Holocaust survivor’s art collection finds a home in Hemet

Collection used as a traveling lecture series on the Waclaw Gazinski legacy

Photo by Kyle Selby/The Valley Chronicle
Gazinski has lived in Hemet since 1990. He stayed here for the remainder of his life, until he passed away in 2013.

■ By Kyle Selby / Reporter

The legacy of Holocaust survivor turned artist, poet, composer, master carver and sculptor-extraordinaire, Waclaw (pronounced “vatslav”) “Vatz” Gazinski, lives on in the home of Hemet’s Krystyne Gray.
Gray, vice president of the Hemet-San Jacinto Interfaith Council, purchased Gazinski’s entire art collection of about 150 pieces from Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ in Hemet more than two years ago for $1,000.
Russell Jacobs, a deacon of Pilgrim Congregational, sold Gray the collection. Since then, the two have made it their personal mission to acquire as much information about Gazinski as they can.
According to Jacobs’ evidence-compiled documentation of Gazinski, a longtime friend and confidant of Gazinski – who wanted to remain anonymous – visited Rev. Megan Owens, pastor of Pilgrim Congregational, in 2014 to leave them with the Gazinski collection, which he had requested to be donated to the church.

Gazinski apparently took some classes at Pilgrim Congregational over a period of several years, which Gray thinks developed “a place in his heart for them.” Jacobs initially wanted to auction the Gazinski collection to help pay for rent. Only after speaking about it with Gray, did things take an unexpected turn.
“As soon as I looked at it, I thought ‘we cannot auction this off,’” explained Gray. “As I thought about it further, I realized you cannot piece this material out.” That’s when she decided to purchase the entire collection.

Photos by Kyle Selby/The Valley Chronicle
“Vatz” Gazinski practiced a number of different art mediums, including woodcarving, sculpting and painting.

Gazinski was born in the city of Poznan, Poland, in September 1919 to a devout Catholic family. When Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1939, he was arrested in early 1940 and was sent to Auschwitz prison camp. After six months, he was sent to another infamous Nazi camp in Dachau, Germany.
One of Gazinski’s books, “Five Years and One Day,” described stories of his time in Holocaust prison camps. However, much to Jacobs’ dismay, each of his two known books are written entirely in Polish, and can only be found in European libraries.
Jacobs also uncovered some evidence that suggested Gazinski learned German and English during his time in the camps, wrote for a newspaper, presented musical performances, and provided sketches and portraits of Nazi officers. According to Jacobs’ narrative, Gazinski also carved “an intricate and beautiful” wooden bowl for Heinrich Himmler, one of Hitler’s most notorious and cruel henchmen.

Many of the Gazinski sculptures consist of tiny, inlaid sticks and twigs that he seemingly has been collecting for years.

Gazinski comes to America in 1950
After his release, Gazinski eventually made the trek to America around 1950 – with whom, nobody is entirely certain. He spent time in the Carolinas area, where he worked as a church organist and commercial artist. From there, he made his way to Omaha, Nebraska, where he obtained his social security number and card in 1951.
While in America, he married his wife, Alina, and they had a son. In 1960, they moved to Los Angeles where Gazinski gained employment as a commercial artist. He was also credited as a founder of an organization for the promotion of Polish arts; he helped form the Szymanowski Society, named after world renowned composer Karol Szymanowski, of which he was also music director.
For the next couple of decades, Gazinski and his family moved to various locations throughout Southern California, including Hawthorne and Lancaster. His wife passed away in Los Angeles in 1978. By this time, an estrangement developed between Gazinski and his son, who now refuses to talk to Jacobs about his father, according to Gray. The rift is a shame, because, according to Gray, his son “would be a host of information.”
Gazinski retired to Hemet in 1990, where he became involved with a local writers group; he was also heavily invested in the Ramona Woodcarvers. Gazinski passed away in Hemet in December 2013 at the age of 94.
The Gazinski collection, as it stands today, consists of varied multifaceted art mediums. Many pieces within the Gazinski collection reflect his skilled hand at woodwork, including sculptures made entirely out of hundreds of tiny inlaid twigs and sticks.
“These twigs that he uses, aren’t just from here,” said Gray. “They’re from all different parts [of the world]. He’s collected them.”
While Gray has a degree in sociology, she admits that her passion lies with the arts. She has been the art director for several newspapers and publications in Orange County, and taught private art lessons for nearly nine years.

Art collection used as a traveling exhibit
Gray uses the collection as a lecture series, joined by Jacobs who is more than happy to retell the Gazinski legacy.
“I decided to keep it, and use it as a traveling show exhibit,” said Gray.
Gray and Jacobs have already brought the exhibit to a couple of local churches through their connections with Interfaith Council, and even presented it to The Village Retirement Center (where Jacobs lives), and hopes to bring it to the Mt. San Jacinto College Menifee campus soon.
When Gray is finished showing the Gazinski collection, she wants its final resting place to be at the Palm Springs Holocaust Museum of Tolerance.
“I would like to see if they would want to have it or display it,” she explained. “I would donate it – I would never sell anything of his.”
Gray still hopes to learn more about Gazinski, as there is still so much of his life shrouded in mystery. But for now, she can admire and share his artwork with others.
“It’s modern, but not,” Gray said admirably about the Gazinski artwork, which she categorizes as dimensional. “To me, it just sends me a message that I had to keep it alive.”

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