To leave a trace of themselves. Online lesson about art at KL Auschwitz.
'Art at Auschwitz concentration camp' – is a new online lesson prepared by the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust. It is dedicated to a unique document which shows the reality of functioning of the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz as well as the fate if its victims – works of art made by the prisoners. The author of the lesson is Agnieszka Sieradzka, an art historian who works at the Collections of the Memorial.
In the lesson, except the text dedicated to history of artistic activity of prisoners, one can find over one hundred works of art created in the camp as well as many witnesses’ accounts.
‘The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum is in possession of the largest collection of art related to the Auschwitz camp. This collection is unique on a world scale. The artworks created in conditions of extreme danger are an extraordinary document of history and time that still stir the emotions to this day. They enable one to discover the feelings and emotions, difficult to reconstruct today, that accompanied the inmates on a daily basis. It is because of this huge historical and emotional value that camp art is extremely precious and provides a universal message which can be understood by every recipient.’ – wrote Agnieszka Sieradzka.
‘The Museum’s collection includes works that were produced officially in the camp, to the commission of the SS (including those produced for the Lagermuseum established by the Germans), ones made secretly and illegally, and post-war works of the former inmates that are a particular account of those events and an attempt at coming to terms with the trauma experienced in the camp.’ – she added.
The works commissioned by the SS consisted primarily of drawings for manuals, models, and paintings presenting plans for extension of the camp, visuals documenting the course of illnesses and medical experiments, and numerous artistic handicraft items made for the needs of the camp authorities. The SS also exploited the inmates’ skills for their own private purposes, demanding that they made works unrelated to the subject of the camp-mostly landscapes, genre art, portraits, handicrafts, and minor sculptures-that they unofficially sent back to their homes.
‘In the autumn of 1943, to the command of Bischoff, the head of the Bauleitung, … I was ordered to make paintings illustrating the extension of the camp. Working there are civilian workers, and I painted Bischoff walking with a civilian foreman in the center of the picture. Those employed on the construction were mainly the inmates, whom, however, we were not allowed to paint,’ told in his testimony former Auschwitz prisoner Władysław Siwek.
Most works created behind the lines of barbed wire fences of the camps were made illegally, with the use of materials “pilfered” from the SS offices and warehouses, and from craft workshops. The largest group are portraits of inmates. Another large collection is formed of works on subjects not connected to the camp as it actually was, making allusions to memories from the time when they were free, and of artistic handicraft items, objects in everyday use, and minor sculptures. There are relatively few drawings that present the actual situation in the camp due to the risk that the making of such works entailed.
‘We who have recently been assigned to work in the office use the Sunday absence of our civilian supervisors and reduced number of the SS staff so that we also celebrate the holiday; having completed the most necessary tasks, we get down to our affairs. Joseph Sapcaru, a Belgian architect and painter makes various drawings of flowers with a skill unheard of. In the camp, he can exchange them for bread. Thankful for being able to work indoors after long years, the oldest among us, Max Ležansky, still diligently fills in some official forms, and only becomes engaged in a conversation with us from time to time. I myself am typewriting an essay about a Polish girl who renders invaluable favors to the inmates, both in the form of extra soup and information she brings us from the outside,’ we can read in memoirs of the former prisoner Alfred Ehrlich.
Post-war works are a separate group. The artists who survived the camp tried to render the vastness of the tragedy and the horrifying reality of camp life on canvas and sheets of paper. They made works and often even entire series that portray the conditions of inmates’ existence, the roll calls, the dramatic sanitary conditions, hunger, punishment, humiliation, as well as emotions: fear, despair, and helplessness.
A unique work in the collection of the Museum is a collection of drawings by an unknown author, probably a Jew with the initials MM, known also as The Sketchbook from Auschwitz. This is the only work to portray the mass killing of the Jews deported to Auschwitz, and also the extermination of the ailing and exhausted inmates.
The lesson shows also works that present not only the tragic reality of the camp, but also caricatures, artistic handicrafts, seasonal cards and portraits of prisoners. Some of these works – images of prisoners – are the only trace of their presence in the camp.
‘Art played a very important role in saving human dignity and in the camp environment it became the essence of humanity for the artist. It helped them maintain sanity of reason and psychological balance, so important in the struggle for survival in the most extreme of extreme conditions. It was one of the ways of expressing powerful emotions and also the fulfillment of the need for beauty resulting from plain human sensitivity. Moreover, art was an expression of the overwhelming need that humans have to leave a trace of themselves. It was the inmate’s hope that, should he die, a testimony of the suffering remained in the drawing or object,’ we read in the lesson.
Online lesson ‘Art at Auschwitz concentration camp’ is available in Polish and English.