Marcia Specks approached the gates of Buchenwald apprehensively, expecting to be overwhelmed. When she arrived, she had a “funny,” soothing feeling instead. She turned to her husband, Granvil, and their longtime friend Bert Van Bork and said, “They killed the bodies but not the spirits. The spirits marched out of here.” It’s a comment that three and a half years later she’s a bit embarrassed to recount–“It sounds so mystical”–and she probably wouldn’t, if it weren’t for what happened next.

The three Evanston residents had come to the former concentration camp in search of several journals of art and sheet music kept by prisoners during the Holocaust. Van Bork, a German-born documentary filmmaker, had seen references to the journals in German art literature and had decided to make a film about them. The Speckses, who were producing, were art collectors with a particular interest in work reflecting turbulence in German society. Their German expressionist collection includes several original prints from Hitler’s “Degenerate Art” exhibit of 1937.

Inside Buchenwald, an official handed each of them a folder containing examples of the prisoners’ work. What Marcia saw on a sheet inside hers astonished her. Overlaying handwritten music, a sketch depicted prisoners marching through Buchenwald’s closed gates–virtually an illustration of the thought she’d had outside. And at the top of the page, the artist had written a name: Marcia. “It was like someone saying you’re supposed to be here,” she says.

But the journals, it turned out, were at Auschwitz, so a few months later the Speckses and Van Bork traveled there. Marcia mentioned the sheet of music and showed a copy of it to Krystyna Oleksy, an archivist there. “Ten minutes later,” she says, “she came over to me and said, ‘Would you like to see the warehouse of art?’ And I said, ‘What warehouse of art?'”

Oleksy told the three visitors a chapter of Holocaust history they’d never heard–that many of the prisoners at the concentration camps were artists and that their talent had kept them alive, if only temporarily. The Nazis put them to work drawing maps, copying stolen masterpieces, designing furniture, and painting landscapes and portraits. Many of the artists secretly documented the atrocities they witnessed and then hid the evidence under floorboards, behind walls, in cans they buried underground–wherever they could. When the buildings were destroyed after the war, thousands of pieces of art were discovered.

Oleksy led them to a former hospital building called Cell Block 19, where some of the subversive art made at Auschwitz was stored, along with art done shortly after the war. Few visitors had been inside. Beyond two padlocked doors and up three flights of stairs, they laid their eyes on a trove of images with unsettling power. “Never in my wildest imagination did I begin to imagine what the pictures revealed,” says Marcia. “I’m Jewish, but I’m a third-generation American, you see. I had no relatives involved, and I really had no direct connection. But after going to that camp, my connection was very direct indeed.” Van Bork started filming.

The artists had drawn and painted life at the camp, everything from arrivals to public executions. Had they been caught, the punishment surely would have been death. Even so, some of them signed their work.

Because of the risks involved, and the urgency, the artists made many hasty sketches on scraps of paper, sometimes no larger than a postage stamp. Still, the Speckses say, about half of the 300 or so pieces they saw at Auschwitz rival the work of the expressionists. The Speckses walked away with what Marcia calls a “keen sense of responsibility”–both to preserve the art, which was in “terrible condition,” and to get it in the public eye. Van Bork’s film took on a whole new direction.

Most of the artists perished at the camps, but with help from Oleksy, Granvil’s law firm, and the U.S. Holocaust Museum, they found four of the artists still alive.

One of them, an 84-year-old Polish Catholic named Jan Komski, lives in Arlington, Virginia. A member of the Polish resistance and a graduate of Krakow’s Academy of Fine Arts, Komski arrived at Auschwitz as a political prisoner in June 1940, when the camp was still under construction. He drew maps and architectural plans for the Nazis, and while he did a few sketches on his own, he says he never made anything the SS would have found objectionable. Only later, while living in a displaced persons camp, did he feel safe enough to make art that revealed the heinous treatment he and others had received. About 50 of these pieces are now at Auschwitz.

Komski moved to the U.S. in 1949 and found work as a graphic artist for the Washington Post. In 1987 he returned to painting and drawing his recollections of the Holocaust. The images are striking: a guard chooses among four naked women; a supine man chokes to death as a guard balances on a shovel laid across his neck; a naked man with a rifle pointing at the back of his head cups his mouth in anticipation of the executioner’s bullet; four men, their arms twisted behind their backs, hang by their wrists from rafters as a guard looks on.

Komski says he once was tortured this way for three hours. When he returned to Auschwitz with Van Bork, they visited the very room where the torture took place. The Speckses have seen the footage and say the room looks exactly as Komski painted it.

Komski says he can imagine making art about the Holocaust for the rest of his life. “I record the things that were,” he says. “The more I go into it, the more I remember.”

If all goes well, Van Bork’s film will be finished in about five months. An exhibit of Komski’s paintings and drawings, “Auschwitz Eyewitness: The Work of Jan Komski,” opens April 12 at DePaul University’s Richardson Library, 2350 N. Kenmore. Komski will lecture there at 2:30 on April 14. Call 773-325-7849 for more information. –Tori Marlan

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Marcia and Granvil Specks photo by Julie Flohr; Jan Komski at Auschwitz photo by Bert Van Bork; Komiski’s “Hung on Twisted Arm”.