A Polish Catholic Auschwitz survivor whose artwork was exhibited at the Houston Holocaust Museum January 22, 1998 - March 31, 1998
THE REALITY OF AUSCHWITZ
Sarmatian Review: Tell us about the circumstances under which you became a prisoner in Auschwitz.
Jan Mieczyslaw Komski: I was captured by German troops while trying to cross the Polish border. I was in the first trainload of prisoners arriving in Auschwitz on June 4, 1941. The camp had just been built, and the vast majority of prisoners were Polish. Auschwitz was a Vernichtungslager, i.e., a camp whose goal was to destroy the prisoners, specifically, to destroy Polish society, to kill off Poles. My first Auschwitz number was 564. At the beginning, there were just several hundred prisoners, but within half a year their number grew to 20,000. By the time I escaped in 1942, 99 percent of the prisoners from those early transports were already dead.
SR: Was your escape successful?
JMK: No. Within days, I was caught and again taken to Auschwitz, under a different name. This time, my number was 152,884. From Auschwitz, I was moved to Buchenwald, Gross-Rosen, Hersbruck, and finally to Dachau, from which I was liberated by American troops in 1945.
SR: Tell us something about the way of life in Auschwitz.
JMK: My feeling is that most prisoners knew next to nothing about the camp. People were so stressed that they were not able to gather information or form judgments. Everyone was terrified of stool pigeons who reported the slightest insubordination to the Schutztaffel (SS) guards. The prisoners looked left or right only to make sure that they were not going to be hit by the kapo or by the German in charge of their work team. Sometimes survivors write books about their camp experience. These really are books only about themselves. They say next to nothing about how the camp functioned and what happened to other people. So it is often imprudent to generalize on the basis of these personal experiences. In the camp hardly anyone knew or cared that prisoners actually received wages from enterprises in which they worked, and which were sometimes located outside the camp. These wages were then transferred to camp accounts and listed as wages of Germans, and they went to support the German war effort. It is significant, and quite horrible, that each individual prisoner was in fact paid a normal wage, of the kind received by workers in normal conditions.
SR: We hear from historians that Auschwitz was built to exterminate the Polish intelligentsia. Does that mean that other social strata, workers, farmers, the less educated parts of society did not go to Auschwitz?
JMK: Once you got to Auschwitz, it was difficult to tell what social stratum you came from. The educated people pretended they were cobblers, tailors, workers, in the hope of not attracting attention to themselves and thus bettering their chances of survival. The intelligentsia disappeared in the crowd as it were. But of course all social strata of Polish society could end up in Auschwitz. It was a perpetual threat under which Polish Catholics lived.
SR: This is something most Americans do not understand. They do not appear interested in finding out how people behave in conditions of prolonged terror. Terror in the battlefield has often been described and is relatively well understood, but not foreign occupation under which one nationality terrorizes another over a prolonged period of time.
JMK: Yes. In this connection, it should be remembered that in Auschwitz there were many Catholic priests so many that they became an embarrassment for the Schutztaffel. They were too visible. Even though the Nazis fought against the Catholic Church, they did feel a kind of awe before it. So in order to remove them from sight, they shipped several hundred priests to Dachau one day far away from Poland. In Dachau, there was a special bloc for priests.
SR: But St. Maximilian Kolbe died in Auschwitz.
JMK: Yes. As time went on, other priests came to Auschwitz, among them St. Maximilian. That shipment of priests to Dachau took place in the early days of the camp. Early on, there were some rules that even the Nazis observed, certain rules of decorum. Later, when the camp became enormous, especially after the Soviet-Nazi war broke out, total chaos began to reign.
SR: Were most of your fellow prisoners Polish Catholics?
JMK: No. During my second incarceration, there also were many Jews. Those Jews who were assigned to the Auschwitz camp were treated like all other prisoners, i.e., as much work was extracted from them as possible before they died. The Germans did in fact value Jewish labor and skills. In the transports of Jews from Western Europe in particular, there were many professionals whom the Nazis deemed useful for their industrial enterprises. When transports of Jews came to Auschwitz-Birkenau, between five and fifteen percent of Jewish men and women were usually set aside and sent to Auschwitz for work, while the rest perished in Birkenau.
SR: What else happened to those prisoners deemed useful enough to live?
JMK: Some of them were slated for medical experiments by German doctors.
SR: What happened at Birkenau?
JMK: Birkenau was the place where Jews and others were gassed and then burned. This happened routinely to women with children.
The controversies about the number of Jews who perished in the camp are related to the fact that the Jews slated for gassing went to Birkenau directly from the railway station, as civilians and not as prisoners. They were not registered in camp registers. It took only fifteen minutes from the railway platform to the first gas chamber (the entire enterprise was built with efficiency in mind). It took minutes to kill a person in the gas chamber. For civilians from the trains, it often took less than two hours from disembarking to the ovens.
SR: Who manned the gas chambers and the ovens?
JMK: They were virtually exclusively manned by Jews. This is perhaps the most unspeakable part of the horror of Auschwitz. The names of these teams varied; they were called the Zeppelin commando at one point. The size of these death commandos varied from one hundred to twelve hundred people. About once a month, these Jews themselves were killed, as they were potential witnesses. As a rule, the Germans killed everyone who knew too much about the camp.
SR: Were Jews the only ones slated for gassing and burning?
JMK: No. Those prisoners who were worn out by work also ended their lives in Birkenau. After several weeks in Auschwitz, most prisoners lost the muscles which enabled them to work. Starvation diet did not replenish the muscles, and so eventually prisoners were declared unfit to work, dispatched to Birkenau, gassed and burned there. All prisoners, Jews and non-Jews alike, had the same 'rights' when it came to Birkenau. Another way to die at Auschwitz was to be shot in a mass shooting. Then the bodies were sent to the crematorium at Birkenau. These executions took place regularly. The victims were the worn-out people who could no longer work and individuals condemned to death by order of the Gestapo. Generally speaking, lots of sick people ended up in Birkenau. I remember a Gestapo officer at Auschwitz who used to say that such weekly 'dustings' were for the good of the camp.
SR: What happened to those Jews who were slated for work in Auschwitz?
JMK: They were treated like other prisoners. Each received a uniform and a number, and went to work. But only for a short time, for life expectancy in Auschwitz was counted in weeks.
SR: What happened after Dachau was liberated by General George Patton?
JMK: Shortly after the liberation, I met my future wife. We married in Garmisch. Interestingly, we were both freed on the same day, April 29, 1945, but in two different camps. The camp where my wife was incarcerated as a forced laborer was a hundred kilometers away from Dachau.
In 1949, having lived several years in a displaced persons' camp in Bavaria, I received permission to emigrate from Germany to the United States.
SR: Did the German government ever compensate you for your incarceration in a death camp?
JMK: Those of us who did not return to Poland tried to approach the Bavarian authorities in this matter. However, when we said that we were persecuted as Poles, the courts would generally decide in our disfavor. The German authorities took the position that Polish prisoners did not deserve any compensation. It was tough luck, it was war, they said.
SR: Do you know that those Polish Catholics who survived the camps in Nazi-occupied Poland, and lived in Soviet-occupied Poland after World War II, never received any substantial compensation from the German authorities? The Germans negotiated with the Soviet-imposed government of Poland, and the actual victims had no say in the agreements that were reached. The government of Soviet-occupied Poland pocketed the hard currency it received, using a ridiculous exchange rate to pay the victims. The Germans were glad to pay less, the government was glad to get the money, and the victims got next to nothing.
JMK: Yes. Most of the concentration camp survivors in Poland died in great poverty. Unlike us in the West, they were not in a position to lead healthy lives and thus prolong their lifespan to the seventies and eighties, as has been the case with many survivors who emigrated to the free West.
SR: Thus Poles were generally not reimbursed by Germans either for the horrors they experienced or for the destruction of life's opportunities. During our trips to Germany, we did not notice any sense of guilt or shame, of the kind that exists in regard to Jews, in regard to Polish Catholics.
JMK: Perhaps that is why the relations between Poland and Germany are good at this point, and why that remarkable reconciliation took place. Of course the first to extend a friendly hand were the Polish Catholic bishops, who in the 1950s approached the German bishops with the famous 'We forgive and ask for forgiveness.' Germans now support Poles in the international arena, in NATO negotiations for instance. But of course only scant reparations have been paid by the individual Lander in Germany (the provinces rather than the federal government were usually involved in negotiating these reparations).
IN THE UNITED STATES
SR: Did you receive any significant help from any organization when you arrived in the United States?
JMK: No. The beginnings were very difficult. They called us 'greenhorns.' It took me some time to get a job that paid enough to provide a modest standard of living. That job was with the Yellow Pages: I was doing logos and layouts. Then I got a job as a graphic artist with The Washington Post. I worked there for nearly thirty years. It was then that I started painting again. I have a lot of watercolors, not just camp watercolors but also others. I retired at age 68.
SR: When did you start painting camp scenes?
JMK: I started doing them already in 1945. I also painted in the camp when I was ordered to do so. But when I came to this country, I had no time for painting, I had to look for a job.
SR: Both you and your wife look very fit. What do you do to maintain good health?
JMK: I have been fourteen years in retirement now, and I jogged five miles every day for many years. Now I walk five miles. I have also been working on my paintings and watercolors, and this keeps me busy and alive.
THE EXHIBIT IN HOUSTON
SR: How did this exhibit come to be?
JMK: One day, I received a phone call from a certain Mr. Bert Van Bork who, as I learned later, was an artist and filmmaker. He and the Chicago art patrons, Granvil and Marcia Specks, established the Marbert Art Foundation for the purpose of the preservation of concentration camp art. Mr. Van Bork got my name and address from the State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau (the names and addresses of at least some survivors are kept there on file). He wanted to meet me because he learned that I was an artist and an Auschwitz survivor. He came in the company of Mr. & Mrs. Specks. At that point, I had about three-fourths of the paintings you now see in this exhibit in my workroom. Mr. Van Bork spent a long time looking them over, and he took many photographs. The paintings were not framed, they just stood by the wall in random arrangements.
As I understand it, the Marberg Foundation's goal is to create a museum in Auschwitz to display these works of art found in various concentration camps, not just in Auschwitz. Many artworks are presently stored in Auschwitz storerooms. To frame and display them over a period of time would take a lot of money. Mr. Van Bork has produced a one-hour movie showing what is there and what can be done with it, to encourage potential donors to contribute to the project. It is my understanding that there are some six thousand paintings and artworks in that collection. Forty of them are mine, painted after the war, plus the artworks I painted when I was an Auschwitz prisoner. Many drawings were found in various nooks and crannies of the Nazi camps.
Obviously, this kind of project is a large enterprise, and its realization depends on the funds that will be collected.
When I visited Auschwitz recently, Mr. Van Bork took a picture of me next to the barbed wire fence which surrounds the camp. That photograph became part of the exhibit in the Holocaust Museum Houston, and it is part of the film as well. Thus I became an actor.
SR: Is this the first exhibit of your Auschwitz art?
JMK: I had never exhibited these paintings before, partly because they were not framed. The framing of so many pictures is an expensive and time-consuming enterprise. They were framed at the expense of the Museum. Paintings were dispatched to Houston long before the exhibit opened. They made a favorable impression on another Museum curator, Ms. Ellen Methner, and her associates. This is how the project started.
SR: Is this a traveling exhibit? Will it be shown in other cities, and will it remain your property?
JMK: I am supposed to get it back. The company that brought it here, the Art Show, is supposed to bring it back. But I know that another exhibit is planned in Chicago, at DePaul University; there is also a possibility of exhibiting in New York. The Holocaust Museums all over the country may be interested in showing this exhibit, and so it will take some time before it goes back to Arlington where I live. I am of course in favor of having it travel around, because my goal is not just the showing of pictures. I hope that this exhibit will prove helpful in forging closer ties between Polish Catholics and American Jews. My paintings show the community of suffering which Catholics and Jews shared in Auschwitz. As you know, Polish-Jewish relations could be better.
SR: I think that your exhibit has had a very positive effect on Polish-Jewish relations in Houston.
JMK: Yes. I was delighted to see how many Poles came to the opening night, and how positively they commented on it.
AMERICAN NOTIONS OF AUSCHWITZ
SR: Poles who experienced Auschwitz first hand, as well as those who have had first-hand experience of living in the country burdened by the memory of Auschwitz, are often amazed at the amount of misconceptions in American society about the Nazi death camps. Is this a question of a lack of information or the one-sidedness of it? As Poles well know, under the Soviet occupation, i.e., until 1989, Poles were not in a position to produce books that would tell the Polish side of the story. On the other hand, in the United States, numerous books have appeared accusing Poles of collaborating with the Nazis in murdering Jews.
JMK: When I worked for The Washington Post, I tried to engage in public relations on behalf of Poles. I am well aware that, when it comes to the way Americans see reality, publicity is extremely important. Poles do not know how to engage in public relations, and they are not aware of how publicity works. In Poland, for economic reasons, people have already begun to realize that the media respond largely to those who maintain them financially. Without that financial commitment, no publicity is possible. Poles have to learn this. Unfortunately, Polonia is quite lackadaisical about it. Another issue is the question of language. All too often, members of Polonia, especially first-generation Americans, write important books in Polish, and publish them in obscure publishing houses. Such books are guaranteed to sink into oblivion. The only way to reach the American public is to write books in English, to run periodicals in English and to finance them generously. One of the reasons why I painted these pictures is that it is harder to misunderstand pictures than the written text. A book can be written and then misinterpreted; interpretation may be far away from the author's intention. Different people interpret the written word differently. But most everyone can relate to pictures and come to similar conclusions about them. Also, many people look at pictures but few people read books. Another issue is that books on Auschwitz published so far tend to be repetitive. Most prisoners did not know much about the camp, and they basically wrote their own histories. The totality of the camp eluded them. This sounds paradoxical, but is true nevertheless. People were so maltreated there that they were not able to think about anything except their own situation.
SR: What could be done to make American society understand better the nature of Auschwitz and the nature of World War II in Poland? During a discussion meeting at the Holocaust Museum Houston on 23 January 1998, someone made the statement (how significant that these were statements rather than questions!) that concentration camps were built in Poland because Poles were so anti-Semitic!
JMK: I live in Virginia and I often go to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Over there, hardly anything is said about Poles as victims. The standard statement is that the victims of the Holocaust were Jews and 'others.' Yet it is a fact of history that Poland lost six million citizens, over three million of them Christians. How can one bypass such a large number of victims I cannot understand it.
But recently, I noted a tendency to reverse that neglect. I have seen it in several places and on several occasions. Poles are being reintroduced as victims of the Holocaust, and it has become acceptable to speak of Poles as victims of World War II. This tendency comes from somewhere, I do not know from where. Some kind of moral or political suggestion has been made, and it begins to take root.
I think that this exhibit may be helpful in reinforcing this tendency.
SR: What prompted you to paint so many camp scenes?
JMK: Over the years, I have thought a great deal about the Nazi camps, and I feel a sense of obligation. I was one of the few lucky ones to survive. I think all survivors feel a sense of obligation to those who perished there. This is my way of honoring those who died whilst I live.
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