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.
She used the Internet to locate and reach out to the holocaust museum that preserves the history of the Auschwitz concentration camp in formerly Germany-annexed Poland. Many prisoners of the Mauthausen-Gusen camps had been taken first to Auschwitz, where agents of Hitler's barbarity separated those who would be put to work from those who would be exterminated.
An email from an Auschwitz Museum staffer in February advised Sarah Hensel, "We are really glad that you decided to return the book to Poland. Our museum is the best place for such historical documents. We have a conservation laboratory in our museum with paper conservators ... and we know how important it is to keep such objects in good condition for years."
It turned out that a contingent of museum officials, including Elzbieta Cajzer, head of the Collections Department, was scheduled to be in San Francisco next week. Eleanor Hensel is quite excited that they will come to Rohnert Park and accept the book as a gift to the Auschwitz Museum.
"I really do think it should go there," she said.
She and her children believe the donation would please Clifford, a gentle man and Purple Heart recipient who lived for the most part silently with the memories of what he witnessed in the final half-year of the war in Europe.