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Artist expresses Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as he saw it

By: David Wallace | Farmington Press | Published March 1, 2011

 Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus Executive Director Stephen M. Goldman stands with artist Wladyslaw Brzosko’s works in the museum’s auditorium Feb. 24. The works commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus Executive Director Stephen M. Goldman stands with artist Wladyslaw Brzosko’s works in the museum’s auditorium Feb. 24. The works commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Photo by David Schreiber


FARMINGTON HILLS —Those who visit the Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus, 28123 Orchard Lake Road, during the next few months likely will need some time to take in several paintings commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and they likely will not soon forget the artwork.

The work belongs to Wladyslaw Brzosko, an artist trained in the 1930s at the Academy of Art in Warsaw, Poland, and who was part of the Polish resistance during the Nazi occupation.

Now 98, Brzosko physically can no longer tell the story of his life, but his wife, Judy, who met Brzosko in New York in 1963 while in her 20s — they married in 1966 and had a son — recounts the stories he told her.

After the war, Brzosko stayed in Poland until his Russian background — he was born in Siberia and spoke fluent Russian — got him in trouble with Polish Communists. He fled to Paris and eventually came to the United States in 1960.

While in Poland, Judy Brzosko recounted, state control prevented Brzosko from painting about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Not until he settled in New York City did he paint his series on the subject. The paintings span 1960-64.

“I think it’s very imaginative and very telling work,” said Holocaust Memorial Center Executive Director Stephen Goldman. “It’s very much of his era.”

The work uses a lot of bright colors and geometric shapes, and Judy Brzosko explained that cubism, futurism and post-impressionism influenced her husband.

“He’s very proud of his color technique, because he builds his colors — he doesn’t just slap it on the canvas,” she said.

Her husband worked as a janitor at the New York Public Library with a split shift — often 6-9 a.m. and evenings — that gave him time during the day to paint. He drew inspiration from faces he would see during subway rides, she remembered, for figures in the paintings, and he also borrowed the World War II picture archives at the library.

The expressions and body contortions in the paintings convey meaning and emotion.

“He got various friends of his to do posing, so he could get the muscles in the back and various things,” she said.

“It’s a very appropriate backdrop for when survivors are speaking, and it will be especially for the commemoration of the uprising,” Goldman said. The commemoration is in April, the month that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began.

“As sophisticated as the work is, I think it’s accessible to most viewers. There’s lots of things going on at the same time,” Goldman said.

Some of the backgrounds in the paintings are not Warsaw, but Gdansk, to give some historical context, as the Nazis used a desire to reclaim the mostly German-speaking city as an excuse to invade Poland.

Brzosko said her husband, who is not Jewish, saw the Warsaw Ghetto firsthand.

“He had some kind of papers that allowed him to go into the ghetto,” she said.

One could interpret the paintings as his testimony about what he saw, and they continue to speak for him.

“His main objective was to present things that he witnessed,” she said.

Goldman noted that paintings affect people differently than photographs do. While photographs to some extent reflect the photographer’s artistic choices, paintings give the artist complete control to express ideas.

“This is all from the heart or the soul or the memory in this case, because he was a Warsaw Ghetto survivor,” Goldman said.

School groups visit the center often, and art is an important way to reach young people.

“Some are visual learners, and they are much more affected by art than those who learn from the written word,” Goldman said.

One of the paintings is “A Tribute to Janusz Korczak,” a famous children’s author and radio broadcaster who ran a Jewish orphanage and whom the Nazis forced into the ghetto. Many accounts make apparent that Korczak had opportunities and encouragement to escape, but he chose to remain with the orphanage’s children, and they were never seen again after being sent to the Treblinka extermination camp.

Brzosko said her husband claimed to be a personal friend of Korczak, though she has no proof, but at any rate, her husband’s deep respect for Korczak comes through in that painting and in “Warsaw Ghetto Recollections,” which includes him among a representation of Warsaw’s social leaders, whom the Nazis murdered.

“He really admired Korczak and his bravery in going to his death like that,” she said.

Probably the most horrifying visual experience among the paintings is “Umschlagplatz,” which depicts the departure point for Treblinka. The other of the four main canvases, “The Final Solution” represents the battle during the uprising. Several drawings and watercolors that formed the basis for the main works flank those four canvases in the Holocaust Memorial Center’s auditorium.

Wladyslaw Brzosko did not become well-known, though, as Goldman said, he produced museum-quality work. Judy Brzosko said she wishes she would have pushed him more, when they were younger.

“He’s a very shy, quiet person,” she said. “He just never was able to promote himself.”

The works are scheduled to be on display until July.

“If she doesn’t have anywhere for it to go, I’ll leave it up even longer. I really like the work,” Goldman said.

For more on the museum, visit Admission to the museum is $8 for adults, with discounts for seniors and students. Uniformed servicemen and women are admitted free.