Mieczyslaw Koscielniak: Auschwitz Artist

In 1941, Polish artist Mieczyslaw Koscielniak was arrested by the Gestapo because of a painting done in 1928 that depicted Germans being shot by Poles. He was sent to Auschwitz.

Koscielniak camp photo, 1941. (Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum)

The camp was still under construction at the time and Koscielniak was assigned to an Abbruch or demolition labor detatchment. A guard taunted Koscielniak about being an artist and Koscielniak replied that he could draw a picture in five minutes that would show that he was indeed an artist or else the guard could have him whipped. The guard produced a pencil and, in five minutes, Koscielniak produced a portrait of theman. The guard was impressed and recommended that Koscielniak be assigned other work. Soon he was assigned to do various art chores — such as producing posters and doing paintings of the camp orchestra — and was also requested by many of the SS to paint their portraits.

But Koscielniak used the art materials given him to record everyday life in the camp. He made contact with the Auschwitz underground and managed to smuggle out 300 drawings that recorded events at the death camp.

"Friendly Favor". (Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum)

Eventually, Koscielniak was asked by camp commandant Rudolf Hoess to evaluate paintings that had been confiscated from the Poles who had owned the property where Auschwitz was built. Koscielniak spent three days living in the commandant’s house, advising him which were good paintings and how to best display them. The SS set up an art museum at Auschwitz and Koscielniak was assigned there. This gave increased opportunity to steal art materials and get drawings to the outside world.

A prisoner no longer able to work is murdered by a shot of phenol to his heart.

The Germans emptied Auschwitz  in 1945 and sent the prisoners to other camps. Koscielniak was assigned to Mauthausen where Patton’s Third Army freed him. Koscielniak stayed with the US Army for six months. Patton wanted him to come to America but Koscielniak returned to his native Poland. After the war, he did a series of pictures depicting the daily life of a prisoner in Auschwitz.

These pictures are from the “Day of A Prisoner” series (from the artist’s official site.). Note how Koscielniak draws the capos, prisoners assigned to shepherd the others. They are fat, the prisoners are thin. It is the capos who do the beatings while the on-looking SS keep their hands clean. [This post was prompted by reading the Art Spiegelman interview at the New York Review of Books blog.]

The prisoners march out to the day's work. The capo is on the right. Note the upraised arms of the orchestra conductor visible at the upper left. The prisoners marched out and returned to music.

 

The prisoners are shaped up. A capo points at a man to weak to stand who is helped by another.

 
 

The man who tried to help is beaten by the capo as the other prisoners wheel out to the Abbruch site.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Now there are two men unable to stand at day's end.