Etched in memory and art, horrors of wartime Poland

Jerzy Kajetanski's drawings take viewers into Warsaw Ghetto and concentration camp


April 24, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

On Sept. 1, 1939, Jerzy Kajetanski, a 25-year-old graduate student at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts in Poland, was returning home by bus from a stay in the resort town of Swider when he suddenly came upon a bloodcurdling sight.

"I saw a bombed-out house and a dead white horse in the roadway," Kajetanski later wrote in his journal. "That horse was the first casualty of war that I was to see."

Hitler's armies had invaded Poland, an act that would unleash the most destructive conflict in history. Within weeks of the start of World War II, Poland was crushed and occupied by German and Soviet forces.

Kajetanski (pronounced kai-yeh-TAHN-ski) witnessed the conflagration firsthand and recorded what happened to its victims in hundreds of drawings.

Now, some 30 of the more than 200 works by the late Catonsville resident recounting that harrowing time are on view at the Creative Alliance gallery in Highlandtown. It is the first exhibition ever devoted to Kajetan-ski's war reminiscences.

The show was organized by the artist's daughter, Eva Skrenta, as a tribute to her father, who died in 1999. Skrenta, now a resident of Baltimore, was born in Warsaw in 1941 and emigrated to the United States with her parents in 1950.

Kajetanski's expressionist-style drawings, several of which employ the motif of a dead horse as a symbol for war's horror, are filled with the terrible events the artist witnessed as a young man. Most of the drawings were executed with a "scratchboard" technique, in which the artist used a needle to scrape the image onto a piece of white paper that had been covered with black crayon. The picture that emerges is formed by white lines on a deep black ground, recalling the dramatic contrasts of a woodcut or linoleum print.

About 18 of the works in the show depict the siege of Warsaw in the first weeks after the invasion, when the city was jammed with refugees fleeing the German advance.

The Nazi onslaught was spearheaded by hundreds of low-flying warplanes that bombed and strafed the civilian population in a deliberate effort to sow terror and confusion. Several of Kajetanski's works in this section depict frightened citizens cowering in the ruins of bombed-out buildings as swarms of German aircraft darken the sky overhead.

In 1940, the Germans created the Warsaw Ghetto and compelled all of the city's 300,000 Jews to live within its walled confines. Before the wall was constructed in November of that year, however, Kajetanski managed to record many scenes of the severely overcrowded district and its miserable inhabitants. A selection of these drawings forms the second part of the exhibition

The last part of the show depicts prisoners at Immendorf, a concentration camp in Germany near the forced labor camp at Braunschweig to which Kajetan-ski, along with his wife and 3-year-old daughter, had been deported in 1944. These all but unbearably sorrowful scenes of emaciated bodies draped in the ugly striped uniforms of death camp inmates are among the most horrifying and somber images in the show.

Kajetanski and his family survived until American soldiers liberated the camps in April 1945. Evacuated to a displaced persons camp in the British-administered sector of occupied Germany, they remained there five years before departing for America, where Kajetanski found work at a metal parts factory in Ambridge, Pa., on the Ohio River northwest of Pittsburgh.

The works in the Creative Alliance show are not the original drawings that Kajetanski made while still in Poland, however. All those works were lost after the family left Warsaw in 1944. Rather, the drawings on display are the artist's own re-creations of his original works, which he painstakingly executed from memory after the family's arrival in America.

Kajetanski eventually found work in his chosen profession when the family moved to New York in 1955. There he was employed as an artist by Paramount Pictures, for whom he drew animation cells for the popular Popeye cartoon series. He and his wife, Halina, remained in New York until 1988, when they moved to Columbia, Md. (Kajetanski's war drawings represent only a small fraction of the approximately 2,500 artworks he created during his career.)

Meanwhile Eva, their only child, had moved to the Baltimore-Washington area in 1972 with her husband, a radiologist at Harbor Hospital. Now divorced, the couple had two sons, Mark, 35, and Brian, 32.

Eva Skrenta said in a recent interview that one of her goals for the exhibition was "to give people some idea of what it was like to be under all those bombs as they were falling."

No art show can convey the full horror of modern warfare, but Kajetanski's stark images suggest the tragic toll of the war on its victims. It is both a remembrance and a testament to human suffering on an almost unimaginable scale, and also to the human capacity to endure.


What: Jerzy Kajetanski: Images of War

When: Through April 30.

Where: Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave.

Hours: Wednesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Call: 410-276-1651 or go online to

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