The Polish artist behind this exhibition is Marian Kolodziej (1921-2009). At the age of 17, he was one of the first prisoners transported to Auschwitz in 1940. He wore the number 432. Mr Kolodziej survived imprisonment in several camps, including Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald, until the liberations in 1945 and did not speak about it for years. He later worked as a theatre set and costumes designer. In 1993, he suffered a stroke and had to undergo heavy rehabilitation. While he was recovering he began to draw with pens and ink to tell his story and the stories of the prisoners in hundreds of black and white drawings that now make up the exhibition.
The entrance door (see picture 1) displays “number432” written in white on a grey broken glass. The room of the exhibition is in the basement of a church in Harmęże, near Auschwitz and Oswieçim. This number is hypnotic and follows the visitors throughout the whole exhibition. You can find it appearing in many of the paintings. It is a short number, which shows you that he was one of the first prisoners in Auschwitz who witnessed five years of death, dehumanization, hunger, cold and illness.
When you enter the basement, your eyes need a bit of time to get used to the sombre light. When you start being able to see, you get caught up in the morbid atmosphere surrounded by hundreds of painted skulls and skeletons in grey, black and white. One of the first paintings (see picture 2) shows a skeleton with wings on what appears to be a carriage of death. His caustic grin conveys uneasiness which is enhanced by the view of the painted dead bodies underneath. The painted bell tolls above the horses which move the carriage. The images seem to be taken out directly of the worst nightmares. They are extremely detailed. While we are at there, most of us stay silent. We hear the voice of our guide, Pfr. Dr. Manfred Deselaers, who personally knew the artist, along with cracklings of the cameras’ flashes.
The hundreds of faces painted on the wall look and at the first glance, they all look similar. The almost triangular shaped, hairless faces with big foreheads and pointy chin look emaciated, starving and exhausted. Their mouths are open dark holes from which silent screams of pain come out. Up close you can see the differences in their features and their glances. Big dark eyes with a slight glimmer of light, captivating… These eyes are the only alive part in this drawing, but yet they are so dead. Words can not describe the raw emotions expressed in these drawings ( see picture 3, representing the Jewish prisoners) .
Those looks are an open door to the horrors experienced in the camps. As Jorge Semprun, who survived Buchenwald, said in “L’écriture ou la vie” (“Writing or living”), when his eyes met those of three British officers, he could see what he describes to be a look of “épouvante” (terror, horror). At that moment he strongly felt that he did not escape death, but had rather been through death itself and sees his state as that of a “revenant” (“ghost”). These drawn, pale figures are ghosts with the past still alive in their eyes.
Some of Marian Kolodziej’s belongings are shown in the exhibition. You can see the letters that he sent while he was in the camp on which the sentence “Ich bin Gesund und geht mir gut” (“I am in good health and I am fine”) is written. The prisoners were forced to write this on letters they send if they wanted their loved ones to receive them. You can also see a paper certifying his imprisonment in Auschwitz (pictures 4 and 5). These little excerpts taken from his life bring us one step closer to knowing the reality of the camps.
This exhibition made us reflect on how it felt experiencing the everyday life of the camps and being surrounded by dying people. In between hellish pictures you can sometimes find drawings showing little acts of humanity and solidarity, like the drawing of a prisoner holding a fellow prisoner. Mr Kolodziej also drew Maximilian Kolbe, the priest prisoner in Auschwitz who volunteered to replace a prisoner who had a family. He stayed in quarantine and died there. These drawings shown in the basement of the church complete the stories told in the written and oral testimonies of the camps’ survivors, as well as those of the now empty barracks and ruins of gas chambers.