Face to Face. Art in Auschwitz. Exhibition at the National Museum in Cracow.


"Face to Face. Art in Auschwitz”, is the title of a unique exhibition in the Szołayski Tenement House, a branch of the National Museum in Cracow. It was prepared on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Museum on the premises of the former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp. It is the first of such comprehensive presentations of original works created in the camp by Auschwitz prisoners. The Minister of Culture and National Heritage, Prof. Piotr Gliński, has assumed honorary patronage over the exhibition. The exhibition is accompanied by an English-Polish catalogue available in our Online Bookstore.


Art created in the horrible reality of Auschwitz is a unique document of the camp’s world, but also a testament to the prisoners’ struggle for their own humanity. Behind the gates of the Auschwitz camp, many representatives of the Polish intelligentsia were imprisoned, perceived by the German authorities as especially dangerous as they might have become among others involved in the activities of the resistance movement or provide spiritual and moral support in the harsh reality of German occupation. Among them was a large group of professional visual artists.

At a later period, artists from other nationalities were also sent to KL Auschwitz, mostly Jews. The latter had much less possibility for artistic expression because camp authorities treated Jewish prisoners most ruthlessly. Nonetheless, some of them did not stop their artistic activity in the camp.

“When inaugurating an exhibition, we always emphasize the unique character of the moment, but here the word unique assumes a special meaning. We are opening a difficult exhibition and it has to face different difficulties from the very beginning. The decision to create the exhibition was made very fast. Director Cywiński’s suggestion was accepted with enthusiasm and it was clear for me that the National Museum would organize it. However, many people were saying that the National Museum is not the museum of martyrdom. But museums also serve to preserve memory. The exhibition is devoted to a difficult topic, but in this way, we can stop for a moment, look in the faces of the presented authors, stand face to face with the reality which is already gone and preserve the past in our memory today”, said Dr. Andrzej Betlej, Director of the National Museum in Cracow.

“We wanted to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and show to the outside world the art which we rather present in publications, where it serves as illustration for the history of the camp. Our collections include about 2 thousand works created by camp prisoners, which is unique on a world scale. But it had never been presented in such an exhaustive way during the exhibition. Nowadays, this art receives new meaning. Today we still have the chance to look Auschwitz survivors in the eyes, feel the emotions from their memory, but it is the last chance of this kind. This makes us responsible for passing the memory on”, said Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński, Director of the Museum.

“This art constitutes totally different legacy than witness accounts as it is loaded with emotions. Illegal drawings very distinctively present a human, a human filled with extreme suffering, whose emotional life prevails. This art constitutes one of the most comprehensive answers to the question how to continue talking about the most human aspects of the tragedy of the Auschwitz experience. I hope that in the future, a place will be created in the Auschwitz Museum itself where we will be able to permanently exhibit these works”, said Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński, Director of the Museum.

The exhibition presents nearly 200 original works performed the majority of them illegally, by prisoners in the camp.

“Due to the camp reality, these works were created in the conditions of constant threat to life and on all materials available for the prisoners. The exhibition is opened with the work by Peter Edel, the artist of Jewish origin, who in his double self-portrait asks the question “Is this still me”? We can search for the answer to this important question in works performed by the artists risking their lives”, said Agnieszka Sieradzka, curator of the exhibition, art historian from the Auschwitz Museum.

For the first time, unique drawings from the so-called Auschwitz Sketchbook are presented in their original version outside the Memorial Site. These works had been made by an unknown artist and hidden in a bottle in the foundations of one of the barracks in the Birkenau camp (they were found two years after the war). The sketchbook constitutes a unique work of art as it is the only set of drawings preserved in the Museum Collections which presents the fate of the Jews deported to the camp, from their arrival at the ramp to the murder of selected persons in gas chambers.

Portraits of Auschwitz camp prisoners are also presented. These moving images of human sadness are very thought-provoking. We can see a human fighting with unimaginable evil in order to preserve what has remained from his dignity. This humiliated and tortured man is still able to feel. We meet him face to face. In addition, the exhibition presents drawings expressing the desires and longings of prisoners, the images of their loved ones, small objects performed by prisoners with their own hands or children’s fairy tales created in the camp.

“In these works, we can find everything which was important for these people and what made it worth risking their lives. They act as a lens through which one can observe this intimate and emotional prisoners’ world”, said Agnieszka Sieradzka.

Works performed on the order of camp authorities are presented separately. They include among others camp propaganda, instruction drawings, plans of camp expansion as well works created in the Lagermuseum established within the camp, where the artists were forced to create for the private use of the SS men. Its history makes it clear where the prisoners gained the access to materials which they could then use for performing illegal works.

Among the exhibits we can also find the original “Arbeit macht frei” inscription from over the Auschwitz I camp gate – a unique example of “handicraft” by prisoners from the locksmith commando, one of the most important symbols of cruel concentration camp cynicism.

“We were trying not to overload the exhibition with curator’s comments. Let former prisoners speak, let us listen to their accounts and their voices shall constitute a unique guide through this exhibition. The exhibition combines the area of history and art history. On one hand, we experience here a unique type of artistic works, but on the other, it also includes historical documents. We are balancing between works with big emotional load and historical ones. Subsequent rooms and topics subtly correspond with each other”, said Michał Dziewulski, curator of the exhibition representing the National Museum in Cracow.

The exhibition will be on display until 19 November 2017. Admission free of charge. An English-Polish catalogue accompanies the exhibition.

Curator: Agnieszka Sieradzka, Auschwitz Museum
Co-curator: Michał Dziewulski, National Museum in Cracow
Coordinator: Alicja Wójcik, Auschwitz Museum and Katarzyna Maniak, National Museum in Cracow
Arrangement: Magdalena Bujak, National Museum in Cracow