National / History

Holocaust art collector seeks to repatriate works to Poland

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Writer Michiko Nomura was bursting with anger at what she saw during her first visit to Holocaust memorials in Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1989.

Human hair, shoes and prosthetic limbs taken from victims at Nazi concentration camps were displayed as “victims’ belongings.”

“Most painful was to realize their names would forever remain (unknown),” Nomura, 78, recalled of the 1989 visit. Around 11 million people died in the Holocaust.

Since then, Nomura has fought to memorialize the victims in a way that lets her relate their story to the people of Japan. She acquired 19 paintings and drawings by Mieczyslaw Koscielniak, a Polish survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp and uses them and other artworks to spread understanding of what happened.

Artwork of the prisoners, telling of their lives, struggles and hopes, represents the sole remaining evidence of the Holocaust, she believes.

As 70 years have now passed since World War II and Jan. 27 will mark the 71st anniversary of liberation of the camp, Nomura is considering returning the artworks to Poland. Her advancing age, she said, is also a factor.

“At this age, it’s become hard for me to take care of these pieces. It’s about time.”

She plans to donate the works to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, a memorial and museum co-founded by Koscielniak in what is now Oswiecim in Poland.

Born in 1937, Nomura, too, experienced war. As an elementary school child, she and her family lost their home in the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945.

So when she visited a tiny museum in Prague in 1989 a dozen drawings in particular caught her eye. They were done by children interned in a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia before the youngsters were sent to camps such as Auschwitz, Nazi Germany’s largest concentration camp, where most of them perished.

Some drawings showed children forced into slave labor, sick and starved, locked up in small cells, their heads shaved. But others were colorful and full of memories from a circus, playground, school or children’s homes.

She said the drawings depict the victims’ lives, both during and before the war.

“I wanted to share that with people from Japan,” she said.

A year later she managed to borrow several drawings from Prague and exhibited them nationwide. She still has replicas of the images for display.

In 1993, when Nomura was working on a book to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, she was perusing stocks of photos at museums in Israel and Germany depicting Jews transported to the camps, and felt disappointed that “all were taken by the perpetrators.”

“I thought the victims themselves must have left something to document their lives,” she said.

Nomura contacted the Auschwitz museum and was introduced to works by five survivors. Among them were two Polish artists — Jan Komski and Koscielniak, who died in 1993.

Urszula, Koscielniak’s widow, offered to present Nomura with 19 of his drawings.

The Gestapo arrested Koscielniak in 1941 for a political painting he did and he was sent to Auschwitz. But owing to his talent, he was assigned work useful to the Nazis: He would evaluate paintings confiscated from Poles, paint portraits of SS officers and design posters.

Using art materials supplied for his work, Koscielniak secretly documented the reality of the camp — slave labor, torture and death.

The drawings, smuggled out of the camp with help from underground organizations, depict prisoners tortured by SS troops. Some portray one of the artist’s contemporaries at the camp, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, a priest inmate who volunteered his life in place of a stranger’s.

Also in the collection are sketches of U.S. Army Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and Gen. George Patton, whose troops Koscielniak joined upon liberation.

Initially, Nomura thought Japan — and her home — “might not be the right place” for storing works of such a high historical value, but she decided to take care of them anyway.

Money she earned working as a family court mediator helped her maintain the works, but managing them turned out to be very costly.

“My friends tell me how different my life would have (been) if I hadn’t spent all my time and money on taking care of the works,” she said, recalling that the costs of renting suitable storage facilities exceeded the rent on her home.

In all, her costs totaled nearly ¥10 million over the years, she said.

“Giving up (Koscielniak’s works) is like losing a son who cost me a lot of effort throughout all these years,” she said with sadness.

Polish Ambassador Cyryl Kozaczewski said he was surprised to hear that Koscielniak’s artworks were in Japan and appreciated that Nomura wanted to donate them. Preparations for their return are now under way.

He said he hopes sending the artworks to Poland will help people in both countries become more interested in the history of the Holocaust.

“The donation would have a symbolic meaning for relations between Poland and Japan,” he said, adding that he hopes the pieces will be shown to a larger audience in future, both in Japan and worldwide, along with other works by Koscielniak.

Nomura has now owned the works for two decades. During that time, she has organized exhibitions and lectures to spread understanding about the Holocaust’s victims.

She has also written about and exhibited the works of Komski, a survivor of five concentration camps who after the war settled in the United States. Until their deaths she maintained a correspondence with Komski and Koscielniak’s widows.

“I’ve felt obliged to speak on behalf of those who are not able to do so,” she said.

Although she will return the artworks to Poland, Nomura plans to continue conveying the horrors of war to the younger generation.

She says many young Japanese know little about the Holocaust.

“They don’t know the cruelty, or they think only Jews were murdered,” she said. “They need to hear us explain why (it occurred). We all should know the truth.”

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