Register | Forums | Log in

Rohnert Park widow sends Holocaust art book to Auschwitz museum

Eleanor Hensel goes over paperwork with Elzbieta Cajzer, head of the collections department of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum on Thursday after Hensel donated a handmade book of Holocaust prisoners' drawings and poetry to the museum.

BETH SCHLANKER/ PD
Published: Thursday, May 23, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 24, 2013 at 10:48 a.m.

All through the nearly 70 years that Eleanor Hensel kept at her family's home a handmade booklet of poems and artwork by Polish-Catholic prisoners of Nazi concentration camps, she didn't feel it belonged there.

She smiled with relief Thursday at her Rohnert Park apartment as she regifted the unique and wrenching artifact to a grateful curator of Poland's Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.

“I am so happy you can have this, and I hope it can do some good,” Hensel, 89, told Elzbieta Cajzer, head of the Holocaust museum's collections department.

“I wanted it to go to the Polish people,” Hensel said of the book. It was originally presented to her late husband in 1945 as a thank-you gift from internees whom the World War II cavalry soldier assisted following their liberation near the end of the fighting in Europe.

His widow told Cajzer, “It's your book, not mine.”

Cajzer donned white cotton gloves before handling the fabric-covered booklet of five poems and nine pen-and-watercolor drawings that evoke misery, hope and death in Adolf Hitler's notorious camps near the Austrian villages of Mauthausen and Gusen.

Speaking in English, Cajzer said there are several reasons the booklet is an important addition to the collection at the museum. It opened in 1947 at the site of the German camp that was built to receive Polish prisoners and became a killing factory responsible for the extermination of more than 1.1 million Jews and others deemed by the Third Reich to be inferior and impediments to an ethnically purified new world order.

“This small book may contain information that we do not have,” Cajzer said at Hensel's apartment at the Merrill Gardens senior complex.

She said researchers at the museum will seek to determine if the poems — bearing the names of noted Polish literary figures Konstanty Cwierk, Wlodzimierz Wnuk and Grzegorz Timofiejew — have ever surfaced or been published elsewhere, and whether they were original or perhaps were adapted from the works of other internees.

The booklet will also augment what museum researchers know about that trio of Polish intellectuals and writers. Cajzer said records reflect that German officers arrested Timofiejew in the Polish city of Lodz on Sept. 26, 1942, and shipped him to Auschwitz before subjecting him to hard labor at Gusen.

It's also known that Cwierk died at Gusen in 1944, the year before liberation and Germany's surrender.

Cajzer said the book's nine pieces of art, most of them signed by Stanislaw Slusarczyk and bearing the apparent prisoner number 43183, are unusual because of the watercolor the artist used.

She said pieces of art secretly created by prisoners of Nazi death and concentration camps typically were in black-and-white, and that those utilizing colors most often portrayed fairly gentle subjects such as portraits, landscapes or nature.

The color images in the book presented in gratitude to 2nd Lt. Clifford Hensel at barracks seized by the Allies in Austria in May 1945 are hard to look at: human beings subjected to sadistic torture, starvation and labor in rock quarries.

Cajzer said there may be valuable information contained within the color pictures, which artist Slusarczyk created at great personal risk.

“Sometimes a drawing is not only art, it is a document,” Cajzer said. She noted it was strictly forbidden for prisoners to sneak paper and to create a diary, poem or drawing.

Even so, she said, some prisoners wrote or drew “so they can still stay human.”

Historical records reflect that Slusarczyk returned to Lodz in Poland at some point following liberation, and prior to his death in 1962 he became an illustrator of children's books.

Cajzer said the artist's images of torment and genocide will be studied, photographed, scanned and archived along with about 4,000 other pieces of Holocaust art preserved at the Auschwitz museum.

She expects that the book will be exhibited not in an area of the museum open to the general public, but in a preservation case in a room reserved for students and other visitors focused on the art and poetry of concentration-camp prisoners.

“We have to have special conditions there,” she said.

Having cautiously inspected the book that Cliff Hensel brought home from the war and tucked away along with his memories of combat, Cajzer said it's clear to her that the liberated prisoners felt it enormously important that they present him with some sort of gesture of thanks.

The officer's widow and children don't know all that he did, beyond being kind to the former internees and helping them to make a habitable home of their temporary quarters in the barracks at Linz, Austria, 68 years ago.

Eleanor Hensel told the woman from the museum and memorial at Auschwitz it does her heart good to know her husband's book will return soon to the Polish people.

“It needs to be back to them.”

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top