By Franziska A. Karpinski, 2014 AJC Fellow  

On the third day of in-depth study visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau, it was not annihilation we learned about, but the opposite: courageous acts of resistance by prisoners of Auschwitz. The resistance we studied was not armed; it was not violent or public. Rather, but no less impressive and powerful, it was a silent resistance aimed at documenting the crimes committed and re-establishing the victims´ humanity and dignity. We visited the art gallery of the memorial, which exhibits works of art produced by inmates both during the operation of Auschwitz and after liberation.

Auschwitz-Birkenau represents the utter and complete destruction of human beings: more than 1.1 million men, women, and children from all over Europe were brutally murdered at Auschwitz. It is one of the most haunting symbols of the Holocaust and the deeply immoral ideology that created it. Today, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum is one of the largest memorial sites in the world. The vastness of the geographical space on which Auschwitz-Birkenau was built is staggering: an entire space the size of a small city built solely for the purpose mass murder. The crimes perpetrated there were so horrendous, the sense of destruction and despair so all encompassing, it is hard to cope when walking through the site. It is easy to forget that prisoners resisted in various ways.

The artwork produced by inmates during the camp’s existence was produced illegally, which means that those who painted and drew did so with materials that they were not allowed to possess. Pencils, watercolor, ink and feather, coal and other drawing materials used were possessed illegally, under the threat of torture and death. Some were smuggled from SS work stations, where artists created commissioned work for the SS. Other prisoners used whatever materials they could get their hands on to produce their art: small paper scraps, baking paper, the backs of old letters. It is an impressive accomplishment to have created art in such perilous circumstances and amidst everyday destruction.

Art historian Anna Sieradzka, whom we were introduced to that day, led us into one of the blocks on the former campgrounds. We walked down a long corridor and finally entered a large, rectangular room with red floor tiles and whitewashed walls. The air was crisp and cold, a stark contrast to the intense July summer heat that was prevalent outside. As if the difference in temperature signaled the entry into another world, we stepped into room that featured countless art works – paintings, drawings and artifacts. It was a place of creation and construction, not destruction. There, she asked us to describe the paintings and artifacts we saw, attaching as many adjectives and associations to them as we could. We were the only people there, which enabled us to fully concentrate on the art displayed without interruption and many possibilities for deep contemplation, thought, and exchange amongst us.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a place where one would have expected the creation of anything, let alone art, to have happened. But it did. Artwork was made by the inmates – illegally and under constant threat of immediate death when discovered. And there they were: portraits of inmates, many of them produced by Franciszek Jaźwiecki, a Polish artist and political prisoner at Auschwitz. He made portraits of fellow prisoners, drawings – mostly pencil – on thin, now yellowed, paper. Every now and then, some blue, red, or yellow colors appear in the otherwise grey- and brown-colored drawings. The general lack of bright colors mirrors the desperate situation of the inmates portrayed, at least at first glance. Yet, these portraits do so much more: they are a manifestation of the restoration of dignity, of taking back the humanity that the Nazis cruelly robbed. They are also a means of working against forgetting, against becoming a nameless face among hundreds of thousands, marked with exhaustion and terror, with fear and despair, worn down by the horrendous conditions in Auschwitz, always threatened by death.

Upon arriving in Auschwitz, the deported were systematically deprived of their identity by having their hair shorn off, by being given the same worn-down striped uniforms and wooden shoes or no shoes at all, by having confiscated their personal belongings such as pictures of their loved ones, jewelry, clothes. In the camp, they were forced to do hard slave labor for the SS, they were starved, many times starved to death, defeated by disease, haunted by the horrors of the reality of Auschwitz. Instead of their names, they were assigned numbers, sewn onto their prisoner uniforms, and oftentimes, tattooed on their arms.

Indeed, one can see this process of dehumanization and degradation best exemplified in the official erkennungsdienstliche Photographien (German: fingerprinting and photographs) that the SS took of all new arrivals of prisoners. The photographs show the inmates in their uniforms, without hair, and their camp number in the picture frame; as such, these photographs present a symbol for the complete degradation the Nazis subjected their victims to. By being photographed by the SS, the prisoners were negated the status of a human being, of a feeling and thinking subject with agency, but were made objects at the whim of the Nazis. Last, the Nazis’ de-humanization campaign found its terrible and genocidal culmination in the systemized mass murder through gas and mass shootings. The dead were then further denied a proper burial without a name or a place to commemorate them, but where burnt and buried in anonymous mass graves.

The portraits made illegally by the Auschwitz inmates achieve the opposite of anonymity: They give back human dignity; they restore individual prisoner identity. On the portraits, the prisoner numbers are shown as well, but this time, enabling historians today to attach a name to the portraits. Anna Sieradzka told us that the desire amongst inmates to have an image of themselves was very strong, precisely because it was a means of re-gaining one’s identity. The portraits also document the forced transformation the victims at Auschwitz underwent. Their faces are strained and full of exhaustion and fear. Sieradzka told us that she finds the eyes in the portraits most remarkable – they fully mirror the despair and helplessness of the inmates. They also show a profound sadness and sorrow, which had the deepest impact on me, personally.

The portraits, as Sieradzka explained to us, served three purposes: One was to reinstate human dignity and identity among the prisoners. Second, many considered the acts of both drawing and being drawn as a means of mentally escaping the reality of Auschwitz. Finally, the portraits were made to document the Nazis’ crimes and to document those fallen victim to them. Sieradzka believes that Jaźwiecki made these portraits because he knew they would eventually become important historical documents. In the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, there are more than a hundred of Jaźwiecki’s portraits. During his internment in Auschwitz, Franciszek Jaźwiecki miraculously managed to hide his illegal work in his bed and clothes. He survived Auschwitz, but died soon after liberation, in 1946.

For me, one of the most memorable portraits was that of Mala Zimetbaum, a Polish Jewish woman, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 and died in 1944. Shortly before her death, she had attempted to escape from Auschwitz with her lover, Edward Galinski. They made it outside of the camp, but were ultimately found by a German patrol and brought back into the camp. Galinski was hanged, and Zimetbaum tried to kill herself, but accounts vary as to whether the SS ultimately killed her. Her portrait is stunning; it is one of the few that do not portray an inmate in prisoner’s uniform, but in formal clothes. She wears a blazer and a bright blue scarf around her neck. Her hair is not shorn off, but long and wavy, of a full brown color and done in a beautiful hair-do; it is the portrait of a beautiful woman. The expression on her face is one of strength, one of resourcefulness, maybe even the faint trace of a smile.

In addition to portraits, the gallery houses many paintings and drawings – often produced post-war – that depict camp conditions such as roll call, forced labor, and the camp orchestra, among other scenes. The pictures, made with different materials, by different painters, at different times, are illustrative of the horrors of Auschwitz: These forceful depictions of everyday life in the camp leave a deep impression on the observer. I remember that at about halfway through our workshop, the entire group went silent, scattered across the room, deeply affected by what was shown.

Another set of pictures includes works that prisoners were forced to make. It is little known that the SS commissioned imprisoned artists to create beautiful art, such as large oil paintings and drawings, mostly of landscapes, animals, and postcards with colorful flowers. The bright colors of these art works are in complete contrast to those made illegally. They cruelly contrast the reality of Auschwitz, where colors and an abundance of nature and life were purposefully eliminated.

The pictures before us on the wall were not only evidence of what happened in Auschwitz, they were a means of remembrance and commemoration of the subjects and artists. What is depicted through everyday life in Auschwitz is evidence of the crimes perpetrated. Who is depicted is a landmark against being forgotten. Together, they present an invaluable expression of the prisoners’ views and voices. The art made by prisoners in Auschwitz is a potent means of upholding human dignity. It is also a testimony to admirable courage and fighting spirit in the face of tragedy.

Franziska A. Karpinski is a PhD student in Modern History at Loughborough University, UK. The title of her thesis is “In Defense of Honor and Masculinity–In-Group Pressure, Violence, and Self-Destruction in the Third Reich´s Elite, 1933-1945.” She has a BA in American Studies and Modern European History from the Free University Berlin (2011), and a Master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from the University of Amsterdam (2012, cum laude). She has spoken at multiple conferences, attended seminars around the world, and co-authored an article titled “Sexual Violence in the Nazi Genocide: Gender, Law, and Ideology”.

The Auschwitz Jewish Center is operated by the Museum in Oświęcim, Poland. For additional blog entries by and about the Auschwitz Jewish Center, please visit All Spring 2015 newsletter articles are found here.