately available.
A preliminary hearing for the father and son who are accused of hitting and killing the couple as they fled from police is scheduled for Thursday. Larry Thomas, a 47-year-old Tennessee resident, was charged with two counts of vehicular homicide, DUI and other driving and drug-related charges. His son, 18-year-old Jesse Thomas, faces several drug charges.
Channel 2 Action News reported that Jesse Thomas’ arm was in a sling and he had cuts on his face at a first appearnce hearing Saturday. He began crying and mouthed “I love you” to his father as he walked in the door. Larry Thomas is on suicide watch, Channel 2 said.
Aleksander Szlam, who also knows Gurtler-Krawczynska and Krawczynski through Chopin, said he and others would take up the cause of police chases in order to prevent future tragedies.
“They are truly outstanding individuals and we are going to miss them terribly,” he said. “I really think this should never happen again due to a chase.”