An exhibit on display at the University of Michigan-Dearborn shows 20 high-quality reproductions of artwork — the originals were created in such desperate conditions, often under threat of death, that they cannot stand up to the rigors of travel. The works, images created and concealed by concentration-camp prisoners, are displayed in wooden enclosures resembling parts of concentration-camp walls.
“Forbidden Art: Illegal Works by Concentration Camp Prisoners” will be on view through Dec. 23 in the Alfred Berkowitz Gallery at the Mardigian Library. The exhibit was organized by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and the Polish Mission of the Orchard Lake Schools. In February, the exhibit is scheduled to travel to West Point Military Academy in New York State, where Dr. Piotr Cywinski, Auschwitz-Birkenau museum director, will speak.
“Some of the art speaks to us in a very direct way about the suffering, but some of the art is about things the artists were dreaming about to keep their spirits alive,” says Anna Muller, assistant professor of history at the university and part of the team arranging for the exhibit and associated programming.
“The art comes from different concentration camps, and the resources were different. Many of the prisoners worked in various workshops so they had access to different kinds of materials. Many of the images were created on the back of packing paper, small scraps of materials they managed to hide somewhere. In reality, the images are much smaller and of poor quality.
“The originals speak in a more direct way about the horrendous conditions under which the art was produced and what it meant for people to be able to draw or paint.”
Auschwitz, she explains, had its own museum, and some prisoners were commissioned by the SS to create art for them. People selected as artists for Auschwitz were supplied with paper and pencils.
Muller, who grew up in Poland and has worked as curator at the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, spent many weeks working at Auschwitz and saw artworks in their original forms. She developed and teaches a course, Oppression and Survival, in connection with the exhibit.
“The original works are so fragile that they can’t travel,” she explains.
Some images show people with facial expressions that communicate innermost feelings and turmoil. Other images present reminiscences of the outdoor beauty that had been denied to the imprisoned artists, both professional and aspirational.
“It’s art that has been created by people struggling very hard to maintain their humanity,” says Muller, who last year appeared at the Jewish Community Center to discuss Rywka’s Diary, a Holocaust memoir from Lodz.
The image Muller finds most compelling was created on a piece of packing paper by Jozef Szajna, who had been a set designer, playwright and director as well as a painter and graphic artist. The piece, called Our Biographies (shown on this week’s cover), uses rows of fingerprints to emphasize how everyone is different; one line has been cut to remember individuals who disappeared.
“In my class, we analyze images because if we only think of the beauty of the artwork, we’re missing the story,” Muller says. “The message of how horrible conditions were and how difficult it was to create art can escape our imagination. If we think of the pieces only as art from the camps, we’re missing the story as well.”
The exhibition is divided into two thematic sections: (1.) daily life in a concentration camp from the most authentic source and (2.) an invitation to reflect on the role of art as a mental escape as survival strategy.
“I feel that artifacts give us an incredibly powerful way of learning about the past through something that is very authentic,” Muller says. “They teach us about the conditions that people [confronted], motivations that pushed people to create and efforts in maintaining and keeping the objects that they created.”
As visitors go through the exhibit, they will notice captions that give the particulars of each piece of art, including the actual size and the artist. Special presentations have enhanced the viewing experience by covering Shoah remembrances and music allowed at the camps.
Arrangements are being made for a presentation by visual artist Wojtek Sawa, who will discuss his installation The Walls Speak, which illustrates stories of Polish children placed in subhuman circumstances during World War II. Sawa will teach a student workshop on the gathering, processing and interpreting of oral histories.
“When we were asked to host this exhibit, it was very natural for me,” says Muller, raised in the Catholic faith but not observant. “I’ve worked very closely with this subject, and I’m very interested in it. I’ve researched it for a while, and I taught a class similar to the one I’m teaching now.
“The Holocaust has been a very important element of our school curriculum in Poland. Since I was a child, I have been taken to concentration camps to visit them as memorial sites. I took University of Michigan students to Poland last year.”
Most of the works in the exhibit reflect the conditions under which they were created — the lack of supplies and the human need for creative expression to sustain one’s spirit, says Teresa Wontor-Cichy, research expert at the Auschwitz Birkenau State Museum. “Our understanding of art is challenged while viewing these illegal works; art ceases to be only a reflection of life, but rather becomes life.” *
“Forbidden Art: Illegal Works by Concentration Camp Prisoners” will be on view through Dec. 23 in the Alfred Berkowitz Gallery at the Mardigian Library. Admission is free. (313) 593-5446; umdearborn.edu/berkowitz.
By Suzanne Chessler, Contributing Writer