Halina Olomucki was born to the Olszewski family in Warsaw on 24 November 1919. Her father, Andrzej, a newspaper distributor, died when she was five years old. Her mother, Margarita-Hadassa, who had been her father's assistant, then became the sole provider for her family, which included Halina's older brother Mono (born 1909).
Halina's family were Jewish but not religious. She went to a Yiddish-speaking elementary school in Warsaw and then to a Gymnasium (high school). She showed artistic talent from a young age and her earliest memories are of herself drawing:
I drew and drew, this is my life. I know very little about anything else except painting. I love it.
Olomucki was 18 when World War II broke out and was sent to the eastern side of the Warsaw ghetto, where she also immediately began to draw and paint.
She tells of the great strength she got from her artistic creation, to the extent that she couldn't actually control it - it was a need which could not be overcome:
Of course there were no paints and colors, but always a pencil and always a piece of paper somewhere. My main job was to observe, I was always good at observation.
I need to point out [...] the most important point. My observation, my need to observe what was going on, was stronger than my body. It was a need, a driving need. It was the most important. I never thought rationally what I am doing, but I had this incredible need to draw, to write down what was happening. I was in the same condition as every other person all around me, I saw them close to death but I never thought of myself close to death. I was in the air. I was outside my existence. My job was simply to write down, to draw what was happening.
The situation in the ghetto was very difficult. Olomucki worked outside the ghetto and smuggled in food for her family. But her main goal was to paint. When she was outside the ghetto, among non-Jews, she met a man to whom she gave her drawings - "This was a very special moment for me" she said, "and this saved me some of my drawings."
From the Warsaw ghetto Olomucki was deported to Majdanek, where she was separated from her mother, who was sent on to her death. After several more "selections", this was also Olomucki's intended fate. But as a result of a momentary confusion, which drew the guards' attention, she was able to escape her queue and join another group of women who were carrying pails of water and food. Despite her extreme thinness, she managed to carry a pail of water and appear as if she belonged there.
In the camp, Olomucki was so weary that she lay down and thought of nothing but dying. The head of the block came in and asked if there was anyone who knew how to paint and she volunteered. She was required to draw slogans on the walls. Her work satisfied the head of the block and she received coffee and several slices of bread for it. After this she was asked to decorate the walls of the block, producing complex and colorful paintings for which she received praise from the camp administration.
Olomucki was able to put aside some of the art materials she received and began to secretly paint her own works, as always based on her careful observations. In these works she depicted the women who were imprisoned with her, hiding her drawings in as many places as she could find.
Due to the additional food she received for her "conscripted" work, she became much stronger - even stronger than she had been the previous year, when she had been just skin and bones.
Later, Olomucki was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau as prisoner number 48652. Some of the prisoners there were employed in the textile industry, but Olomucki had no talent in this area and was instructed to continue painting. She was sent to the Germans, who ordered various works from her. She received richer food as payment - bread and cheese - which she believed enabled her to survive. The prisoners also asked, and sometimes even begged her, to draw their portraits or those of their daughters - in the belief that this was perhaps their last opportunity to be commemorated. They were certain that, unlike them, Olomucki would survive since she was an artist. They asked Olomucki to take the hidden art works with her to the "outside world" after her liberation. She has stated that the faces of the prisoners were so deeply inscribed in her memory that she could draw them even years later.
If I ever I do an exhibition I will always exhibit some paintings, some portraits of those women [...] because this is the obligation I took upon myself, that always those daughters of those women will be there, as they asked me back in Birkenau.
From Auschwitz she was forced out on the Death March, which began on 18 January 1945. The group reached Ravensbrück camp and from there Olomucki was transferred to Neustadt camp, where she was liberated by the Allies.
Olomucki's mother and brother perished in the Holocaust. She returned to Warsaw after the war and married the architect, Boleslan Olomucki. Later she moved to Lodz, studying at the art academy there. In 1957 she emigrated to France, living in Paris, and from there, in 1972, to Israel, settling in Holon. Olomucki has continued painting all her life and in the 1960s held many exhibitions in Paris and London. She now lives in Ashkelon, Israel.
Immediately after the war - from 1945-1947 - Olomucki drew her memories of that period, well aware that, in addition to their artistic merit, the works had an important documentary value.
Olomucki donated her works from the Holocaust period and immediately afterward to the art collection of Beit Lohamei Haghetaot (the Ghetto Fighters' House Museum). Other works can be found in the Yad Vashem collection in Jerusalem, and in collections in other countries, including the Musée d'histoire contemporaine and the Auschwitz Museum.
(Dr Pnina Rosenberg)
Halina Olomucki's testimony.
Janet Blater and Sybil Milton. Art of the Holocaust. Pan Books, London, 1982.
Mary S. Constanza. Living Witness: Art in the Concentration Camps and Ghettos. The Free Press, New York, 1982.
Miriam Novitch, Spiritual Resistance: Art from Concentration Camps 1940-1945 - A selection of drawings and paintings from the collection of Kibbutz Lohamei Haghetaot. Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981.