Elms College will host the New England premiere of an exhibit showcasing photos of 20 rare art pieces discovered after the concentration camp’s liberation.

‘Forbidden Art’ Exhibit Tells Personal Stories of Auschwitz Prisoners

Thanks to an interfaith collaboration, Elms College will host the New England premiere of an exhibit showcasing photos of 20 rare art pieces discovered after the concentration camp's liberation. Image courtesy of the Polish Mission of the Orchard Lake Schools and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.


‘Forbidden Art’ Exhibit Tells Personal Stories of Auschwitz Prisoners 

From satirical cartoons in newspapers to murals splashed across buildings, visual arts have long been used to capture moments, comment on the human condition and even circumvent reality. Visual media are so powerful that, throughout history, certain pieces, images or artistic themes have been banned or even destroyed by the powers that be.

An upcoming exhibition at the College of Our Lady of the Elms is an especially poignant example of this. The collection showcases photos of 20 extremely rare pieces of art created by prisoners of German Nazi concentration camps during World War II.

This is the New England premiere of the exhibit, titled “Forbidden Art,” and it has been arranged through an ongoing interfaith collaboration with the Elms College Social Work Department and the Women’s Philanthropy Steering Committee, a division of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts. The campus installation is made possible through a generous grant from the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Western Massachusetts’ Harold Grinspoon & Diane Troderman Hatikvah Holocaust Education Fund. Additional supporters in bringing this traveling exhibit to Elms College include the Kosciuszko Foundation’s New England Chapter and the Polish Center of Discovery and Learning.

The exhibit will be shown on the main floor of the Alumnae Library at Elms College from March 19 through April 30, giving students, faculty, staff and the community at large a chance to visit the pieces and reflect. Elms is pleased to host this exhibit on the heels of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and is honored to be able to showcase the plight of the prisoners on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), which is April 15-16.

The pieces – often made using scraps of paper or other discarded materials – feature scenes documenting daily life in the camps as well as portraits of prisoners. They offer a window into how the prisoners mentally escaped the horrors of their imprisonment by creating drawings and paintings, albums of greetings, and even illustrated fairy tales written for their children, with whom they longed to reunite.

"Exhibitions like ‘Forbidden Art’ bring to light the stories of fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, and brothers and sisters who endured the unthinkable cruelty of concentration camps," President Obama wrote on the occasion of the traveling exhibit’s 2013 grand opening in Las Vegas.

An exhibit like this is extremely important for the Elms College community, said Scott Hartblay, associate professor of social work. "The college is committed to social justice and human understanding," he said. "As a liberal arts college, students study human oppression, cultural competence, philosophy, history and world religions. Students are educated in order to deal with the current problems of the community, country and the wider world​.​"

Visitors will find an intimate connection with the inmates and a completely new perspective on the Holocaust, according to JJ Przewozniak, U.S. project manager and curator of collections at the Polish Mission of the Orchard Lake Schools in Michigan. “The concept of artwork in the concentration camps opens a new discussion in our understanding of art and the life of a prisoner of Auschwitz,” he said. “The artwork itself cannot be categorized along with so many others throughout history: It has a unique and tragic classification, and it invites us in a most incredible way, to identify with the prisoners.”

The display also includes photos of a bracelet bearing scenes from the Lodz Ghetto that was found near the Auschwitz crematory; a 12-cm-long sarcophagus; and sculptures. Each exhibit piece is set alongside historical commentary and excerpts from archival accounts.

“Artwork that depicted actual life at the camp gives us valuable direct evidence of the crimes committed there,” Przewozniak said. “A particular example in the exhibition is a sketch, which is the only piece of artwork that depicts the extermination of Jews sent to Auschwitz. It is an extraordinarily valuable piece of evidence that also depicts death of the starving and sick.”

“The artwork provides multiple primary-source documents, just as diaries hidden and later found from the Warsaw Ghetto record experience. The same can be said of Anne Frank's diary, written while in hiding in an attic in Amsterdam,” said Susan Goldman, vice president of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and adjunct faculty in psychology at Elms College.

The mere act of producing these works was highly dangerous: Creating art was illegal in the Nazi concentration camps. “The uniqueness of all people was precisely the thing that the former camp administration sought to destroy,” Przewozniak said.

“The inmates were acknowledged by a number, not a name; their clothes were exchanged for uniforms; their hair was removed. Every aspect of life in the camp sought to remove one’s own identity. This artwork defies all of that. It’s truly a testament to the human spirit.”

“Like all art, these pieces reveal much about their creators,” he added. “The haste, the materials, the methods they employed: These are all deeply vivid and telling stories about prisoners’ lives. But what is truly incredible, is that – despite being enmeshed in the hell of Auschwitz, where one’s humanity was brutally stolen – the prisoners risked the most barbarous of consequences to create, to express themselves and the reality of Auschwitz, no matter what the cost.”

The original objects are permanently housed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum of Poland. They are far too delicate for public display in Poland, Przewozniak said, so U.S. audiences who view the photographic exhibit actually see more of the collection than visitors will see at Auschwitz itself.

“This is important not only for the Jewish community but for the Polish community as well,” said Carolyn Topor, president of the Kosciuszko Foundation’s New England Chapter. “And it is important for all people – not only the Jewish and Polish – to know the truth about the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis in World War II.”

“Our goal is to have people experience the authenticity of Auschwitz in their lives,” Przewozniak said. “This exhibition is not a book or a lecture, but 20 vivid, real examples of life in that awful place. The reality of Auschwitz communicates to all people, in a variety of ways and experiences. Our hope is that the community and students of Elms College will ground their lives by the reality of Auschwitz, and continue to grow, live and work with new personal perspectives.”

“Forbidden Art” was developed and is presented in North America by the Polish Mission of the Orchard Lake Schools in exclusive partnership with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. It has been displayed at prominent institutions from Los Angeles to New York City. The exhibit comes to Chicopee directly from the United Nations, where it was on display in January to honor the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

“The artwork is vivid,” Przewozniak said. “Some pieces inspire delight; some melancholy; some outright disgust and anger. These pieces communicate to people today unlike any book or film: They are the real, authentic remnants of humanity from the world’s most recognizable and infamous place. These images will stay with you, and so will the emotions.” 

For more information, visit the official event page.