Art Of Survival

Last Updated: Friday, September 15, 2017

Opening the envelope, Julian Siminski felt a chill.

For the moment, he thought he was looking at a sketch of his late father, Edward. The kind, sad eyes, the quiet strength, thin hair, strong nose and cheekbones -- exactly the same. But his father had hardly left any photos behind to remember him by, let alone something so special as this.

Like millions of Americans, Julian -- a documentary filmmaker living in Los Angeles -- had recently felt the need to trace his family heritage, and turned to the Internet for clues to his lost ancestry. When his search turned up the name of "Wiktor Siminski" on an Australian University's Holocaust site, he sent away for a copy of the man's picture.

Wiktor's resemblance to Julian's father was just the beginning of a fascination that quickly captured Julian's attention. He learned that Wiktor was an unsung Polish national hero, a concentration camp survivor, a celebrated artist and writer. The sketch, it turned out, was a self-portrait -- drawn by Wiktor when he was a prisoner in Sachsenhausen. Within a few weeks, Julian's curiosity about Wiktor became a profound personal quest. For more than a year, Julian has spent most of his waking hours pursuing a passionate personal commitment to bring Wiktor's story to the screen in his documentary film, "Wiktor: The Art of Survival."

As he learned more about Wiktor's life, Julian developed a feeling of deep kinship with the man. "With Wiktor's story," he says, "I felt this connection, this intensely spiritual connection, to this man who I had never met, who I didn't even know existed." Julian was struck by the deep parallels between Wiktor's character and his own. He knew in his heart that Wiktor was a kindred spirit.

In Wiktor's story, Julian also sensed a vital "secret of survival." Julian's intent is that the film will become a source of hope for countless victims of hate, bigotry and intolerance.

Searching through seemingly endless genealogy data on the Internet, in libraries and through painstaking correspondence with government archives, Julian has spent years looking for his relatives in a private quest to establish a sense of family that had eluded him growing up. But then, following up on a story told to him by his mother -- that her mother was a Polish Jew -- Julian came across an Australian University website with their Holocaust course curriculum online.

There was Wiktor's name. The site didn't give many details -- but Julian did learn that Wiktor Siminski had survived as a prisoner at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp for more than five years - -a remarkable feat. Julian also read that Wiktor was noted for his artistic talents, and that he had somehow managed to find the courage to create beautiful works of art while enduring the horrors of the Camp. Indeed, Holocaust scholars surmised that Wiktor survived because of his ability to create -- and Julian learned that a special exhibit, "Wiktor Siminski -- The Art of Survival" -- had recently been mounted at the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum outside Berlin.

With little more than that to go on, but sensing that a powerful and urgent story of the "Hidden Holocaust" was crying out to be told, Julian raised a bare-bones budget and, with his partner, Director Rob Wilson, headed for Berlin in the summer of 2000. Joining with German cinematographer Julia Kunert and associate Teodora Ansaldo, he launched into an onsite investigation, recording every moment on tape.

The quest started at the only place Julian knew Wiktor had passed through -- Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp outside Berlin. With the aid of Berlin Holocaust scholar Joachim Mueller, Julian and his crew quickly uncovered a wealth of information about Wiktor.