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Holocaust prisoners' book to return to Poland from Sonoma County

Published: Sunday, May 19, 2013 at 3:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at 2:23 p.m.

Eleanor Hensel's late husband returned home from World War II with a remarkable, handmade gift of gratitude — a book of poems and haunting, color drawings by Polish prisoners of one of Adolf Hitler's notorious concentration camps.

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Eleanor Hensel of Rohnert Park holds a handmade book presented to her husband, second lieutenant Clifford Hansel, by grateful Catholic prisoners when he helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp at the end of World War II.

(John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

As a civilian, Clifford Hensel set the book away and rarely spoke of it. “He would never look it,” said his widow, who's 89 and lives in one of Rohnert Park's large, well-kept retirement complexes.

She, too, has trouble looking at the small book. Anyone would.

Compiled by Polish Catholic intellectuals who'd put words and drawings to paper while subjected by the Third Reich to sadism and hard labor, it contains five poems and nine drawings. “Some of them are pretty gruesome,” said Eleanor, a mother of three who worked for a time as publications editor at Cal Poly, Pomona.

Though the poems and artwork do not identify the camp at which the political prisoners were savaged, historical accounts record that all three of the noted literary figures whose works appear in the book — Konstantyn Cwierk, Wlodzimierz Wnuk and Grzegorz Timofiejew — were interned at the large complex of labor and death camps near the Austrian villages of Gusen and Mauthausen.

American soldiers scarcely able to comprehend the hellish scene they'd discovered liberated the Mauthausen-Gusen camps on May 5, 1945. Eleanor Hensel doesn't know if her husband took part in the liberation or if he encountered the survivors when they were moved a short distance to a temporary home in barracks in the Austrian city of Linz.

Following the death of her husband in 2008, at age 85, Eleanor wrestled with what to do with the historically significant but painful-to-read booklet of anguished, original poetry and art.

Her first choice became to get the book to Poland, homeland of the labor-camp survivors who'd created it out of gratitude for the help they'd received from her husband while readjusting to freedom in the barracks at Linz. Earlier this year, Sarah Hensel of Petaluma set out to help her mother find an appropriate home for the book.

She used the Internet to locate and reach out to the holocaust museum that preserves the history of the Auschwitz concentration camp in formerly Germany-annexed Poland. Many prisoners of the Mauthausen-Gusen camps had been taken first to Auschwitz, where agents of Hitler's barbarity separated those who would be put to work from those who would be exterminated.

An email from an Auschwitz Museum staffer in February advised Sarah Hensel, “We are really glad that you decided to return the book to Poland. Our museum is the best place for such historical documents. We have a conservation laboratory in our museum with paper conservators ... and we know how important it is to keep such objects in good condition for years.”

It turned out that a contingent of museum officials, including Elzbieta Cajzer, head of the Collections Department, was scheduled to be in San Francisco next week. Eleanor Hensel is quite excited that they will come to Rohnert Park and accept the book as a gift to the Auschwitz Museum.

“I really do think it should go there,” she said.

She and her children believe the donation would please Clifford, a gentle man and Purple Heart recipient who lived for the most part silently with the memories of what he witnessed in the final half-year of the war in Europe.

Born in 1922 in rural Illinois and introduced to the military through ROTC at the University of Illinois, he was ordered to active duty in late 1944. Following training with the army's final horse cavalry class, he was assigned procurement duties with Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army on its march toward Berlin.

Following the liberation of the Mauthausen-Gusen camps and Germany's surrender two days later, 2nd Lt. Hensel was assigned, at least in part because of his foreign language skills, to assist the camp internees who'd been moved into barracks at Linz.

“He got them screens for windows at one point,” Sarah Hensel said. She and her mother are aware also that Cliff Hensel acquired lumber that the former slave laborers used to erect partitions for a degree of privacy.

The Hensels know, too, that there were women among the liberated prisoners because a child was born in the barracks. “We have a picture of my father holding a baby,” Sarah Hensel said.

Evidently, it was just two months after liberation and the end of the war in Europe that a group of liberated internees presented Cliff Hensel with the gift of thanks.

The book was covered in red fabric — that 68 years later remains in like-new condition — and was held together by a gold cord. The Polish words on the cover read, “To Lieutenant Sir: Merit of appreciation for helping Poles in 5th Polish Camp. Linz-Katzenau. July 5, 1945.

Cliff Hensel told a newspaper reporter in Southern California in 1978, “I was shocked when I first opened the book.

“I didn't understand why they had given it to me,” he said. The combat veteran went on to say that it occurred to him that though those survivors did not wish to speak of the atrocities they witnessed and endured in the camps, “the book was to speak for them.”

A translation arranged decades later by Eleanor Hensel revealed that a prayerful poem by Cwierk, a playwright and poet who died at Gusen in 1944, pleaded in part:

Grant us Mother of God today nourishing food

Let us get to sleep today less hungry than yesterday

Let the weak not break under bloody hardship

Let us avoid the thought of crime.

Timofiejew wrote in another poem:

From barracks we get up like from coffins

Loose skeletons we tie together by rags

Silently, deafly, we walk in a crowd

To work every day as under depressing heavy weight ...

One verse of a piece by Wnuk asked:

When will come the sacred moment

That the house of slavery will fall into pieces

And the might of the enemy will turn into dust

And freedom will rise in a gold aureola.

The book's nine color sketches, most of them signed by Stanislaw Slusarczyk, starkly portray the hideous depravity of the concentration camps. Among the images: Prisoners carrying great quarry stones past the body of a slain compatriot, a naked internee being tortured with water poured down his throat through a funnel, a wagon stacked high with corpses, a man hanging by his wrists and baking between two boilers that glow red hot.

Cliff Hensel left Austria having no idea where the former political prisoners would go. He would tell Eleanor, whom he married in 1947, that the Poles were loathe to return to their homeland because so much of it had come under Soviet control.

Sarah Hensel recalled, “I asked my dad what happened to them. He said, 'I don't know.'”

Honorably discharged from the army in July of 1946, Hensel settled in Southern California, started a family with Eleanor and put his procurement experience to work as a purchasing agent for an engineering firm.

His wife said the horrors portrayed in the drawings prompted her to try to assure that the book was hidden from their three children. But daughter Martha Hensel of Rohnert Park remembers finding it at about the age of 8 and feeling compelled to pull it out from time to time.

As an adult, though, she's content to have viewed the harrowing expressions of victims of genocide and other institutionalized evil for the last time.

“For me,” she said, the book that in days will be headed for the Auschwitz Museum “was just a memory that my father was very kind to some people.”

(Contact staff writer and columnist Chris Smith at 521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.)

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