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Holocaust prisoners' book to return to Poland from Sonoma County

  • Eleanor Hensel of Rohnert Park holds a handmade book presented to her husband, second lieutenant Clifford Hansel, by grateful Catholic prisoners when he helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp at the end of World War II. ((John Burgess/The Press Democrat))

Eleanor Hensel's late husband returned home from World War II with a remarkable, handmade gift of gratitude — a book of poems and haunting, color drawings by Polish prisoners of one of Adolf Hitler's notorious concentration camps.

As a civilian, Clifford Hensel set the book away and rarely spoke of it. “He would never look it,” said his widow, who's 89 and lives in one of Rohnert Park's large, well-kept retirement complexes.

She, too, has trouble looking at the small book. Anyone would.

Compiled by Polish Catholic intellectuals who'd put words and drawings to paper while subjected by the Third Reich to sadism and hard labor, it contains five poems and nine drawings. “Some of them are pretty gruesome,” said Eleanor, a mother of three who worked for a time as publications editor at Cal Poly, Pomona.

Though the poems and artwork do not identify the camp at which the political prisoners were savaged, historical accounts record that all three of the noted literary figures whose works appear in the book — Konstantyn Cwierk, Wlodzimierz Wnuk and Grzegorz Timofiejew — were interned at the large complex of labor and death camps near the Austrian villages of Gusen and Mauthausen.

American soldiers scarcely able to comprehend the hellish scene they'd discovered liberated the Mauthausen-Gusen camps on May 5, 1945. Eleanor Hensel doesn't know if her husband took part in the liberation or if he encountered the survivors when they were moved a short distance to a temporary home in barracks in the Austrian city of Linz.

Following the death of her husband in 2008, at age 85, Eleanor wrestled with what to do with the historically significant but painful-to-read booklet of anguished, original poetry and art.

Her first choice became to get the book to Poland, homeland of the labor-camp survivors who'd created it out of gratitude for the help they'd received from her husband while readjusting to freedom in the barracks at Linz. Earlier this year, Sarah Hensel of Petaluma set out to help her mother find an appropriate home for the book.

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