Forbidden Art now at Ephrata Library

By on September 6, 2017

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In 1943, a group of prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp decided to document what was happening in Buchenwald so the world would someday know.

The secret group called themselves the “International Camp Committee,” and they compiled a record of writings and pictures, then hid their work.

As testimony to the crimes committed by the Germans in concentration camps, they bound their volume in human skin.

After World War II ended, the work, “Diary of a Prisoner” was found, and still serves its purpose to this day.

Part of the “Diary” is included in the exhibition of art created by concentration camp prisoners that will be featured at the Ephrata Public Library until Oct. 26, entitled “Forbidden Art.”

Executive Director Penny Talbert coordinated efforts to bring the exhibition to Ephrata. Rebecca Lawrence, vice-president of PA Museums and manager of public and outreach programs at the Ephrata Library, discovered the exhibition while researching for traveling programs and felt the relevancy of the exhibit aligned with Talbert’s vision for the library.

Together, they managed to bring “Forbidden Art” to south central Pennsylvania.

The art of the concentration camps was forbidden, of course, because it showed the truth of what was happening behind the barbed wire. Anyone found creating such art would pay with his life.

The Forbidden Art exhibit is a collaboration by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland and The Polish Mission of Orchard Lake Schools in Michigan.

The exhibition has traveled to West Point, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Museum and Library in Abilene, Kas., and the United Nations in New York.

More than half a million Americans have viewed the “Forbidden Art” exhibit so far, but this is the first time that the exhibition has come to Pennsylvania.

“We are thrilled that we were able to get it; it’s a great opportunity for people in our community,” said Glenn Miller, deputy secretary, Office of Commonwealth Libraries. “It’s a tribute to Penny (Talbert) and to her staff. She is a relentless pursuer of the type of art that reflects society and this is a powerful exhibit. We are hoping more people will come to view this…it couldn’t be more relevant for today.”

Imagine the worst that could happen and multiply it by a million and you still don’t come close to achieving the horror of the Holocaust.

Auschwitz survivor Franciszek Jazwleckl, whose work is included in the exhibit, wrote, “In Auschwitz, people were murdered in large quantities, mechanically, by means of the latest technology…everything was arranged for mass crime.”

Imprisoned in Auschwitz, Mieczyslaw Koscielniak wrote “at some point in 1942, a desire arose in me to record the camp events…it was then I decided I would sketch the corpses of fellow prisoners lying near the camp kitchen.”

Koscielniak’s drawing, “A Return From Work,” is included in the exhibit and shows four prisoners carrying a dead man on their shoulders.

In another drawing, Auschwitz survivor Wlodzimierz Siwierski depicted three men sitting in abject misery and he wrote, “My drawings do not render the horror of the camp.”

Inmates of those camps had so much inflicted on them to try to remove their humanity, said J.J. Preswozniak, curator of collections for The Polish Museum of Orchard Lake Schools in Michigan.

“The idea of art in a concentration camp is a challenging topic,” Preswozniak said. “We take this mission very seriously; Forbidden Art is a phenomenal endeavor.”

Preswozniak was one of the featured speakers at the opening reception of the exhibition Thursday evening, along with Dr. Jack R. Fischel, professor emeritus of history, Millersville University.

“The exhibition will remind us of the realization that we cannot erase the darkness, but this artwork is a light and a testament to the human spirit,” Dr. Fischel said.

Shaved heads, prison clothing, numbers tattooed on arms; all were intended to induce victims of Nazi persecution to give up, to stop resisting, Preswozniak said.

But as the inmates awaited their fate, either to die or be liberated, they used sparks of creativity to fight back, to record what was happening, and to stay sane.

Inmates furtively documented the atrocities committed in the camps, and that work stands today as a reminder and a warning.

“For an inmate to create artwork was a supreme act of defiance and they were taking huge risks to do so,” Preswozniak said.

Their determination was stronger than their fear, he added.

The rise of the Nazis wasn’t just about anti-Semitism, or ideology, or about the Nazis trying to conquer Europe, Fischel said.

“The war was also about theft, theft of what the Jews had,” Fischel said. “The Nazis were racists and were trying to create a race of pure Aryan blood and since Jews couldn’t be part of that, their books, art, music, all had to go.”

The Nazis started by burning books.

“To this day, litigation is still occurring to return artwork to the descendants (of the victims),” Fischel said. “Modern art was seen as a threat to the unity of the German people, so it’s not surprising that they confiscated artwork.”

Education about the Holocaust is approached very differently in America than in Europe, Preswozniak said.

“People, school children go to the sites; they have an authentic connection,” Preswozniak said. “They see the actual killing fields, they see the claw marks on the walls of the gas chambers…there is a degree of reverence not available to us in the United States.”

The Forbidden Art exhibit was designed specifically for a North American audience, he said.

“The artists are communicating to us and it’s very important for us to listen,” Preswozniak said. “When you see this, when you see something that touches you, then you have an immediate personal connection with an inmate of the largest concentration camp in Europe.”

One of the exhibits is a five-inch-long wooden sarcophagus, containing a small piece of partly burnt human bone. On the side of the image is the person’s dates of birth and death; he was 25, name unknown.

Another prisoner made that figure, trying to give a fellow inmate some dignity in death.

In 1975, a glass jar was found buried several inches on land where the infamous Ravensbruck Concentration Camp for Woman had stood.

The jar contained a picture of three women pushing wheelbarrows and also had a list of the names of women who were used in pseudoscientific experiments at the camp.

The picture was drawn by Maria Hiszpanska in 1943. She later perished of illness in the camp.

Some drawings were smuggled outside camps in bundles of dirty linen, it was noted.

Prisoners made to work in the camp office had access to paper, pens, and crayons. One such prisoner created a little book for his child.

Henryk Czulda, an Auschwitz survivor, wrote and illustrated a book in 1943 called “Adventures of a Black Chicken,” complete with illustrations of a cat, dog, pigs, chickens, and doves.

He also managed to add a note, stating “ Your daddy had to paint these pictures furtively, in secret, like a thief in the night, since if the Germans caught him, your daddy would be severely punished!”

The brightly colored pictures are as heart-rending as they are touching.

An album of caricatures of SS troops was found at Auschwitz after the war. The artist, a university student, Stanislaw Tralka, died of typhus in 1942 while in the camp.

During the “International Day of Commemoration, “the people of Poland remember the end of the death camp Auschwitz- Birkenau every Jan. 27, Preswozniak said.

That was the date when Soviet troops liberated the camp.

“They commemorate the end of years of hell,” Preswozniak said.

Exhibition hours at the library, located at 550 S. Reading Road, Ephrata, are Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Group tours are welcome during exhibition hours and by appointment on Sundays.

For more information, contact Rebecca Lawrence, manager of public and outreach programs at 717-738-9291 or

The following groups provided financial assistance for the exhibition: Jewish Community Alliance of Lancaster; the Winters Leadership Memorial; Thomas A. and Georgina Russo; KneadIt Massage and Bodyworks; Lanco Federal Credit Union, and Penny Talbert.


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