National Liberty Museum Showcases Auschwitz Prisoners’ Secret Art

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A statue of a prisoner by an unknown sculptor at Aushwitz
A statue of a prisoner, unknown sculptor, Auschwitz 1940-45 (Courtesy of Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum)

Created in secret, its very existence was a crime. Its discovery meant certain punishment. And now for the first time it’s available for public viewing in Philadelphia.

Forbidden Art” was unveiled on Nov. 11 as the National Liberty Museum’s latest exhibit. The traveling exhibition is on loan from Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland and features 20 enlarged photographic reproductions of original art created by prisoners at Auschwitz from 1940-1945.

The photographs are framed inside wooden display panels, which Paweł Sawicki, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum’s press officer, said are reminiscent of the camp’s barracks. Each photo is accompanied by text adding historical context.

Many artists were imprisoned at Auschwitz and were commissioned to create art like landscape scenery to decorate their homes. These kinds of works are not part of this exhibit. What’s on display in “Forbidden Art” is depictions of paintings, sketches and sculptures made by prisoners in secret, showcasing the realities of camp life.

“Forbidden Art” shows the human need to create art and explains how and why it could exist in a place like a Nazi concentration camp. None of the original art is on display at the Auschwitz museum because Sawicki said it’s too fragile and delicate to display. So seeing the photographs in “Forbidden Art” is the closest possible experience to viewing the originals.

Sawicki said the exhibit was created years ago as an educational tool for those unable to visit Auschwitz. He said telling the story of the art brings to life a different aspect of the camp’s history.

“Art is a part of the story of Auschwitz that is not well known because it’s somehow outside of this main historical narration,” Sawicki said. “The art is their way of fighting against the dehumanization of the concentration camp. And the choice of the artworks for this exhibition allows us to talk about different dimensions of this.”

The exhibit came to the museum as a result of National Liberty Museum CEO Gwen Borowsky’s friendship with Lewis Gantman and Joseph Finkelstein. The two are Philadelphia-based board members of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation and pitched the idea of hosting “Forbidden Art” more than a year ago.

Borowsky said it’s unusual for the museum to host a traveling exhibit due to size constraints. However, “Forbidden Art” was a good fit, both in the sense of space and theme, tying into the museum’s celebration of the pursuit of freedom in the face of adversity. Along with the 20 photographs, the museum has put on display three glass sculptures from its own inventory, including a piece created by artist Steve Tobin of Bucks County. Borowsky said those works help to tell the story of Auschwitz.

“The takeaway message is about breaking the silence and speaking out. While this occurred 75 years ago, it is still going on and there’s a lot of silence, and there should not be,” Borowsky said. “My goal is people come here and understand the impact of silence 75 years ago and from then on today and going forward.”

Next year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and other museums are hosting exhibits for the occasion.

For example, “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away” will be on display at The Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City through August. The exhibit is the largest Auschwitz exhibition ever put on display in North America, with more than 700 original objects and 400 photographs. Artifacts include an original German freight train car used to transport prisoners to the camp, an SS gas mask, part of the original prisoner barracks and more.

But for those looking for something closer to home, “Forbidden Art” will be on display at the National Liberty Museum until April 12.

On Veterans Day, a press conference was held to mark the opening of the exhibit. Those present included director general of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation Wojtek Soczewica, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Piotr Cywiński, veteran and Dachau liberator Don Greenbaum and Finkelstein, whose parents were both Auschwitz survivors.

“The forbidden art of Auschwitz exhibition is a powerful reminder of the evil of the Nazis and their collaborators. Through this art, we recall and remember the innocent Jews who were tormented, gassed, slaughtered, burned and murdered in the Holocaust or Shoah. These drawings and sculptures, many clandestinely made by prisoners, show us the desperate plight of the inmates as well as scenes of camp life,” Finkelstein said. “The opportunity to view these, knowing how and where they were made and by who, is moving, and is a sacred and holy moment for us.”

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