hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture October 2015


Shining light on a ‘forgotten holocaust’

Artist’s exhibit tells story of Stalin’s mass deportation of Poles


Contributing writer



Maria Kolodziej-Zincio has created a set of 20 encaustic paintings that tell the story of her mother’s family’s deportation to Siberia. Denise Chandler photo

While the Holocaust carried out by Nazi Germany is a well-known and well-documented chapter in history, the Columbia County artist Maria Kolodziej-Zincio is trying to draw attention to another, lesser-known mass tragedy from World War II.

Kolodziej-Zincio, who lives outside Hudson in the town of Greenport, has put together an exhibit featuring 20 encaustic paintings, with accompanying text, entitled “The Forgotten Holocaust: A Family Story.”

The exhibit, which will travel this month to Saratoga County, focuses on the plight of some 1.7 million residents of eastern Poland who were abruptly taken from their homes by Joseph Stalin’s government. They were deported to prison camps in Siberia and other remote sections of the Soviet Union, where they were forced to endure severe winter weather, relentless slave labor and other brutal conditions.
Many of the Polish deportees lost their lives on the long train journey to Siberia or in the harsh conditions in the camps, because of starvation, diseases, unsanitary conditions, overwork and other causes. Only 400,000 survived.

It’s a long way from Poland and Siberia in the 1940s to the bucolic Columbia County farm where Kolodziej-Zincio grew up and currently lives. But for her, “The Forgotten Holocaust” is more than a creative exploration of a remote chapter in history. The exhibit recounts the experience of her mother, Regina Kolodziej, and other family members who were among the Polish citizens uprooted and sent to Siberia.

After two years of imprisonment followed by a long and circuitous journey, Regina, whose maiden name was Borysiewicz, met and married Andrew Kolodziej, another Polish refugee. They settled in Columbia County in 1957. Regina, now 88, still lives in a house on the property.
“I’ve heard this story all my life,” Kolodziej-Zincio said. “This project is something I really, really wanted to do but I wasn’t ready to do for a long time.”


Beeswax and other media
Kolodziej-Zincio tells her mother’s story in a series of encaustic paintings. The haunting images, accompanied by explanatory text, are collages that depict different phases of the story in photographs, old documents and other found objects.

Encaustic painting is a process of embedding and manipulating images or other items in layers of wax and resin. Pigments can also be added to alter the opacity and serve as a form of paint.
Kolodziej-Zincio added another personal element to her work: She is a beekeeper and uses wax produced by the 100,000 bees that she tends to on her property to create the encaustic medium.

“The encaustic process gives it a dreamlike quality and illuminates the depth of the story,” she explained. “When I was done, I also realized something that I did unconsciously. The early scenes are darker, which reflect the darkness of what was going on. Then as they made the journey to freedom, the images became lighter.”

After being on view at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Catskill in September, the exhibit will be on display Oct. 1 to Nov. 2 at the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Library, at 475 Moe Road in Clifton Park. The images also may be seen online at the artist’s Web site, www.mariakz.com.

The series is also profiled in “Incite 3: The Art of Storytelling,” the third in a series of books that focus on the works of mixed-media artists. The latest installment in the series, published by North Light Books, is being released this month.


Amid a world at war
Regina Kolodziej’s story is set against the backdrop of World War II, when Stalin and Hitler originally had pacts to annex separate sections of Poland.

Regina’s family, who were Catholic, lived in eastern Poland. One night in 1940, soldiers arrived at their home and forced the girl, her parents and brother, an aunt and their grandmother onto a train.

They endured a long, tortuous trip to a remote labor camp in Siberia. There, the men worked long hours in mines, and the family shared a crowded one-room cabin with other families and lived on subsistence rations of food.

They survived in those conditions for two years. Their circumstances changed when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, and Stalin joined the Allies. Regina’s father was allowed to leave the mines and join the Polish Army to fight Germany.

One day the prisoners were told they were free to leave. They were released from the camps, but their ordeal was not over: With no assistance, they had to walk hundreds of miles though the wilderness and over mountains before reaching a train.

They eventually were taken to a refugee settlement in Tehran, in what was then known as Persia. Regina’s grandmother died en route and buried in the desert. Regina’s brother joined the Polish Army, allied with Great Britain.

Regina and her mother and aunt continued to be shuttled to settlements in Pakistan and India, and finally to a refugee camp in Mexico. Regina’s mother eventually chose to return to Poland.
Regina married and moved to New Jersey. Then she and her husband moved to Greenport in Columbia County and bought a property they operated as a farm.

Maria Kolodziej-Zincio grew up on the farm. As an adult, she moved to other homes in the region but returned to the family property later in life. Her husband currently operates a small farm there.


Re-examining a family history
Maria’s life journey has covered fewer geographic miles, but her decision to document her mother’s story in her art is also the result of a personal evolution.

“I grew up hearing about this story from my mother,” said Kolodziej-Zincio. “When I was a very young girl, it didn’t make sense to me. Then it made me angry, and I didn’t want to hear about it anymore. But later, I became curious about it, and then I saw the possibilities of it as an artist.”
Kolodziej-Zincio started painting plein-air landscapes when she was a girl. She later completed courses in fashion, design, photography, illustration and commercial art at the New York Phoenix School of Design, The Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design.

But she stopped painting for 36 years. She earned degrees in psychology and education and pursued a career as an administrator at Columbia-Greene Community College.

After retiring 11 years ago from Columbia-Greene, she returned to artistic pursuits as a photographer and a painter, with an emphasis on landscapes. Her work has been shown in solo and group shows throughout the region. She has also been active in the region’s arts community, including serving for a time as gallery director for the Columbia County Council on the Arts.
Kolodziej-Zincio’s interest in combining her family’s history with her work as an artist was stimulated by a visit to her relatives in Poland in 2006.

She subsequently applied for and received a grant from the New York State Council on the Art. She created the 20 paintings that make up “Forgotten Holocaust” in 2013.

“I decided to apply for a grant as a way to push myself to actually do it under a deadline,” she said. “It forced me to focus on the story and figure out a way to tell it.”

The process was difficult on many levels, she added.

“It was a very emotional experience,” Kolodziej-Zincio said. “Also, I had to figure out how to tell a story that spanned from 1940 to 1957 and encompassed so many changes.”

Kolodziej-Zincio conducted extensive historical research and also interviewed her mother.
“I knew the basic story, but I had to learn the details,” she said.

She also gathered together surviving family photos, documents and other objects that illustrated or symbolized the events.

“Finally, it all started to come together,” she said.


Traveling exhibit
Kolodziej-Zincio said she plans to continue to give the exhibit as much exposure as possible because she wants to raise public awareness of the mass deportations carried out by the Soviet Union. She has shown work from the series at various venues over the last couple of years, including at St. Francis Gallery in Lee, Mass., and the National Association of Women Artists Gallery in New York City. Another showing is scheduled next year at The Living Room Gallery at St. Agnes Cemetery in Menands.

“Ultimately my dream is for it to become part of the archive of a museum, to preserve this story,” Kolodziej-Zincio said.

She believes what happened in Poland in World War II offers important lessons for contemporary issues and conflicts.

“Sometimes we tend to think of the Holocausts of World War II as something from the past that won’t happen again,” she said. “But we’re still seeing genocides, and related events like the refugee crisis, today.”

On a personal level, she said, putting together the exhibit was a healing experience and increased her appreciation for some core values.

“It gave me an appreciation of the strength and will of all of the people like my mother, and their ability to survive under such horrible conditions,” she said. “It also made me realize how important family is. One of the reasons they were able to survive was the support of the family.”
The exhibit also had an impact on her mother.

“When I was working on this, she didn’t realize the extent of what I was doing, and she occasionally got annoyed by all of my questions,” Kolodziej-Zincio said. “But then, when she saw it all together, she started to cry. ‘I can see myself and our life in it,’ she said. She was glad that the story was being told.”