Saved by Design: Surviving the Holocaust, Brush in Hand

Artistic abilities helped Morris Wyszogrod evade certain death in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Matthew Kalman

This week's 71st anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis seems like remote history to most people. For Morris Wyszogrod, the memories are clear as yesterday. It's a week of anniversaries for Morris, including his birthday on April 20, a date he shares with Adolf Hitler. It's just about the only thing they have in common.

Morris is also a celebrated artist, but while Corporal Schiklgruber was dabbling in watercolors, Morris was counterfeiting identity papers to save Jews from Hitler’s death squads.

After the war, Morris became a renowned graphic designer and assistant to the legendary Paul Rand. Among his many professional achievements, Morris designed the logo for Q-Tips, Vaseline and the Revlon perfume Jontue. He also designed the logo of the Joint Distribution Committee before their 50th anniversary. The JDC is 100 years old this year and he still helps them out at their office in Jerusalem.

Morris is now a sprightly 94.

"There aren't many of us survivors left," Morris tells me at his modest home in Jerusalem. "I'm shocked. I meet young, intelligent people and they know very little. Just like we knew very little about the Spanish Inquisition."

"The lesson from my experience is that what I witnessed happen should never happen again. But it keeps repeating itself," he says.

Morris was the oldest of four children. His father was a musician and his mother was an artist who designed hats and theater costumes. When work was thin, his parents repaired musical instruments in their home, which became a meeting-place for many leading Polish jazz and classical musicians. After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the killings started, the music stopped, and the nightmare began.

“We never expected what was going to happen. We heard about Kristallnacht and the misery in Germany in 1938 and pogroms and killings of Jews in other parts of Europe, but we were not prepared for the tremendous story of lies presented by the Germans,” says Morris. “Eventually you followed the lies. You liked the lie. You thought it was the truth.”

When the Germans began deporting thousands of Jews from Warsaw, no-one knew where they were going. They had to hope for the best. They were wrong.

“The Germans promised that we were being taken to a place where a Jew, who they believed was not decent, could learn German culture and live,” he says. “But the places they took you were the universities of death. Treblinka, Majdanek, Sobibor, Auschwitz: I was in some of those universities.”

Morris's family in the ghetto were all killed by Hitler’s storm troopers and their collaborators, but he was saved because his skill as an artist landed him with other skilled workers in a comparatively safe job at the nearby Luftwaffe airbase.

But that didn’t insulate them completely from the horror. During the liquidation of the ghetto, more than 400 Jews were machine-gunned into a pit. Morris and the other artisans were marched into the middle of the killing fields and ordered to drag the bodies into a mass grave with their bare hands and bury them.

These and other horrors, the forced starvation, rape, torture, and slave labor for major German manufacturers, are recounted in Morris’s gripping memoir “A Brush With Death,” (SUNY, 1999) and are all the more affecting for the simple, matter-of-fact manner with which they are told.

Shortly after arriving at Plaszow concentration camp, Morris was among a hundred prisoners sent by the SS to exhume and cremate the bodies of 10,000 Jews slaughtered at Hujowa Gora nearby. “You lifted the body, and the skin would slide off the bones like a glove, leaving you with just the skin in your hands,” he recalls. “The scene was too much for the SS. They stayed back at a distance and got drunk."

The New York Times called the book, powerfully illustrated with some of Morris’s own drawings, “a heartbreaking, succinctly told memoir, as well as a fascinating parable of the way society treats artists."

Morris survived the ghetto, death marches, deportations and a series of concentration camps by painting murals, portraits and even greetings cards for his Nazi overlords and their families. "The murderers were my clients," he says. One night, he was ordered to decorate the German officers’ mess with pornographic scenes for an upcoming orgy. During the event, he was brought in to watch one couple and ordered to produce a sketch of them in flagrante by morning.

It’s hard to reconcile the dapper, diminutive artist who lives in Jerusalem today with the tough, streetwise young survivor who charmed and sketched his way through the officers’ barracks of the Reich’s special hell.

“I never considered myself lucky or smart,” he says. “I was continually surrounded by death. I got used to it. Death became a part of my life. It was one way of survival. Death and life became the same. I lost all emotion. I even lost fear. I didn’t know what fear was. It was as if we were being continually subject to murderous injections that kept us completely paralyzed. Not a minute passed when you didn’t see more killing, more murder, more torture."

His story is peopled with heroes, the fellow prisoners whose small acts of humanity saved lives in the most desperate conditions, and sadistic Nazis like Amon Goeth, immortalized in “Schindler’s List,” and Reinhold Feix, the SS commander of Budzyn camp who enjoyed strangling prisoners with the reins of his elegant white horse.

Arriving in one of the camps, he was tattooed with the permanent mark of a prisoner. Determined to escape, he sucked the ink all night from the blistering wound. By morning it was gone. When the guards came on inspection, he temporarily inked it back in.

He evaded death himself so many times, it became a nightmare routine. On one occasion, a man from his group of ten prisoners tried to escape – a crime punishable by the entire group being slaughtered. As they being were led off to the firing squad, the camp’s deputy commander intervened and pulled Morris and two others out. The rest were shot.

He captured the scene in a harrowing poster titled “Never Again” that he produced as a graphic design student at the Pratt Institute in New York.

Today, Morris is one of a dwindling number of Holocaust survivors left to tell the tale. Two of his close friends from the Warsaw Ghetto are still alive in the United States. The rest have all gone.

“What we, the survivors, were forced to see and experience was so evil that I sometimes think we should not be able to live a normal life and enjoy anything any more,” Morris reflects. “On the other hand, we came so close to witnessing the end of the Jewish people that we have the great responsibility to tell the world what happened to us.”

Matthew Kalman
Matthew Kalman
Matthew Kalman