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You are young and beautiful. You should not die... | Print |
Contributed by jarmen (with co-operation of Katarzyna Nowak)   
Wednesday, 02 April 2003
Jolanta Kupiec of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum displays a new acquisition at the Collections Department. Photograph: jarmen A shipping crate has arrived at the Museum Collections Department from Ashkelon, Israel. It contains 70 works by Halina Olomucka, the majority of which she has donated to the Museum. There are oil paintings, pastels, drawings, and works done in mixed techniques. The earliest works date from 1943 and the Warsaw ghetto.

Sixteen of the works were purchased with funds from the collection that was taken up all across Poland last year to underwrite the acquisition and shipping of pictures by Halina Olomucka. In addition to private contributors, the Narodowy Bank Polski (Polish National Bank) donated 20,000 zloty to the fund drive. We would like to express our heartfelt thanks to all who contributed!

The Courier-Chancellery Department of the Bureau of Information Technology and Communication in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Polish embassy in Tel Aviv were very helpful in connection with transportation from Israel to Poland. The works by Halina Olomucka will be catalogued in the Museum's artistic collections. There are plans to show some of them in a temporary exhibition.

Numerous works by Halina Olomucka can also be found at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the Yad Vashem Memorial Institute in Jerusalem, Les Invalides in Paris, and the Deutsches Holocaust Museum in Berlin.


Halina Ołomucka (née Olszewska) was born in Warsaw in 1921. She was eighteen when she was confined to the Warsaw Ghetto along with her mother, sisters, and brother. She began painting as a child; her mother made sure she always had pastels and paper. Images of a carefree childhood allowed Halina Ołomucka some respite from the nightmare of the Warsaw Ghetto. She engaged in an unending struggle to find something to eat and a secure hiding place against the Germans - a quiet place where she could sit down and draw. She became part of an “outside detail” that smuggled food to the ghetto sentries; she found a way to carry some of her drawings beyond the walls of the ghetto. After the war, she recovered them intact from a family friend. Halina’s father perished in the ghetto.
In May 1943, following the Ghetto Uprising, Halina’s mother, wit her daughters and son, was forced along with thousands of other people to the Umschlagplatz. Jews were transported to the death camps from there. Her mother whispered to her: “You are young and beautiful. You do not have to die… You should not die.” Halina’s mother was killed in the gas chamber immediately after arriving at the camp at Majdanek. A week later, by chance, Halina avoided a similar fate. She was transferred from Majdanek to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, where they gave her camp number 48652. “A sign bearing the slogan ‘Arbeit macht frei,’ washed away by the rain, was leaning against a wall. I volunteered to repaint that sign. I could paint in secret. I did so in order to survive. I wanted to protect what was inside me.”

Defying all circumstances, Halina Ołomucka kept painting. She painted starvation, pain, despair, madness, and hope. Desire kept her alive: “I want to live, to be free! To paint meant living; to live meant painting.” Women prisoners urged her: “If you survive, do not forget. Draw us, and thanks to your drawings, the world will learn what happened.” Halina never forgot this.

The drawings that she did in the Birkenau women’s camp were hidden and remained concealed until the end of the war. In January 1945, Halina and thousands of other women from the camp were led out of Auschwitz for the death march. She was then imprisoned in Ravensbrück, and later in Neustadt-Glewe, before being liberated in Mecklemburg on May 2, 1945.

“They came. They said that we were free. Free! I was free! Free - free? What did that mean? Free? I felt nothing. Or rather, I felt an unknown pain tearing at my insides. Whatever strength I had was gone. I had no need to go on fighting. I had no need to go on fighting? I was free. It hurt!” She returned to Warsaw, but found neither her home nor any of her family or friends there. She was alone. She traveled to Łódź. She found shelter and work there, and met Bolesław Ołomucki.

Halina Ołomucka studied painting at the Higher School of Plastic Arts in Łódź from 1945 to 1950. One of her professors was the painter and art theoretician Władysław Strzemiński, the father of Unism. As a student, Halina Ołomucka painted landscapes and other works depicting the horrors of war. Melancholy and grief fill her paintings of the ruins of Warsaw.

In 1945, she married the architect Bolesław Ołomucki, who studied at the Higher School of Plastic Arts in Łódź and the Warsaw Polytechnic from 1945-1951. In 1951, Halina Ołomucka gave birth to her daughter Mirosława, or Miriam. In 1957, Halina Ołomucka traveled to Paris with her family and taught drawing to children and adults there. She traveled around Europe, before visiting Israel for the first time in 1968. The dazzling light and the ideal blue of the sky delighted Halina, as did the fragrances, the air, the people, their speech - everything. Four years later, she decided to settle there permanently. She lives in Ashkelon.

*** The Artist on Her Work

My paintings are similar to me. I paint what I am prompted to paint by what is inside of me - me! That is what I try to express.
As I see it, there is no moment at which a painting originates directly on the basis of things seen. I look, I observe, and my brain retains, by way of reflection, the things that move me or strike me. Then and only then comes the formation of the vision that I express through the artistic means at my disposal.
And so the important thing is not what I see, but what I feel. My painting is based on my imagination. The results are varied, more or less abstract, and sometimes completely free of abstraction. Abstract painting is comprehensible to the beholder only when the beholder is capable of taking in the artist’s intention, or of forming his or her own vision of the seen painting.
The essence of painting, regardless of its form, is an emotional bond that depends on external and internal factors.
My painting has been connected of late with associations arising mainly out of my past. While it may, perhaps, have become less accessible to the beholders, it has given me the freedom of absolute and full emotion.

*** Art Critics on the Work of Halina Ołomucka

Andrzej Szczerski:

The paintings by Holocaust survivor and former Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner Halina Ołomucka are quite attractive in the pictorial sense. Halina Ołomucka is an unusually subtle colorist, whether she is using a restricted range of colors or a highly varied palette. She does not shy away from the expressive treatment of textures often emphasized with a bold gesture. The world of Halina Ołomucka’s paintings is a world of unreal visions that suggest Chagall’s dream world. Halina Ołomucka places the most tragic elements in her titles, in words that do not participate directly in the visual message. Yet their presence reminds us that cities are burning and that people who have been stripped of the last scraps of their dignity are dying in these paintings and drawings. Only from time to time does the tragic grimace come before our eyes; the inexpressible is left to silence. Halina Ołomucka is capable of intuitively defining the moment when speech ought to cease, and when silence says more. >

*** Maxime Belliard:

Here is the terror of evil times, disturbing testimony to a past epoch cursed forever, expressed through human suffering in moving documents and in experienced events fraught with emotion and dread. Fortunately, by way of contrast, there are other scenes as well, which embody hope, soften the impact, and show that the artist is also capable of optimism and the commendation of life.

*** Natan Gross:

These are not "naturalistic" or "realistic" paintings. This is painting in the best sense of the word, using drawing and color to express profound contents concealed under a colorful surface. The subject matter is burning, shocking, and true. The telling is not the result of mere fantasy, but the expression of personal experience. . . .
Halina possesses a rare gift for characterization that does not depend on minute detail. Her Prayer is a fervent act of devotion - while the woman’s face is not seen, she is praying with her twisted body and weeping with her hand. Halina Ołomucka’s Rebellion is expressed in its totality in the burning eyes of two figures clinging to each other, imparting strength to each other through their shared struggle and hatred of the enemy. . . .
Halina is a student of Professor Władysław Strzemiński. Although he was an abstractionist, he taught Halina Ołomucka the techniques that make each of her paintings into an experience.

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