Part I: Michigan’s Catholic Displaced Persons from Poland

Walking on the park like historic campus of St. Mary’s of Orchard Lake, Michigan, you’re more likely to think of having a picnic than of World War II. But here you will find The Polish Mission’s unique museums commemorating the struggle and celebrating the survival of the Catholic Polish spirit during World War II. Tomorrow, we welcome Rita Cosby to campus, author of Quiet Hero: Secrets from my Father’s Past. Her visit and story about her father’s survival as a Catholic World War II resistance fighter is a timely lecture during the month of September. It is a somber time of remembrance for Catholic Poles throughout the world: the anniversary of the Invasion of Poland by the Nazis (1 September) and Russians (17 September). Each year we will honor the brave men and woman who fought for freedom.

The museums were created by the Polish veterans who came to Michigan as Displaced Persons, living their adult lives in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties. The museums, each with a small archive and library, document the Home Army, the Polish Army 2nd Corp, Polish Air Force, the First Polish Armored Division, Polish Army Veterans in America, and the Association of Former Political Prisoners of German and Soviet Concentration Camps. These museums hold survivor oral histories, art work, diaries, documents, photos, maps, uniforms and related ephemera.

The Michigan Humanities Council granted funding to The Polish Mission to develop a catalog for the general public and online lesson plans for middle and high School teachers. These exhibits, publications, and online tools serve to document the war experiences of the Catholic Polish soldiers, families, and survivors and help dispel the growing body of Holocaust revisionist literature which includes denying it happened or refusing to call the camps by the proper term “Nazi Concentration Camps in occupied Poland”. The grant work allows the museums to be shared with a wider community who, because of the Cold War and Iron Curtain, may be unaware of the deaths of 3 million Polish Christians at the hands of the Nazi and Russian armies. The museum collections transcend religion and speak of struggle and suffering as well as the hope for freedom and liberation. On a research trip to Poland with the Polish Mission Director Marcin Chumiecki, we met with museum curators and archivists who are maintaining similar collections of camp art, survivor art, and autobiographies and they await The Polish Mission’s online collections. <>.

Viewing artwork of Catholic Survivor Jan Komski with Auschwitz Museum Art Historian Agnieszka Sieradzka, Polish Mission Director Marcin Chumiecki, Author Cecile Wendt Jensen in the Survivor Art storage facility (Jan Komski), Barracks 23, Oświęcim.

As we prepare the catalog and exhibitions for digital display, the databases have helped document and help is tell a more complete history about these survivors.

What have we found? Here is a sample story that illustrates what we’ve located so far. On display in our Association of Former Political Prisoners of German and Soviet Concentration Camps (AFPPGSCC) museum hangs twelve paintings and drawings by Jan Komski. A trained artist from Krakow, he was captured by the Nazis as he crossed the border to join the Polish Free Army. His art kept him alive, drawing greeting cards and painting bourgeois landscapes for the Nazis’ and their girlfriends. Komski was assigned work duty the print shop, which gave him access to drawing materials. He and a few fellow inmates fooled the Nazis by painting credentials, staging a phony work detail, and walked out of the gates! Unfortunately, he was later recapture, and I was able to find him in two of the five camps he was an inmate. He was one was one of the 750 Polish prisoners who arrived at Auschwitz on June 14, 1940, the first day that the camp was opened. His card was obtained from the Archives of Auschwitz where he was listed with an alias (Baras) not uncommon for Polish underground soldiers. Note he gave the correct birth date.

Family Name: Baras
Given name: Johann
Born: 3.2.15 in Holyby
Religion: Roman Catholic
Staatsang / Nationality: Polish
Place of residence of family members: Stanislawa Pientek, Krakow, Pierackiego 5/2
Sent in: 14.6.40
Concentration Camp: Auschwitz; Bemerkung / Remarks: escaped 29.12.42
Document from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum – Archives
Germany: Flossenbürg Concentration Camp Records, 1938-1945 Jan Komski
Germany: Dachau Concentration Camp Records, 1945 Jan Komski

The Auschwitz Museum holds 106 of Komski’s paintings. After coming to America, he became an illustrator for the Washington Post and he gave an interview for the 1973 the employees’ newsletter “Shop Talk” and said:

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.

NOTE: If you are looking for relatives in the Auschwitz Muzeum database,
<> be sure to search try the name in German and Polish and use Polish diacriticals.

Additional reading:Discovering Displaced Persons
Part II will cover more case studies.