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November 5, 2010

Artwork done by the prisoners in the concentration camps

Filed under: Buchenwald, Dachau, Holocaust — Tags: , — furtherglory @ 11:51 am

Adolf Hitler was an amateur artist and he loved artwork of all kinds, except “degenerate art” (entartete Kunst) which was his name for the kind of art favored by some of the Jewish artists in Germany.  The prisoners in the concentration camps were allowed to do artwork in the concentration camps, although not entartete Kunst.  

Hitler favored classic art or beautiful pictures, as opposed to modern art or realistic drawings depicting the horrors of the camps. The prisoners had to hide their drawings and paintings that the Nazis didn’t approve of, yet they had the courage to produce this art, even with the threat of death if they were found out.

After the camps were liberated, the former prisoners were free to do artwork, such as what is shown in the photo below, which was taken at Buchenwald when I visited the camp in October, 1999.

Artwork done by Jozef Szajna a former prisoner of Buchenwald concentration camp

The photo above was taken in the Museum at the Buchenwald Memorial site. The art exhibit in the Museum features Holocaust art, mainly drawings and paintings done by inmates of the camp. Some of this artwork was officially sanctioned by their Nazi captors, but most of the art on display was done in secret, or by survivors after they were liberated.

One room in the Buchenwald art gallery is devoted to the work of Artist Jozef Szajna who enlarged photographs of Buchenwald inmates and then pasted these photos on huge cardboard cutouts as shown in the photograph above.

The art gallery at the Buchenwald Memorial Site

Painting on a wall, done by a prisoner at Dachau

The English text in the lower right-hand corner of the photo above reads: “Bavarian dance scene, commissioned by the SS; presumably done by Hermann Peters (1935 – 1944 in Dachau). The painting was exposed in 2000 during the redesigning of the exhibits.”

When the American military took over the Dachau concentration camp in 1945, the painting shown above, was covered over.  In 2003, the west wing of the administration building at Dachau was added to the Dachau Museum and the partially restored painting can now be seen.

When I visited the former Majdanek camp in Poland in 1998, I was amazed to see a large stone sculpture of a turtle, done by a Polish prisoner named Albin Maria Boniecki, in the small Museum in one of the former barracks.  I didn’t get a photo of it, but the turtle sculpture is shown in the old black and white photo below.

Sculpture done by a prisoner at Majdanek

A monument at Majdanek, which is the work of Albin Maria Boniecki, shows three eagles on top of an urn which contains the ashes of one of the dead prisoners. The White Eagle is a Polish national symbol.

Sculpture done by Polish prisoner at Majdanek camp Photo Credit: Simon Robertson

The monument shown in the photo above stands between the barrack buildings in Field III on the roll call place or Appellplatz at Majdanek. According to the Majdanek Museum guide book, it was erected in Field III by the work group led by Stanislaw Zelent, the leader of the Polish Home Army prisoners at Majdanek.  Zelent escaped when the prisoners were marched out of the camp as the Soviet Army approached; he was able to rejoin the partisans who were fighting the Nazis.

Remarkable as it may seem, artwork was also done by some of the prisoners at Auschwitz, even though both Majdanek and Auschwitz were “death camps.”  According to a book which I purchased at the Museum store at Auschwitz, there was an art museum established at the Auschwitz main camp in 1941 by Commandant Rudolph Höss at the suggestion of a Polish political prisoner.

According to the Auschwitz Museum guidebook, prisoners at Auschwitz were encouraged to create works of art, just as at the Majdanek camp. I did not see any of this officially sanctioned prisoner artwork on my visits to the Auschwitz museum in 1998 and 2005. Unlike Majdanek, where many drawings, woodcuts and sculptures were prominently displayed in 1998, at Auschwitz, there was only a few drawings done by the prisoners after the camp was liberated.

Drawing done by an Auschwitz prisoner

The photo above shows a drawing done by a former prisoner at Auschwitz; it shows two prisoners who had escaped, but were caught.  They were forced to stand under a sign, which said “Hurrah, we’re back.” in German, of course.

According to the Auschwitz Museum web site, the former kitchen building in the main camp is being remodeled to display the art work done by the prisoners.

The Magdeburg barracks at Theresienstadt is now a Museum

The photograph above shows the rear view of the former Magdeburg barracks, which was one of the two Museums at Theresienstadt when I visited the former concentration camp in 2000; this Museum is devoted to the artwork produced by the inmates. This same building was formerly used to house women prisoners when Theresienstadt was a ghetto and a transit camp for the Jews.

The Magdeburg building was also used to house the offices of the Jewish “self government” during the ghetto days.

The Art Museum at Theresienstadt is devoted to the artwork produced in the ghetto. Before World War II, the German people were considered to be the most cultured people in the world. Art and music had such importance for them that they allowed cultural events in even the worst of the concentration camps, and encouraged the prisoners to create art and music in what little free time they had.

Every Nazi concentration camp had its orchestra, made up of inmate musicians, and concerts were staged even in the worst camp of all, the one at Birkenau, the Auschwitz II camp. Typically, the camp orchestra would play classical music as the prisoners marched off to the factories to work and even as they marched to their deaths in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

During the week of cultural events at Theresienstadt in June 1944, on the occasion of the famous Red Cross visit, there were performances of Brundibar in the Magdeburg building.

In 1944, the Nazis discovered some of the “degenerate” artwork illicitly done in the Theresienstadt camp, and sent the artists and their families to the Gestapo prison in the Small Fortress across the river from the ghetto. Only one of the artists survived the harsh conditions in the Small Fortress.

Although several of the Nazi concentration camps, such as Majdanek, Buchenwald and Auschwitz, had artists who sketched, painted or sculpted, leaving works of art which are now displayed in the museums there, the Theresienstadt ghetto was unique for the sheer volume of artwork that the prisoners produced during the war.

Taking advantage of the many famous artists who were incarcerated in Theresienstadt, the Nazis set up a drafting workshop in the ghetto where the Jews had to use their talents to produce blueprints for the Germans. The Jewish artists in the Theresienstadt ghetto were also commissioned to do paintings for the SS headquarters.

Sculpture done by a prisoner at the Mauthausen camp

The words on the sign in the photo above say that the sculpture was made out of granite from the Gusen quarry in the year 1943 by a Polish artist named Stanislaus Krzekotowski when he was a prisoner in the Gusen concentration camp.

Gusen started out as a separate camp, but was later made into a sub-camp of Mauthausen.  The sculpture by Stanislaus Krzekotowski is now displayed in the market place in the town of Mauthausen. The Mauthausen concentration camp was a Class III camp which was for the prisoners who were considered the worst, but even at Mauthausen, the prisoners were allowed to do art work.

Hard to imagine, isn’t it?  The Nazis were the most evil people who have ever existed, yet they appreciated art and music and allowed the prisoners the freedom to produce artwork and play music.

There is a saying that the Nazis literally put down their violins in order to beat the Jews to death.  This is shown in the movie Schindler’s List where an SS man stops to play a piano while the Jews are being “liquidated” in the Krakow ghetto.

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