There have been dozens of movies and documentaries made about the Holocaust. Plays have been staged. Scores of books have been written. Museums have been built to document the atrocity of the mass genocide conducted with ruthless efficiency by Nazi Germany before and during World War Two.
It’s hard to find an original way to explore the topic. That’s why the musty, leather-bound album Shari Unger Klages found in her dad’s closet when she was a girl is so unique.
“This album has been sitting in a closet for almost 60-odd years,” said Avi Hoffman, Klages’ neighbor and partner in publicizing the album.
It’s a Holocaust time capsule. It shows the perspectives of two concentration camp survivors, a Jewish teenager named Arnold Unger, and a Catholic artist, Michael Porulski.
“This album has within it 30 pieces of artwork, a sequential narrative, an artist’s diary of life and death in a concentration camp known as Dachau,” Hoffman explained. “It’s 30 pieces that tell a story, from the arrival of the prisoners at Dachau to the removal of their clothing to the medical examinations, to the way they were fed, to the work that they did, to the arrest and torture to the ultimate death. It tells a story from beginning to end.”
“They’re very unemotional, very neutral,” Klages said, commenting on the style of the highly detailed, postcard-size watercolor paintings.
The album is full of photographs too. Some of them were taken by American GI’s to document the atrocities they found. But most are personal, such as the one showing Unger at age 15, working as the office boy for the American officers who ran Dachau as a refugee center after the war.
“I was 12 when he died,” said Klages.
She found the scrapbook in her father’s closet after he killed himself on Thanksgiving Day, 1972. Suicide is not uncommon among Holocaust survivors. Many of them never get over the feelings of guilt for having survived, the depression of losing their families, and the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder from the harrowing ordeals inflicted upon them.
“I recall getting through the first couple of pages, hearing footsteps, and scurrying to get it put away,” Klages said, thinking of the moment when she discovered the album. Klages says it gives her a clearer picture of her father.
“You know it does in the sense that from such a young age, he was seen to be such a special person, such a unique individual,” she said.
Arnold Unger came to America as a teenager with no family. He became an electrical engineer, helped design the Apollo lunar landing module, but never spoke to his daughter about his Holocaust experiences, and never mentioned the album.
The cover has a red triangle on it, the symbol for political prisoners. Somehow, when he was transferred to Dachau, Unger got his status changed from Jew to political prisoner. That undoubtedly saved his life. Almost all the inmates depicted in the album’s artwork also had red triangles, not yellow stars, sewn onto their striped uniforms.
“It’s very apparent that it (the album) was made especially for him,” Klages said. “On the front of the album is his Dachau prison number, affixed to the first page is his prison picture, calligraphied on that same page are the camps that he went through during the war.”
Klages thinks there’s no doubt that the American officers had the album made for her father. It’s a logical theory, but there’s plenty of mystery surrounding the album. Is the blue leather cover taken from a Nazi sergeant’s uniform, to match the SS patches affixed to the inside cover? What’s the connection between the boy and the artist?
"We have no idea,” said Avi Hoffman, pointing out that no one knows if Porulski and Unger even knew each other inside Dachau.
Hoffman and Unger took the album to Dachau, which is now a museum, where experts authenticated it and identified Porulski. He was a Polish political prisoner, imprisoned because he made art that criticized the Nazi occupation. The Germans arrested him in 1939.
“We don’t know if this extraordinary artist created any other artwork after the war,” said Hoffman.
Porulski moved to Australia, then to England, where he died in 1989.
“He dies of some kind of tubercular disease and his occupation, tragically, was listed as painting bridges,” Hoffman said, reasoning that this talented artist was making a living as a common painter, not an artist.
The Dachau album may be Porulski’s masterpiece, artistically, and an invaluable contribution to understanding the scope of the Holocaust.
“And without any words, you can teach how oppression can effect a group of people from all stratas of society,” Hoffman explained.
Shari Unger Klages sees her dad’s album as an extraordinary gift from beyond the grave and wants it displayed and used for education. She and Hoffman are working on a documentary called, “The Dachau Album Project.”
“For me, one of the most significant purposes of this adventure is for the Holocaust to become accepted by the world as a human event, not exclusively a Jewish event,” she said.
Hoffman agreed saying, “The fact that the artist was a Catholic and that Arnold Unger was a Jew and that both of their stories come together within this unique artefact is something that has never been seen.”
The album speaks to those who will listen, with voices from a haunted past, informing us today. Klages is in the process of donating the Dachau album to the Library of Congress.
To learn more about the album, click here.