Art in Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp

In the collections of the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, we can admire one of the world’s largest collections of camp art. It was created by prisoners on their initiative, of course illegally, using tools they had stolen in various ways. The prisoners created portraits, self-portraits, greeting cards, or pictures documenting what happened in the camp. Prisoners also carved anything they could: spoons, stones, and even bread.

From the archival information, we can learn that art was a remedy for preserving the remnants of humanity, to break away from the camp hell. While creating, the prisoners forgot where they were, and at the same time, thanks to their works, sometimes it was possible to get an extra slice of bread or a debt of gratitude for future use.
Artistic skills could also help in assigning to camp commandos. People who could carve, draw, or handle wood had a greater chance of finding a lighter job, for example in a camp carpentry shop.

The famous Polish sculptor Xawery Dunikowski was one of the prisoners who ended up in KL Auschwitz Birkenau. During their stay in the camp hospital, they drew portraits of patients who were there with him at the time. Unfortunately, we know nothing about whether he sculpted during his stay in the camp.

Despite the prevailing rigor, prisoners carried out various, sometimes even very complex projects. In the archives of the camp, we can find a book for children about the adventures of a bunny, a fox, and a rooster. The book included calligraphy and many colourful illustrations.

Apart from that, there was still “official art” in the camp, which was created at the behest of the SS men. All the maps, sketches, and documentation of medical experiments were created there. The SS men also ordered various types of works for their private use. Mock-ups of the camp were built, pictures documenting the expansion and progress of work were painted, but also more functional art was created: a desk, cigarette cases, inkwells, as well as elements of the house and garden decor of the camp commandant, Rudolf Höss – a great lover of art.

After all, the last play that we can mention is post-camp. It arose after the liberation and the end of the war. This kind of art reminded the tragedy of the concentration camp and helped in dealing with the trauma.
It is also worth mentioning the institution established in 1941 on the premises of the camp by Höss. We are talking about the lager museum, where the camp artists had the opportunity to gather and create. It was a double benefit. On one hand, the prisoners could warm themselves up and take refuge, on the other hand, a certain community was formed in the lager museum, which mentally helped the prisoners to survive. Various works of art stolen from prisoners and residents were also stored there.

It is not possible to estimate the number of works of art created in the camp. Some of them remain in private collections and many of them were lost during and in the first months after the liberation of the camp.

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