On January 3, 1943, Branford resident Lt. Carl Evert Holmstrom who was a piolet during World War II was shot down over Tunisia. During the two years he was a prisoner of war, Holmstrom drew sketches of life as he was experiencing it on whatever materials he could find. After his rescue in 1945 and his return home, he published his art that had, like him, survived through Nazi prisons. Throughout June, these sketches will be on display at the , and the Holmstrom family will attend the opening on June 4 to answer questions about Holmstrom and his art.
Holmstrom grew up in Short Beach and graduated from before studying art at the Pratt Institute in New York. After graduating in 1940, Holmstrom enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, where he became a bombardier and was commissioned a lieutenant. In 1943, Holmstrom crash-landed in the Tunisian desert and was taken captive by German forces. He was shipped to Frankfurt, Germany, to be interrogated at Dulag Luft; he was subsequently sent to a prison camp in Poland for six months.
Despite his status as a prisoner of war, Holmstrom refused to stop drawing. He took whatever types of materials he could find–sometimes using paper towels, or the back of sheet music pages, as his writing surfaces. Allied forces and the War Prisoners Aid of the YMCA sent materials to prisoners of war, making crayons, paints, and pencils occasionally available to Holmstrom. (Ink was confiscated by the German soldiers to prevent the prisoners from forging papers.) Holmstrom's captors allowed him to draw, so long as he did not depict the barbed wire, weapons, or fortifications he saw at the camps. When Holmstrom was moved from Poland to a camp at Sagan, Germany, and then through the infamous 200-mile Nuremberg Death March, he hid his sketches in the items he was carrying, sometimes in place of food or clothing. (He continued drawing even through the winter snows and bitter cold of the Death March; in a 1980 article, Joan Barbuto of the New Haven Register called those images his "most poignant.") Homlstrom also preserved a scrap book of Axis propaganda through these journeys.
After a final move to Moosburg, Germany's Stalag 7-A, Holmstrom and his fellow prisoners of war were rescued by General George Patton's Third Army on April 29, 1945. Holmstrom returned home on June 13, and soon after took a position as a commercial artist at Tower Studios in New York. He hoped to publish the images that he'd created and carried through the war, but when he was unable to find a publisher–despite praise from American newspaper and radio man Walter Winchell and interest from the Smithsonian Institute–he determined he would create a limited edition print run at his own expense. Only 1,000 copies were published; 500 were pre-ordered by fellow prisoners of war and their families, and some of the remaining copies were made available to Branford residents for the price of $5 at the .
Called Kriegie Life, using the slang word "kriegie" from the German "kriegsgefagener," or prisoner of war, the book contained more than 50 images from Holmstrom's pictorial diary of his experiences. Holmstrom provided text to help give readers context for the images, explaining how the prisoners made cooking utensils from tin cans and barbed wire and washed their clothing with a bucket and a stick, or offering a definition of the slang "honey wagon man"–the fellow who cleaned the latrines. (The book contained a glossary of kriegie slang as well.) The images ranged from very small sketches completed on scraps of paper to full, 16-inch paintings.
Despite the hardships of life in the prison camp, Holmstrom's art showed the humor and ingenuity of the prisoners as well. But Holmstrom's text did not shy away from describing the dreary monotony of the camps. "Moods of depression came in cycles developing from lack of mail, self-pity and cramped living conditions," he wrote, as quoted in the New Haven Register. "Excessive brooding caused some men to go 'around the bend' while others occupied their minds with studying, reading, drawing and crafts." The men invested time planning an escape. As an artist, Holmstrom was tasked with forging paperwork and money, and with creating maps. In the film The Great Escape, the artist at Stalag Luft III who created the materials for the prisoners who dug their way out of the camp is based on Holmstrom and other forgers who worked with him. (Holmstrom sadly could not escape with the others during that attempt for two reasons, according to his son, John Holmstrom: "One, he could not speak German, and two, he was too skinny, after his many years in confinement. He was one of the first U.S. soldiers taken prisoner.")
Holmstrom left his position in New York to publish and sell his book, and he subsequently worked as a freelance artist, taking work in advertising as well as painting portraits. Many of his works created during World War II were donated to the military institute, where they are accessible to researchers. The Kriegie Life Exhibit at the James Blackstone Memorial Library marks the first time the images will be on display in Branford. Holmstrom's daughter, Elizabeth Holmstrom, shared her excitement about the opening. "There are so many fond memories that we have of visiting family, parks and the scenic areas of Branford," she wrote. She also noted that a book of photographs taken at Stalag Luft III, including images of her father, will be on display.
The exhibit opens on Saturday, June 4, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Holmstrom's sketches will be on display throughout the month of June.