Auschwitz’s forbidden art

Watch “Voices of Auschwitz” Wednesday, January 28, at 9 p.m. ET.

Story highlights

Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum has works of art created in concentration camps

Prisoners would create art in secret and hide it

Through these works, we can see the truth about Auschwitz, historian says

Correction: An earlier version of this story included a reference to "Polish camps." It should have said "Nazi concentration camps in German-occupied Poland." CNN regrets the error.

CNN  — 

The Nazis did all they could to make their Jewish captives faceless, dressing them in uniforms and tattooing them with numbers that would become their new identities.

In the midst of that horror – indeed, in perhaps the most horrific place a Jew could land at the time – prisoners sought to take their images back and made sure that art was still present.

Franciszek Jaźwiecki, a Polish artist and political prisoner at Auschwitz, made portraits of fellow prisoners. Though the portraits portrayed prisoners of various nationalities and ages, they shared the same haunting quality, according to Agnieszka Sieradzka, an art historian at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

“The most interesting in these portraits are eyes – a very strange helplessness,” she says. “Prisoners created portraits because the desire to have an image was very strong.”

Sieradzka believes Jaźwiecki made the portraits because he was aware they would one day become important historical documents. Almost every portrait features the subject’s prisoner number, which gives historians a name to attach to the pictures.

More than 100 of Jaźwiecki’s portraits are housed in the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, a memorial and museum at the site of the Nazi concentration camps in German-occupied Poland. The gallery has more than 2,000 pieces of art created inside various Nazi camps or after the war.

Through the years, Jaźwiecki is said to have hidden his portraits in his bed or in his clothes. The drawings managed to survive until he was liberated. After his death in 1946, his family donated his portraits to the museum.

One of the most important pieces in the museum collection is a sketchbook containing 22 pictures most likely drawn in 1943 by an unknown prisoner at Auschwitz. The sketchbook is the only artwork documenting extermination at Birkenau. The sketches were found in 1947, two years after liberation, near Birkenau’s crematoriums. They had been stuffed into a bottle and hidden in the foundations of one of the buildings.

“Some would be surprised that art existed in a place like that, in a place with crematories, but art was especially needed here behind the barbed wire, because the art could save a part of their human dignity,” says Sieradzka. “The art was a hope for a better future. The art was escape from the brutal reality of the camp to another, better world.”

According to Sieradzka, Nazi SS officers commissioned some of the works. Artistically gifted prisoners made instructional drawings and models for the military.

SS soldiers also exploited the prisoners’ talents for private purposes, making them create portraits, landscapes, greeting cards and illustrations of German legends. Soldiers sent some of the art to their families or displayed it in the camp’s own gallery, the Lagermuseum.

That museum also held items taken from those deported to the camp, including antiques, Jewish prayer books and garments.

For Sieradzka, the most valuable and important work is the art prisoners made at great risk – in secret.

“Prisoners couldn’t use materials from SS officers for private purposes. It was forbidden, but prisoners many times carried out illegal activity and used these materials for illegal artworks,” she says, “These paintings and drawings play a very important educational role as illustrative of what happened at Auschwitz.”

Prisoners made art using whatever materials they could find – scraps of paper, baking paper, the backs of old letters. They made sculptures using bread and toothbrushes, says Sieradzka.

“The art was forbidden in Auschwitz so creating a drawing like that means risking torture, even death, however the art existed here almost from the beginning,” she says.

Jan Komski was a Polish Catholic arrested while crossing the border in attempt to reach the newly formed Polish Army in France. He had escaped Auschwitz once, but was rearrested in Krakow. After he was liberated, he immigrated to the United States, became a U.S. citizen, and worked for the Washington Post newspaper as an illustrator. Before he passed away in 2002, he painted works depicting daily life in the camp – scenes of barbarity at the hands of the SS and humanity and compassion between fellow prisoners.

“Thanks to these artworks, we could also see Auschwitz and the camp in the eyes of prisoners. And this is very unique because we haven’t photos depicting everyday life of prisoners in the camp,” says Sieradzka.

Through these works, she says, we can see the truth about Auschwitz.