When he was a boy growing up in a village in Poland, Joe Grosnacht and his brothers would line up six chairs to make a pretend train to ride.
Years later, when Grosnacht re-created that scene in a picture, he drew himself seated in the front chair, with the other five empty.
"They didn't survive," he explained at the time. All five of his younger brothers, along with his parents, had lost their lives to the Nazis.
Now the 91-year-old Holocaust survivor has found entire classrooms of eager young artists, along with an enthusiastic writer, eager to hear, and to retell, his story.
Illustrated by middle-school students from Breck School in Golden Valley, "Six Chairs: A Holocaust Survivor's Story" outlines both tragic and uplifting chapters in Joe Grosnacht's life.
With a series of one-page short stories, the book captures one survivor's account of the Holocaust at a time when those who lived that unspeakable chapter of human history are becoming fewer and fewer in number.
"I wanted to be able to capture his stories before he's gone," said the book's author, Rowan Pope, an adjunct art lecturer at the University of Minnesota and full-time studio artist. "I felt they were stories that needed to be heard."
Just a teenager when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Grosnacht was separated from his family, escaped from Nazi labor camps only to be recaptured, and eventually was sent to Auschwitz, where he survived until the death camp's liberation.
"So many people died, and I couldn't do nothing about it," he said during an interview last week in the New Hope assisted-living facility where he now lives. "I always had hope."
After the war, he immigrated to the United States. He found help at Jewish federations in Texas, worked in a meatpacking plant, married, and moved to Minnesota, said his son Lenny Grosnacht.
"[He] never really made any waves," the younger Grosnacht said. "Nothing crazy about his life after the war."
Growing up, Joe Grosnacht's children only learned about their father's past by asking questions.
"He didn't talk much about it at all," Lenny Grosnacht said. "We knew other people who had folks who were in the Holocaust, and they went and did speaking tours. … That wasn't his cup of tea."
That changed about 30 years ago when a teacher in the family invited Joe to speak in a classroom. "Sometime down the road from that, he started opening up," Lenny said.
In the early 2000s, Joe contributed to Voice to Vision, a University of Minnesota collaborative project that captures the experiences of genocide survivors in works of visual art. Rowan Pope first met Grosnacht as a doctoral student in the program in 2012, and eventually began working with his family on the concept for "Six Chairs."
David Feinberg, Voice to Vision's founder and an associate art professor at the U, said it takes special qualities to connect with genocide survivors.
"You have to bond with them before you get the story," he said. "Then you get the deeper story. Everyone likes [Pope] immediately."
The result of their partnership is a book that uses art to inspire readers while still telling a haunting tale of survival, said Pope's twin brother, Bly Pope. "It talks about a really tragic subject, but I think it deals with it in … a very positive way," Bly Pope said. "Rowan was able to walk that tightrope really well."
For the back of the book, the brothers collaborated on a hand-drawn portrait of Joe Grosnacht. Meticulous detail defines Rowan Pope's time-consuming, photorealistic art style, which makes heavy use of composite photographs.
"I bring them all together in sort of a collage, and then I kind of draw from that," Rowan Pope said.
For many of his personal drawings, Pope draws inspiration from stories, including the works of Franz Kafka, and real-life histories of genocide survivors.
"They're all based on stories that I find interesting, whether real or fiction," Pope said.
It was the intense nature of Pope's drawings that convinced Feinberg that they should get students to illustrate the book instead.
"He did drawings that you wouldn't believe, that make you not want to look at the drawings, they're so good, of concentration camp victims," Feinberg said. "I said to him, 'You can't put this kind of stuff in a children's book.' "
Although originally skeptical of the idea, Pope said that the sincerity of the Breck School students' art quickly won him over, and that he found it tough to narrow down the 140 submissions to 37 published works.
"Some of them are kind of harrowing, and some of them are kind of uplifting," Pope said.
Feinberg said the student illustrators, who match Joe Grosnacht's age at the time the war began, will carry the memory of the Holocaust into the future.
"If you want to make somebody remember something, or feel something or have commitment to something for the rest of their lives — have them become the makers," he said. Each picture in the book is paired with a QR code that can be scanned to hear the students explain their artwork in their own words.
A family of writers
Writing runs in the family for the Pope brothers. Their grandfather, noted Midwestern author Frederick Manfred, wrote 34 novels, which featured themes of family life and survival, Pope said. He remembers Manfred as a friendly, gargantuan man; as children, Pope and his brother would climb on their grandfather's back.
Their parents, both active writers in their own right, inspired his appreciation for artistic creation, said Pope, now 34. And he shares a long-standing artistic partnership with his brother. Both studied as roommates at Stanford University, graduated from the University of Minnesota with master of fine arts degrees and live in the same St. Paul house.
Learning that Grosnacht had lost all five of his brothers during the war struck a particularly emotional chord for Pope.
"I remember thinking how horribly hurt I would be if my own brother died," he said.
Pope is looking for a publisher for the book, and said he might use it as a model for how to tell the stories of other genocide survivors. To get the book, e-mail Pope at email@example.com.
Parker Lemke is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.