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"Face to Face. Art in Auschwitz”, is the title of a unique exhibition in the Szołayski Tenement House, a branch of the National Museum in Cracow. It was prepared on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Museum on the premises of the former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp. It is the first of such comprehensive presentations of original works created in the camp by Auschwitz prisoners. The Minister of Culture and National Heritage, Prof. Piotr Gliński, has assumed honorary patronage over the exhibition.
Art created in the horrible reality of Auschwitz is a unique document of the camp’s world, but also a testament to the prisoners’ struggle for their own humanity. Behind the gates of the Auschwitz camp, many representatives of the Polish intelligentsia were imprisoned, perceived by the German authorities as especially dangerous as they might have become among others involved in the activities of the resistance movement or provide spiritual and moral support in the harsh reality of German occupation. Among them was a large group of professional visual artists.
At a later period, artists from other nationalities were also sent to KL Auschwitz, mostly Jews. The latter had much less possibility for artistic expression because camp authorities treated Jewish prisoners most ruthlessly. Nonetheless, some of them did not stop their artistic activity in the camp.
The exhibition presents nearly 200 original works performed the majority of them illegally, by prisoners in the camp.
For the first time, unique drawings from the so-called Auschwitz Sketchbook are presented in their original version outside the Memorial Site. These works had been made by an unknown artist and hidden in a bottle in the foundations of one of the barracks in the Birkenau camp (they were found two years after the war). The sketchbook constitutes a unique work of art as it is the only set of drawings preserved in the Museum Collections which presents the fate of the Jews deported to the camp, from their arrival at the ramp to the murder of selected persons in gas chambers.
Portraits of Auschwitz camp prisoners are also presented. These moving images of human sadness are very thought-provoking. We can see a human fighting with unimaginable evil in order to preserve what has remained from his dignity. This humiliated and tortured man is still able to feel. We meet him face to face. In addition, the exhibition presents drawings expressing the desires and longings of prisoners, the images of their loved ones, small objects performed by prisoners with their own hands or children’s fairy tales created in the camp.
Works performed on the order of camp authorities are presented separately. They include among others camp propaganda, instruction drawings, plans of camp expansion as well works created in the Lagermuseum established within the camp, where the artists were forced to create for the private use of the SS men. Its history makes it clear where the prisoners gained the access to materials which they could then use for performing illegal works.
Among the exhibits we can also find the original "Arbeit macht frei" inscription from over the Auschwitz I camp gate – a unique example of "handicraft" by prisoners from the locksmith commando, one of the most important symbols of cruel concentration camp cynicism.