Forbidden Art exhibition on display at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia


The exhibition “Forbidden Art” was officially opened at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia on November 11th. It was prepared by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and presents the history of 20 works of art made illegally and at risk of death by prisoners of German Nazi concentration camps.


Piotr Cywiński....
Wojciech Soczewica....
Piotr Cywiński and...
The drawing comes...
A bracelet with...
Halina Ołomucka...

The exhibition has been traveling around the United States for several years and is very well-received by visitors and the media. Schools also use it as part of their curriculum for teaching about the history of the 20th century.

‘Camp art allows us to talk about the tragedy of humanity in a way that has not been used so far, and that is extremely important and appealing to the imagination of new generations. It is an authentic expression of the feelings and desires of the people whom the SS men tried to dehumanize. It is also a very direct voice that comes from the very center of the camp. They are accounts without words, and yet extremely strong in the power of human communication,’ the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński said at the opening of the exhibition.

The exhibition was brought to Philadelphia thanks to the involvement of the American Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation under the Leadership of Ronald S. Lauder, whose director Maria Zalewska, PhD, together with Lisa Steinberg, participated in the opening of the exhibition. Lewis Gantman and Joseph Finkelstein, Philadelphian members of the ABMF Council, were among the many guests that graced the event.

‘Thirty years ago, I met privately with Elie Weisel, in a small group of 10 children of survivors. He said something that I have carried with me ever since. Elie Weisel said to us, “There will come a time when I will be dead. Your parents will be dead. There will not be witnesses alive who will be able to tell the story. The memory of what occurred will be forgotten unless you take it upon yourselves, as your personal responsibility, to preserve it.” He was talking to me, and our small group, but also to us, to our generation. It is our collective responsibility to preserve the evidence, and the preserve the memory, and to teach the next generations’ – Joe Finkelstein, said.

Don Greenbaum, a World War II veteran and one of the liberators of the German Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, also shared his memories.

Liberty Museum CEO Gwen Borowski hopes that attendees will learn that being a bystander to bigotry, and failing to intervene, makes you complicit. She wants people to speak out against injustice. ‘It’s about protecting this fragile freedom and liberty that we have. It’s art that tells an unbelievable story of resistance and survival and identity,’ she said.

During the opening of the exhibition, Maria Zalewska, PhD, who for a decade has been supporting the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation and the work of preserving the authenticity of the Memorial Site, was awarded a rare impression from the original plate of Mieczysław Kościelniak’s graphic work entitled “Letter from home.” 

The exhibition curated by Agnieszka Sieradzka, art historian from Museum Collections, presents works of art made illegally in the camp. These are drawings documenting the reality of the camp, but also examples of art being an escape from the cruel reality. Among these, works can be found by Zofia Stępień, Halina Ołomucka, Józef Szajna, Franciszek Jaźwiecki, Włodzimierz Siwierski, Mieczysław Kościelniak, Peter Edel, Josef Sapcaru and others, including prisoners whose names and surnames are not always known.

Enlarged and backlit photographic reproductions made by Michał Dziewulski have been placed in specially designed wooden exhibition panes, which relate to the architecture of barracks. Each work is accompanied by historical commentary and relating archival fragments.

‘Thanks to a precise commentary along with each item on the exhibit we are able to understand the meaning of art in the daily life of individual Auschwitz prisoners but also their collective. Through their eyes, we gain access to feelings, things, and events that were important. What is certainly also crucial is the fact that their work allows us to get a little bit closer to understanding the horrors of their existence. It serves as yet another authentic bridge between their lives and ours,’ said Wojciech Soczewica, Director General of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation.

The exhibition is divided into two parts. The first part shows the reality of the camp—various scenes from the functioning of the camp as well as portraits of prisoners. The second part offers a look at various kinds of escape from camp reality: caricatures, albums containing greetings, and fairy tales that prisoners wrote for their children.

“Forbidden Art” will be on display at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia until April 12th 2020.