Painstaking research reveals fate of artist known as ‘Portraitist of Auschwitz’
Previously unknown details of the fate of an artist known as the ‘Portraitist of Auschwitz’ have been uncovered thanks to a painstaking archival project to restore the identities and histories of the death camp’s victims.
Franciszek Jaźwiecki, a Polish political prisoner and artist who was deported to Auschwitz from Kraków was employed in the extermination camp’s carpentry workshop and paint shop.
But just before the Germans abandoned the camp, they destroyed most of the documents they had created.
In addition to destroying the gas chambers and crematorium ovens, their plan was also to exterminate the identity and memory of the victims. According to estimates, over 90 percent of the source materials were destroyed.
A full list of names of all of Auschwitz’s victims does not exist.
To restore the memory of the forgotten victims, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum has spent decades building a digital repository of former prisoners and people deported to Auschwitz.
The two-year project, “Reconstructing the identities of deportees and prisoners of KL Auschwitz based on archival data from the Auschwitz Memorial and the Arolsen Archives” is part of this.
The museum’s team of archivists, historians, computer scientists, and document indexers were able to fill in significant gaps in knowledge about the victims of the death camp.
The research focused on the Buchenwald concentration camp document collection. In 2006, the Polish Red Cross handed over to the Auschwitz Museum over 47,000 digital copies of documents of Polish prisoners of Auschwitz and Buchenwald who transferred between these camps.
The research was bolstered by another 90,000 documents, such as personal files, prisoner employment files, various name lists, prisoner transfers or prisoners’ death from the Arolsen Archives, formerly the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany
Dr Krzysztof Antończyk, head of the Digital Repository said: “We find a lot of important information in them. They can be used to establish the numbers of people deported to Auschwitz, the dates of the transports or the places from which deportations originated.”
Until now, the archives only had an entry about Jaźwiecki's employment in the camp paint shop. Thanks to the latest documents, researchers know that in March 1943, he was transferred to Sachsenhausen via Gross-Rosen and on 28 July 1944 to Schönebeck, a sub-camp of Buchenwald.
More than 100 of Jaźwiecki's portraits are housed in the Auschwitz Memorial Museum
Agnieszka Sieradzka, an art historian at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, told CNN: “The most interesting in these portraits are eyes -- a very strange helplessness.”
Sieradzka suggested that Jaźwiecki saw the portraits as future artifacts, since almost every portrait featured the prisoner number of the subject, which made them identifiable.
Creating art was not allowed in Auschwitz and was treated by the SS as an act of resistance.
"Art was forbidden in Auschwitz so creating a drawing like that means risking torture, even death,” Sieradzka said.
Jaźwiecki hid the portraits in his bed or clothes, but they were eventually discovered by the SS. The officer who investigated his case was SS-Scharführer Wilhelm Boger, one of the most feared camp executioners nicknamed "Screaming Death" by the prisoners.
Jaźwiecki later recalled: “He sits down behind the table and browses through my drawings.
“ … Through hurting eyes I can see him looking at them with interest. … Thus I feel I’m not going to be hanged, I also feel that he is going to punish me in his own way and not through the Politische Abteilung, because he wants to steal these drawings for himself.
“… Otherwise, he would have to send them away with me, and he’s putting them into the drawer.”
Jaźwiecki was sentenced to three months in a penal company and was not allowed to receive parcels, send or receive letters.
He described his punishment: “With a load of 40 kg of sand on bent back… Round and round again… For 12 hours… And so round and round again, for three months with a hundred other miserable souls… Round and round… Day by day. … One more step, at least one and one again, before I drop, and the Kapo finishes me off.”
When he died in 1946, a year after he was liberated, his family donated his portraits to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.