Documentary: Eyewitness
Documentary: Eyewitness

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Artist Jan Komski Dies; Survived 5 Death Camps

By Bart Barnes - Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

Jan M. Komski, 87, a retired Washington Post artist who during five years of World War II survived five concentration camps in Poland and Germany, died of cancer July 20 at Virginia Hospital Center-Arlington.

On June 14, 1940, Mr. Komski was in the first group of about 750 prisoners assigned to Auschwitz, in southern Poland, on the day it opened. His number, 564, was tattooed on his forearm. On April 29, 1945, he was in the Dachau concentration camp in Germany when the camp was liberated by the U.S. Army.

In 1949, after four years in displaced-persons camps in Germany, Mr. Komski came to the United States under the sponsorship of an uncle, and in the early 1950s, he settled in the Washington area.

He retired from The Washington Post in 1984 after 29 years with the newspaper. But he continued painting and drawing until shortly before his death, producing art of two disparate themes: landscapes, flowers and woodlands from the parks and woods in and around Arlington, where he had lived for the past 40 years, and scenes of death, barbed wire, brutality and starvation from the concentration camp years, 1940 to 1945. His work has been displayed at the Auschwitz memorial museum in Poland, at shows in Houston and Chicago, and at recreation centers and outdoor art exhibitions in Northern Virginia.

"I tried to forget about the camps for everyday. Now I have to force myself to think about it. . . . Though sometimes I am very distant from these stories, I can bring them forth at any moment. . . . The reason I am doing these paintings is because I always thought it only destiny or providence that allowed me to live when I knew there were tens of thousands of people who died there. . . . I wanted to do something to show the misery," Mr. Komski said in a 1973 interview with Shop Talk, a Washington Post employees' newsletter.

When searching for a more peaceful artistic alternative to the misery of the concentration camps, Mr. Komski often rose early in the morning to spend a quiet hour or two in a nearby park or sylvan space, sketching the ordinary scenery. He would then return to his studio, where with watercolors he added hue to the drawings.

Born in Bircza, Poland, Mr. Komski graduated from the Krakow Art Institute in 1939, the year that World War II began with Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland on Sept. 1. He was a Roman Catholic, and unlike Poland's large Jewish population, he was not immediately singled out for special persecution.

But life was harsh for mostly everyone under the Nazi occupation. Years later, Mr. Komski would recall rising at 4 o'clock in the morning in Krakow and standing in line for hours at a bakery to purchase a loaf of bread. One day on the street, he was stopped by a German soldier. Mr. Komski thought the soldier was going to ask directions. Instead, the soldier kicked him. "This is where I realize that Poland is in war," he says on a Web page entry of World War II autobiographical recollections.

By February 1940, Mr. Komski had decided to flee Poland for France, where a Free Polish Army was being formed. But he was captured in Czechoslovakia and returned to Poland, where he was sent to Auschwitz. Thirty convicted criminals from Germany were assigned to Auschwitz as capos, or prison supervisors. They were energetic and enthusiastic, Mr. Komski recalled, in the beating of other prisoners for such minor infractions as failing to remove their hats when speaking to a capo.

At Auschwitz, he was assigned to the architect's office, where he worked on plans for the expansion of the camp. "Auschwitz was small at the time, surrounded by numerous villages which were to be incorporated into the camp. These villages would be evacuated, the people sent to labor camps, and their homes destroyed. Prisoners were employed building fences, kitchens, larger barracks. . . . By winter, there were 150,000 prisoners in Auschwitz.

"Ninety-nine percent of these people were dead when I escaped in 1942. The Jews we never saw. They would be brought in and unloaded at the siding, stripped and taken straight to the gas chambers," Mr. Komski recalled.

Mr. Komski escaped Auschwitz by organizing a fake work detail outside the perimeter of the concentration camp with three other men. He was recaptured 16 days later aboard a train en route for Warsaw in a routine, random Gestapo roundup of prisoner candidates for labor camps. He was fortunate in having used a false name in his first arrest: Had the Germans been aware that he was an Auschwitz escapee, he would have been summarily executed.

In the final years of the war, he was herded from camp to camp -- Buchenwald, Gross-Rosen, Hersbruck and finally Dachau. He did not know how to cook, but he learned when he was made head cook for a unit of 20,000 prisoners. "You learn very fast in the camps," he said. His painting, drawing and sketching talents kept him from some of the worst concentration camp jobs, like those in mines and gas factories, and the jobs with the shortest life expectancy.

On Easter Sunday of 1945, he was one of 20,000 prisoners marched from Hersbruck to Dachau. "All food supplies for prisoners had been stopped immediately, and I recall marching five days without food or water. We all became so weak that when we came upon a green pasture, we picked up grass and ate. The German capos had formed a column of gravediggers, because there were so many bodies on the roads it was decided to dig graves on the roadside."

Only 9,000 survived the 16-day journey. On April 29, Mr. Komski recalled, the prisoners were told to remain indoors. It was strangely quiet. Then there was the sound of gunfire. Peering outside, he saw prisoners running through the barbed wire, which had been torn to pieces.

"Then I see first one American, and then a second and a third. Within half an hour, the whole camp was decorated with flags of all nations, probably sewn together and hidden for a long time," Mr. Komski said in a 1979 interview with Washington Post staff writer Michael Kernan.

After his liberation from Dachau, Mr. Komski was sent to displaced-persons camps in Bavaria and then Munich. There he married another Auschwitz survivor. They lived in Elizabeth, N.J., for their first few years in the United States, then moved to this area, where Mr. Komski eventually joined the art staff of The Washington Post.

Survivors include his wife of 57 years, Zdzislawa "Jean" Komski of Arlington; a daughter, Christine Sullivan of Arlington; a sister in Poland; and two grandchildren.

2002 The Washington Post Company

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