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A Gallery of Camp Art in the Auschwitz Museum


Preparatory work has begun on the adaptation of the Auschwitz kitchen building as a gallery of camp art. The building was not restored after the war and fell into ruin before being thoroughly renovated in 1961-1963. All those years ago, the work was justified on the grounds that “despite the high cost of the renovation, it would be inexcusable for this building to be lost, not only in view of its role in Auschwitz Concentration Camp, but also because it represents a huge exhibition space on one level.” After that renovation, however, the idea remained unrealized. The Museum adapted the building as workshops for carpenters, machinists, sheet-metal workers, and painters, and devoted part of it to facilities for renovation workers from the preservation department. The building has been empty since the opening in 2002 of the new preservation workshops in the visitor reception building.

The removal of the workshops made it possible to go back to the idea of adapting the kitchen building as a permanent gallery for camp art by prisoners. This would mean opening up to visitors another building that played an important role in the functioning of the camp and the lives of the prisoners while also giving it a new exhibition function. (The Sauna building was opened to visitors several years ago on the same principle.)

In addition to the permanent gallery, there are also plans to devote one room, overlooking the square where roll call was held, to information on the public executions held there, including photographs of and biographical information on the prisoners who were executed.

Under the guidelines on permanent exhibitions in original camp buildings that the Museum adopted in the 1990s, the new exhibition will involve the minimum possible interference in the original structure.

The project must be preceded by a general preservationist renovation of the building, a decision on restoring the original layout of the rooms, and the possible re-installation in some of them of what is left of the original kitchen equipment, which is currently stored elsewhere.

This would conform to the overall principle of preserving and maintaining original camp buildings in the state they were in while the camp was in operation—that is, in 1945. The German federal Länder will help finance the preliminary work.

The History of the Building

The first provisional camp kitchen stood between blocks no. 1 and 2 at the Auschwitz site. Only fragments of it remain. The erection of a new kitchen near the main camp gate began as early as July 1940. It consisted of one wooden barracks with four kitchens and 16 boiling kettles. It can be seen clearly in the photograph of the prisoner orchestra, which stands beside the road leading along block no, 24 from the Arbeit macht frei gate. An SS man from the camp garrison took this photograph in 1941.

The rise in the number of deportees to the camp necessitated an expansion of the kitchen. The provisional barracks was torn down in 1941 and replaced by a 95-meter-long building with wood and brick walls at the same site. It had twelve chimneys, visible in photographs and also in the building at present. There were 48 boiling kettles installed inside.

The Polish artist Władysław Siwek and other prisoner-artists painted an inscription on the roof of the main part of the building. This same inscription is also found at other Nazi concentration camps: “Es gibt einen Weg zur Freiheit, seine Millesteine hießen: Gehorsam, Fleiß, Ehrlichkeit, Ordnung, Sauberkeit, Nüchternheit, Wahrhaftigkeit, Opfersinn und Liebe zum Vaterland” (There is only one road to freedom and its milestones are obedience, alacrity, honesty, orderliness, cleanliness, sobriety, truthfulness, dedication, and love of the Fatherland). This slogan was visible from the roll-call square.

The kitchen underwent further expansion in 1942 and 1943, with the erection of two L-shaped wings to form a courtyard with a wooden gate leading to it. On wartime photographs of the building of these two wings, the inscription is no longer visible on the roof of the longest part of the building. The oldest part of the building had pantries and potato bins in a single storey. After the extension, there were also pantries in cellars and one of the wings. Several SS photos taken during remodeling are extant. There are no photographs of the interior from the period when the camp was in operation.

In 2004, the building is in urgent need of preservation. Widespread dampness and mold on the walls indicate numerous ruptures in the horizontal insulation of the foundations. There is also dampness in the ceiling beams and many parts of the roofing timbers should be replaced. The woodwork around the windows and doors also requires thorough renovation.

The Museum Collections

The Museum collections contain approximately 40 cu. m. of deportees’ shoes, 1,850 kg. Of human hair, approximately 3,500 suitcases, about 12,000 cooking pots, 40 cu. m. of melted metal objects from the site of the “Kanada” warehouses in Birkenau, and over 6,000 exhibits from the artistic collection, including 1,614 works of art created in Auschwitz and its sub-camps. Some of these items are displayed in various exhibits on the grounds of the Auschwitz Museum.

Camp Art Work by Prisoners

There were artists among the vast number of people imprisoned in concentration camps during the Second World War. In spite of efforts by the SS to reduce them to such a state of mental and physical exhaustion that they would forfeit their humanity, prisoners created paintings, drawings, sculpture, music, and poetry in the camps. People living in peaceful conditions will be unable to fully comprehend the fact of artistic creation in inhuman conditions featuring hunger and backbreaking labor performed to the accompaniment of harassment and punishment. For prisoners, art was often an attempt at a defense against annihilation and an attempt to perpetuate the reality of the camp. Both professional and amateur artists exercised their creativity in the camp.

The visual works created in Auschwitz may be divided into two basic groups: those created on orders from the SS and those created illegally. On orders from the SS, prisoners made instructional posters, models and sketches of the expansion of the camp, and crafts objects.

Labor assignments in the “camp museum” and the painters’, carpenters’, and machinists’ labor details made it possible for prisoners to obtain the materials they needed for the illegal creation of crafts objects, and to draw and paint images whose contents were not imposed from above, but that were rather an effort to escape from the reality around them.

An important group in this regard is made up of the illegal works presenting scenes from camp life. These works represent documentation that is both informational and accusatory in nature. The punishment that the camp administration meted out for any works of this sort was harsh.

The works of art created in the camp are highly differentiated, in terms of both subject matter and technique. The artists used such materials as scraps of paper, cardboard, and clay. They worked in pencil and paint, but also used nails, gouges, spoons, and snips of sheet metal. Many of these works, like the artists who created them, were lost in various circumstances and did not survive to be liberated.

The Need for a Permanent Exhibition of Camp Art By Prisoners

Some of the works created in Auschwitz Concentration Camp were brought together after the war in the Museum collection. This is a unique assemblage in terms of its nature, the conditions under which the works were created, and the number of items. All these considerations make it important to open a gallery where the works can be put on permanent exhibition.

The Museum’s collection also includes a large number of works that former prisoners created after liberation. Some of them date from immediately after the war and represent a unique record of Auschwitz Concentration Camp by artists who were prisoners there. Some of these works will be included in the future gallery as a supplement to the camp legacy. Commentaries making use of accounts by prisoners will accompany all the works shown.

Auschwitz I. The Camp Orchestra. SS photograph, 1941
Auschwitz I. The...