Polish Mission curator J.J. Przewozniak explains how art created by concentration camp prisoners expressed individuality  and identity Feb. 12 at Oakland University.

Polish Mission curator J.J. Przewozniak explains how art created by concentration camp prisoners expressed individuality and identity Feb. 12 at Oakland University.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Concentration camp art tells painful story

By: Linda Shepard | Rochester Post | Published February 13, 2018

ROCHESTER HILLS — Art hidden in buried bottles or placed deep within building foundations tells a tale of unthinkable cruelty in pictures that speak louder than words.

Oakland University is currently hosting “Forbidden Art,” an exhibit from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. The exhibit features a series of enlarged depictions of rare examples of art created by prisoners during the camp’s operation between 1940 and 1945.

The exhibit delivers an “intimate, personal encounter with Auschwitz,” said J.J. Przewozniak, Polish Mission curator of collections. The Polish Mission of Orchard Lake Schools and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Memorial and Museum, in Poland, have collaborated on the exhibit currently on display at OU.

A woman’s portrait displays a fellow inmate as she would like to appear, without the ravaging effects of camp existence. A layered drawing of camp life details extermination efforts and an uncompleted death gate, delivering firsthand documentary evidence of Auschwitz atrocities.

A delicate watercolor of yellow roses was created as a gift for a civilian worker who helped prisoners by providing them with food. A cartoon depiction of bumbling guards shows that humor and humanity do not die, even during tragic experiences.

The exhibit pieces were chosen from more than 2,000 in the collection at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.     

Some art documents the reality of the camp, and other pieces reveal the artist’s attempt to mentally escape. The works range from caricatures to portraits to fairy tale illustrations. Each piece of art is displayed within large, illuminated panels that relate to the shape, texture and color of the prisoner barracks.

All artworks were made illegally in the camp.

“If these had been found, it would have brought amazing repercussions,” Przewozniak said. “They were made at extreme risk.”

Przewozniak said art materials were shared between inmates and usually were provided by prisoners working in camp offices.

“In horrible conditions, they found art,” Przewozniak said.

Bob Noe, a Lake Orion resident, attended the exhibit Feb. 12.

“My father was in the U.S. Army in a squad of men who liberated several camps,” Noe said.

“It is very interesting,” he said of the exhibit. “I like all the lengthy notes included with the pictures.”

The traveling exhibit was created to share the authenticity of Auschwitz with American audiences and to encourage a deepened, fact-based understanding of the Holocaust.

“As the crimes of the Nazis fade further into the past, exhibits like this are especially important,” Derek Hastings, OU associate professor of history, said in a statement. “Works of art can convey meaning in ways that are often more effective than words. These objects in particular provide students and other viewers with more immediate insights into the victims’ experiences than can be gained from history books alone.”    

“Forbidden Art” is currently on display 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and noon-8 p.m. on Sundays through Feb. 22 in the Heritage Room of the OU Oakland Center. For more information, visit www.oakland.edu.

Oakland University is located south of Walton Boulevard, east of Squirrel Road.