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Heritage group promotes, polishes its Polish image
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Wally West stands before Jan Komski’s rendering of the American liberation of a concentration camp.
PINELLAS PARK – A little known organization tucked away in a small white building has been fighting to set the record straight about Poland’s heritage.

Wally West, who shortened his name from Waclaw Wesolowski, is executive director of the American Institute of Polish Culture, 9190 49th St. N.

“We provide exhibits and seminars to promote Polish heritage,” West said.

One attraction will be a portion of 106 paintings by Polish artist Jan Komski interpreting life in German concentration camps during World War II.

Komski’s renderings are powerful. The 37 color and 69 black and white works depict torture and beatings of prisoners by SS guards. They were donated to the institute by Komski’s wife, Zdzislawa, following the artist’s death in 2002.

The institute presents artistic events, exhibits, films, concerts and lectures. West, who moved to Florida from New York in 1977, launched the organization when no concentrated Polish activities in Tampa Bay could be found.

“Polish people would meet at the old Little Europe Restaurant in Clearwater,” said West, who is 84. “The institute was later formed to promote Polish activities.”

West said Poland once was part of Austria, Russia and Prussia. The country actually lost its independence in 1776 when Catherine the Great saw a newly written constitution as a threat to her regime.

“Poland was the first country in Europe and only the second in the world behind America to write a constitution,” West said.

Later it would come under Communist rule, but redefined itself when Russia’s red government fell.

The 129-member institute is proud of its accomplishments. Soon it will exhibit the Komski paintings at the Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. They are beautifully detailed and show the horrors of concentration camps.

West himself was a U.S. Army corporal when the Dachau camp in Germany was liberated.

“I wasn’t among the first American soldiers to free the prisoners,” West said. “General (George) Patton was, and he wanted everyone to see the kind of people we were fighting.”

Komski, as one of 758 Polish prisoners at Auschwitz, developed his paintings from personal experiences. He escaped in December 1942 to only be recaptured at a train station while enroute to Warsaw. Taken to Montelupi Prison, he and other prisoners were forced to march through a gauntlet of SS guards. He eventually ended up at Dachau, where he lingered until May 1945 when the camp was liberated.

Komski was an illustrator for the Washington Post for many years and died in Virginia at the age of 87.

West, meanwhile, hopes that the institute will attract younger people. He feels that the present generation is not eager to learn about their heritage.

“The older generation is dying off,” West said. “We need others with a passion to keep our heritage alive.”

West hopes to find a permanent home for the Komski paintings, possibly at Central Connecticut University’s Polish studies division.

He will soon travel to Savannah, Ga., in October where Gen. Casimir Pulaski, the father of the U.S. Calvary, will be reburied near his reconditioned monument.
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