Some of their relatives perished in the Holocaust. Others hid for years from the Nazis. At least one died trying to liberate Jews from the camps.
“We got a sort of double whammy,” Gregg Philipson says. “My family has been here for a long time. But everybody who was left in Lithuania was wiped out.”
His uncle, Gerard M. Degenstein, was killed in action while serving with the Army’s 26th Infantry Division in France. His father, Bernard Philipson, served with the 8th Armored Division and took part in the liberation of Langenstein Camp. He was stationed in Czechoslovakia, being outfitted for the final invasion of Japan, when World War II ended.
His wife, Michelle Warech-Philipson, traces a similar family history.
“I had a lot of relatives that did not make it out,” she says. “Once I asked my father about my grandparents’ health, and he acted like he assumed I knew that they had died in the Holocaust. My father’s first cousin was in Auschwitz and survived.”
The Austin couple’s large and serious collection of family-related artifacts makes up a good portion of “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda,” a special exhibition at the Bullock Texas State History Museum, on view through Jan. 8. It was produced in conjunction with the United States Holocaust Museum.
Philipson, 64, a retired software executive, and Warech-Philipson, 58, a retired fundraiser, have lent other pieces to the Bullock, including rare objects for “American Flags,” a show that can be seen in the museum’s upstairs rotunda gallery through Jan. 16.
But “State of Deception” hit them where they live.
“A lot of young people don’t know anything about the Holocaust,” Warech-Philipson says. “I didn’t realize until I was in my 20s that we had lost family. It was something that they didn’t talk about.”
She helps her husband make decisions about his sprawling collection, which runs into the tens of thousands of objects. Philipson was bitten by the bug early.
“I started collecting as a kid,” he says with a smile. “Toy soldiers, Army memorabilia, baseball cards, family material. As I got older, I used it to tell a story. It tells the story of my family.”
Two stories intertwined
Gregg Philipson grew up in Utica, N.Y., where his grandfather, a World War I veteran, co-founded Philipson’s Army and Navy stores. Gregg’s father and uncle took over the shop, at first a true military surplus store.
“The Philipsons all came from Lithuania,” Philipson says. “Showed up around 1870.”
Some of this mother’s family immigrated from Hungary.
Michelle Warech-Philipson was born in Far Rockaway, N.Y., and grew up in New Jersey. Her father, originally from Poland, managed apartments in this country after escaping from Poland in the spring of 1939. The Germans invaded that September.
Transiting through La Havre, France, her father landed in Cuba at a time when boatloads of Jewish refugees were being turned away from the U.S. and other countries. He spent five years in Cuba before immigrating, and then he fought in the Korean War.
Her mother, a secretary from Brooklyn, N.Y., traced her closest ancestors to Romania.
While Warech-Philipson attended Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J., her husband graduated from the University of Buffalo. She moved to Austin in 1985, he in 1991.
While working out at the Jewish Community Center in 2001, Warech-Philipson fell into a conversation with an older woman.
“ ‘You’re not married?’ the woman asked. So she set me up with Gregg. It’s a match made in heaven. My father had passed away. Gregg’s mother passed away. Also, 9/11 had happened. We met in the middle of December,” Warech-Philipson recalls.
She is pretty relaxed about her husband’s overgrown collection.
“I wouldn’t say I’m an enabler,” she says with a quiet laugh. “Or that I’m against it, either. I help to make some decisions.”
She takes cues from his tone of voice and the manner in which he asks questions before deciding on a potential purchase.
“I can tell if he really wants it but that it’s too expensive, or if he really needs it,” she says. “Sometimes I say, ‘No, we don’t need another Nazi photo item.’ If I could just have list of everything! I am waiting for a time when he wants to sell something.”
A nonlinear path
It isn’t always easy to keep track of Philipson’s train of thought. He is best at explaining the stories behind any concrete artifact that excites him. So he makes the ideal tour guide for the Bullock show.
“The family stuff I collect has to be really close, from a direct bloodline,” he says. “Look at this super-rare advertising token: ‘Good for $1 in trade.’ It’s circa 1895. I bought it in an eBay auction. It’s from the store owned by Herman, my great-great grandfather Barnett Philipson’s brother. Here’s a reproduction of a photo of the store in Dodgeville with him.”
Philipson kept his father’s World War II uniform and his Sugar Bowl program, as well as many photos taken across Europe while he was fighting with the 8th Armored Division.
Noticing that Philipson was good at tracking things down, his grandparents and his mother asked him to find out what happened to his uncle, Gerard M. Degenstein.
“He was an only son,” Philipson says. “Smart and in advanced specialized training. I finally met a guy from Buffalo who was with my uncle when he died near Metz, France, on Nov. 16, 1944. So, right before the Battle of the Bulge.”
His mother and grandparents died before he found out the whole story.
“I was having dinner in Washington, D.C., with a colonel,” he recalls. “Now, many military records had been destroyed in a fire in St. Louis. So I was not making headway.”
The officer sent him to the “Killed in Action” records.
“Two days later, I got phone call from a lieutenant colonel at Arlington National Cemetery who said my uncle was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart,” he says. “They reissued his medals, made me next of kin, issued all the certificates, and produced correspondence back and forth with his grandparents about reburial in a Jewish cemetery in Yonkers.”
Turns out his uncle had died helping a wounded soldier, who lived.
“Then I received a letter in mail from the man who was with him when he died,” Philipson says. “That was probably the coup of getting stuff.”
Along the way, Philipson became a sought-after expert. He lectured in China on the Holocaust, served on the advisory board for the Houston Holocaust Museum and was appointed to the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission. He has contributed to major exhibitions in Houston and Dallas and speaks regularly at Fort Hood.
“I’ve given talks on medical ethics during the Holocaust,” he says. “Also on several military topics, including the liberation of the death camps.”
“At one of his lectures, Gregg brought nine tables of artifacts to Fort Hood,” Warech-Philipson says. “Everything was new to them.”
Why the Nazi art
Along the way, the couple discovered more relatives who had suffered under the Nazis.
Philipson says, “It’s the list you don’t want to find your family on when you are looking for relatives.”
Collecting family-related material led to deeper research into World War II, the Holocaust and the way that art was employed to demonize the Jews and others.
“When I collect propaganda art, I put pedal to the metal,” Philipson says. “The Nazis, the Japanese and the Axis in general — as well as the Allies — were very effective at messaging. It’s incredible how artwork was used to convey those messages.”
Curators from the Bullock learned a lot from this meticulous couple.
“They spent a lot of time at the house,” Philipson says of the curators. “They get it. We’re so proud to live here in Texas to see this in a state museum to talk about hate, bigotry and apathy. Michelle and I hope that making people more aware of this sad period in history will help to educate them and hopefully bring a bit more kindness into a world that really needs some.”
‘State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda’
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday through Jan. 8.
Where: Bullock Texas State History Museum, 1800 Congress Ave.
Cost: $9-$13 (museum admission).
Information: thestoryoftexas.com, 512-936-8746.