The Judaicum Center in Berlin's New Synagogue is set to open an exhibition of some 170 works by 44 concentration camp inmates entitled "Art in Auschwitz 1940-1945."
Wlodzimierz Siwierski smuggled out art, taping drawings to his body
On Tuesday evening, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and the Polish Ambassador Andrzej Byrt will be attending the opening of a show put together by the State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, which owns a collection of some 1470 previously unseen still-lifes, landscapes, caricatures and portraits culled from its collection of art created in the Auschwitz extermination camp.
"Art in Auschwitz 1940-1945" marks the first time a show has foregrounded art from concentration camps rather than featuring it within the margins of a broader examination of German history -- the standard approach towards Holocaust exhibitions over the last sixty years.
A reminder of human brutality
Although few pieces in the collection directly depict violence or cruelty, the portraits selected convey a sense of human suffering and endurance, serving both as an eloquent reminder of human brutality and an affirmation of the creative urge, despite imminent death. But they also work as autonomous, highly expressive works of art.
Critics have said that the only authentic response to the Holocaust is silence. Similarly, these portraits of people devoid of hope, sketches of starving crowds waiting to be deported, desolate children and executions are images that no pencil, pen or brush should ever have had to commit to paper or canvas. But these pictures are testimonies to events -- reflections of a time and place.
Supervised artistic activity
Much of the work exhibited was made by Polish artists. Before Hitler began deporting millions of Jews to Auschwitz, the site had been used as a concentration camp for Polish prisoners, many of whom had belonged to the Polish resistance -- including numerous artists.
Among them was Franciszek Targosz, whose sketches so impressed Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss that he approved Targosz's idea to set up a camp museum.
Targosz was named head of the museum, founded in October, 1941. It became a highly desirable work assignment for prisoners, providing them with art supplies and affording them the opportunity to make more private images. Jewish artists, however, were never admitted.
A way of forgetting
To the inmates, art offered an escape -- a way of processing their experience, proof of their existence.
"I drew portraits in the camp as a way of finding a short-lived happiness and first and foremost, as a way of forgetting," wrote the artist Franciszek Jazwiecki in 1946. "These pictures I drew in secret helped me forget, they drew me into another world, the world of my art. I was aware that drawing was punished with death and it was not that I was brave, more that I simply ignored the risk, because I could not resist creating my own world."
Although not represented in the new exhibition, another artist who survived Auschwitz, Alfred Kantor, has said of his work: "These (works) were crucial to my survival. Without this extra nourishment, I could not have endured the months of hard labor." His secret artistic activity had a crucial psychological purpose. "My commitment to drawing came out of a deep instinct of self-preservation and undoubtedly helped me to deny the unimaginable horrors of that time. By taking on the role of an 'observer,' I could at least for a few moments detach myself from what was going on in Auschwitz and was therefore better able to hold together the threads of sanity."
"Art in Auschwitz 1940-1945" runs through Aug. 14 before moving to the Felix Nussbaum Haus in Osnabrück Sept. 4 - Oct. 16