November 20, 2019

Artists from inside the concentration camps

The Nazis gassed and murdered 1 million prisoners at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex, but they could not kill the human urge to create and leave behind a sign of their existence for future generations.

Some 20 examples of the prisoners’ artistic legacy are on display in the exhibition “Forbidden Art,” continuing through Jan. 31 at UCLA Hillel and the neighboring St. Alban’s Episcopal Church.

These works — miniature sculptures, drawings and pages of diaries — represent “ ‘art as a message in a bottle’  sent from the grave to future generations,” said Todd Presner, director of the UCLA Jewish Studies Center.

The art here was more than a figure of speech; prisoners actually inserted their messages into bottles and jars and buried them throughout the campgrounds.

Presner will speak on this topic at a symposium at 4 p.m. Jan. 17 at the Hillel building. Art historian Lisa Saltzman of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania will give the keynote address on “Images in Spite of All,” and Elzbieta Cajzer of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum will explain the exhibition’s origin.        

Artists have been persecuted for their works throughout history, but the prisoner artists in this exhibition risked the death penalty, if caught. Against this background, the works are truly remarkable. A 5-inch sarcophagus holds a human figurine made of a partly burned human bone. A tiny sculpture of a prisoner was whittled from the leg of a chair.

Appended to the portrait of an inmate is the request by the subject that it be smuggled to the outside to reassure his family that he “still looked like a human being.”

A miniature figure of a devil, made from tape and a piece of wire, did double duty because its hollow leg was used to smuggle messages between barracks.

Franciszek Jawiecki, panel detail: “A Portrait of Piotr Kajzer,” 20×14 cm, paper, pencil, crayon, KL Buchenwald, 1944. Photo courtesy of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies

Polish prisoner Franciszek Jazwiecki made drawings of 114 fellow inmates, which, after being discovered by the SS, drew a relatively “mild” sentence of three months in an especially harsh penal colony.

The artist said that his defiance of the Nazi rules required no great bravery on his part, because it allowed him “to stay and create in my own world.”

Some prisoners put out of their minds the brutality of their existence by creating escapist fare, such as books for children, caricatures of their oppressors and an album of drawings for women held at an Auschwitz subcamp depicting romantic scenes in rustic settings.

These idealized scenes were particularly ironic, since almost all women prisoners at Ravensbrück and other camps were disfigured by ulcerations, furuncles and festering wounds.

All works here are shown through photographs of the originals, which remain at the Auschwitz memorial.

Each image is framed by a massive wooden display case, as if looking out from the door of a camp barracks. The sheer size of the exhibition led Hillel artistic director Perla Karney to seek additional space from the Rev. Susan Webster Klein, rector of the neighboring St. Alban’s Church.

Klein readily assented, observing, “This exhibition is a powerful reminder that the presence of God — and the beauty of the human spirit — can be found everywhere.”

This first-time joint endeavor between these Jewish and Christian institutions in Westwood is complemented by other collaborations to underwrite the transfer and setting up of the exhibition, Presner said.

For example, sponsors include the Polish and German governments, UCLA’s history and German language departments, the “1939” Club of Holocaust survivors, the Gilbert and Goldrich foundations, and the Wolfen family.

“Forbidden Art” is open for viewing 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday through Jan. 31 at Hillel, 574 Hilgard Ave., and St. Alban’s, 580 Hilgard Ave. Admission is free. 

Speakers at the Jan. 17 symposium will also include Hillel’s Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Polish Consul General Joanna Kozinska-Frybes, German Consul General Bernd Fischer and Jacek Kastelaniec, director general of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation. Patrons planning to attend the symposium must pre-register by phoning (310) 267-5327 or by e-mailing

Parking is available for $11 at UCLA Structure 2, Westholme and Hilgard avenues.