Art and photography at Auschwitz

By Jessica Davey-Quantick

There is an image of fuzzy kittens cavorting on the wall of one of the bathrooms at Auschwitz 1. “Prisoners did it,” says Pawel Sawicki, who works in the press office at Auschwitz. He calls the kittens “semi-official art”: art that was not exactly approved, but likely did not attract punishment. In fact, he says, the kittens were probably created as part of the competition between block leaders—they competed to see who could have the “nicest” barrack, but had to stick to unobjectionable decorations.

Most Auschwitz art is not so easy to look at.

“We have more than 4,000 artworks in our collection that show this attempt to stay human by the artist,” says Sawicki. “Most of them have very strong documentation value. You can read the ranks of the SS. On one of the drawings you can see the number plates of the SS car.” Many of the sketches, done on smuggled paper and hidden either within the grounds or on survivors, are the only remaining images of life in the camp, showing transports arriving, work crews heading past the gates and emaciated prisoners lining up for soup, among other scenes.

There are some photographs as well. Some were legal, like those taken by the SS in 1944 as part of what became known as the Auschwitz Album, a collection of 193 photographs meticulously documenting the arrival of a transport of Hungarian Jews. “We can follow the album . . . we still can say ‘these people walked through this road, these people stood here, this happened here in this very place.’ And this emphasizes the power of the authenticity of the site,” says Sawicki. “Here it is something different than just a lesson or just a visit. This is the experience of authenticity . . . Without the site we would be powerless, we would be hopeless.”

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A transport of Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz II-Birkenau in 1944, from the Auschwitz Album. Most of these people were selected for work or for death in the gas chambers. (Yad Vashem/Wikimedia Commons)

The photos in the Auschwitz Album do more than just illustrate place and crime. Sawicki explains that they, like the drawings, give viewers a glimpse into the minds of the people who were murdered. Through the photos, which show tired, scared but not panicked people, it’s clear they didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, what was waiting behind the line of trees.

Sawicki says that many of the one-and-a-half-million visitors to Auschwitz each year come with a camera. While some use their selfie sticks to document their travels, others perhaps use photography as a way to frame and distance themselves from the experience.

“The quality of the photograph or the genre of the photographer is not exactly for me important. It’s the motivation when you want to take pictures here, and show your friends and say ‘I was here, I saw that,’” he says. “You can be also a teacher, an educator using these photographs. This is very good. Of course I can take a picture someone takes at Auschwitz and say ‘this picture is bad.’ But then I can listen to the person, and I can change my mind because then I can see the motivation that maybe someone couldn’t take a picture the way he wanted to. Sometimes we are trapped when we talk about photography here because we sometimes only look at the image without the knowledge why the image was taken.”

This need to say “I was here, I saw that” is what makes the other Auschwitz art created by prisoners—whether drawings or photographs—so powerful and yet so hard to look at. In addition to the legal photographs taken at Auschwitz, there are a series of photos taken secretly by the Sonderkommando, a group of prisoners tasked with the disposal of the victims’ corpses. Framed by the gas chamber door, these photos show prisoners burning bodies in an open pit and, in one blurry shot, a group of naked women being herded to their death. The Sonderkommando photos are some of the few images of the actual extermination process, taken by prisoners aware that they would not likely survive. Yet they still took the great risk of documenting the murders.

“They knew that they would die, but they wanted us to learn. They hoped that there will be a future without the gas chambers. That the war would be over. So they would not survive but they would be able to leave some documentation that we’d be able to use to learn,” says Sawicki.

But these images raise many questions for viewers. Does keeping these stark memorials on display trap the subjects, as Susan Sontag argues in her book On Photography, as victims, while placing the viewers in the shoes of the Nazi oppressors? The Auschwitz Album was created by and for the Nazis. The Sonderkommando photos were taken in secret. Both document the last moments of people’s lives and, in the case of the Sonderkommando images, the brutal reality of their deaths. One, enlarged and exhibited in the field where it was taken seven decades earlier, compels the viewer to compare the rocks and trees of today with those bordering an open pit, where the Sonderkommandos raked partially charred bodies into the fire and poured melted human fat over the flames. While these images convey a clear picture of the horror of the camp, are we forever consigning people who had real lives before Auschwitz to be memorialized only by their deaths? Are we, by focusing on the macabre, missing “the point” of Auschwitz as a memorial?

Sawicki doesn’t agree with those arguments. “This world was brutal. And we cannot avoid this,” he says. “When you go through the testimonies you can see that just this visual is the least brutal part. Because that was a very brutal world. Can we say ‘no’ because the visitors will be too sensitive to it? I don’t think so.”



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