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'Forbidden Art' reminded concentration camp prisoners they were human

A new exhibit at the Polish Museum of America features work created in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Ravensbrück.

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You've probably never heard of any of the artists whose work appears in "Forbidden Art," a traveling exhibit that just arrived at the Polish Museum of America, but given the circumstances under which their work was created, it's close to miraculous that anyone knows their names at all. The 20 paintings, drawings, and sculptures were created by prisoners—both Jewish and Christian—in Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and Buchenwald concentration camps during World War II.

The exhibit was conceived by Piotr Cywiński, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and Marcin Chumiecki, director of the Polish Mission of the Orchard Lake Schools in Michigan, and executed by Elżbieta Cajzer, head of the Auschwitz-Birkenau collections department. For the past three years, it's been touring the U.S.—it came to Northeastern Illinois University in 2012—and will most likely move on to the United Nations in New York after it leaves the PMA in January. (The drawings and paintings on tour are reproductions; the three-dimensional works are original.)

"We wanted to bring it to light so people won't forget," says Joe Drobot, chair of the PMA's executive board. "These people were condemned to death. They were in unimaginable pain and difficulty. But they had a will to live."

Art, the exhibit suggests, was a way for the prisoners to hold on to their humanity. Several pieces were intended as gifts for other inmates, like the album a group of men at Auschwitz created for the women at the Budy subcamp. It contained drawings of their hometowns and mentions of their husbands or sweethearts. Another prisoner made a miniature sarcophagus as a memorial for a dead friend. It's large enough only to hold a piece of bone and for the artist to have engraved his friend's name and dates on the exterior.

Others used art as a way to transcend the horrors of their daily lives. One group wrote and illustrated a booklet of fairy tales for the children they'd left behind when they were arrested. Stanisław Trałka transformed the kommandants into caricatures. Zofia Stepień drew idealized portraits of her friends so that they didn't look like prisoners. "Almost all the women had ulcerations, furuncles, suppurating wounds," she explained later. "I just tried to embellish them all."

Sometimes art was a means of communicating, literally, with the outside world. Josef Sapcaru made a painting as a gift for a woman who brought him food from outside the camp. A few artists in Auschwitz made a figure of the devil out of wire and ribbon, with a tail of fur. The kommandos used it in Christmas performances; the prisoners used it to smuggle messages to one another.

Some inmate artists wanted to document life as they saw it in the camps. Mieczysław Kościelniak was lucky enough to be able to draw the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviets as it happened. Kazimierz Tymiński and Józef Pribula created an album of their drawings called A Diary of a Prisoner, which Tymiński bound in human skin, an echo of Nazi brutality. An artist known only as MM made one of the few drawings that actually shows prisoners being directed to the gas chamber. It was found in 1947, hidden in a bottle, buried in the foundations of a barracks. Whoever MM was, he or she knew that penalties for making art were harsh. Franciszek Jaźwiecki, for instance, was punished with three months in the camp's penal company, a hard-labor detail in a separate barracks, and all his work was destroyed. More than 500 of Maria Hispańka's pictures were destroyed too; only one survived, discovered after the war hidden in a jar along with accounts of the medical "experiments" that went on at Ravensbrück.

"It was incredible they still had the will to create," says Drobot.

Art supplies were virtually nonexistent, though some artists worked for so-called "good kommandos" who gave them extra paper. Others improvised with whatever material they could find. One unknown artist used a sharpened nail to carve a table leg into a small statue of a man. Józef Szajna made pictures out of fingerprints. Włodzimierz Siwierski drew on cigarette papers and smuggled his work out of the camp under a bandage on his arm.

Most of the work is rough and unpolished because of the circumstances under which it was created, but there is one highly crafted piece, an intricate silver bracelet that shows scenes from the Łódź ghetto. It was likely made before its owner was transferred to Auschwitz; after the war, it was discovered buried beside a crematorium, along with a series of notes describing ghetto life in more detail.

Why did the artists take such risks and go to such lengths in order to create? The exhibit doesn't attempt to answer this question directly. But an answer may come from Leon Turalski, an Auschwitz survivor, quoted in the text beneath a portrait by Marian Ruzamski, who, until he died of hunger in 1945, made drawings of his friends and hid them in his clothes: "They were pleased they were alive," Turalski wrote, "that it is him in the drawing, that maybe somebody would manage to smuggle that tiny portrait, his image, outside the camp and in that way they would inform his immediate family that he still looked like a human being, that he had survived."

Correction: This story has been amended to correctly state that Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviets.

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