On the trail of art after the horrors of Auschwitz. Dispatches from a study trip.
Station 2: Oświęcim or Art is documentation is emotion
The first station of the journey was able to be discussed in detail during the long bus journey from Berlin to Oświęcim. Today, this town in Lesser Poland is known for the German National Socialists having operated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp on the western edge of the town from 1940. The town is closely linked to the concentration camp, which, in the public consciousness, has come to represent the Holocaust and the National Socialist crimes against humanity.
However, the German-Jewish-Polish story of the town did not begin when the camp was built in 1940, which is why the group decided to visit the town with its town centre and castle dating back to the middle ages first. This is where you find the Centrum Żydowskie w Oświęcimiu (Jewish Centre in Oświęcim) with its Chewra Lomdei Misznajot Synagogue, which is a meeting place, place of prayer and information space rolled into one. During the tour, the group learnt about Jewish settlement dating back to the 16th century and the relationship of the Jewish population with the town, which they called Oshpitzin. They also heard about the town’s dark chapter, with the beginning of the Second World War and the occupation of the region by the German armed forces, and ultimately of the systematic extermination of more than one million people in the Auschwitz concentration camp from 1941. The last Jew to live in Oświęcim died in 2000. Since then, there has been no separate Jewish community in the town. Today, the people who come to the synagogue to pray are tourists and visitors to the town, predominantly visitors to the memorial. The group was visibly moved by everything that they heard; particularly about events in recent history. Numerous documents from the inhabitants provide insights into the thoughts and feelings of their owners.
The second day began very early and was misty. The aim was to go to the memorial site. During the tour, the group was given an insight into the structure of the camp, the living conditions and the murder of the prisoners in the concentration camp. But before the group arrived at the camp, Bartholomäus Fujak, a member of the IBB pedagogical staff, and the bus driver from the town, drove them to the affiliated district of Hamęrze. The journey took them past sleepy houses waking in the morning light and past the greenery of late summer.
A few minutes later, the group stopped in front of a Franciscan church where a real gem was waiting: an exhibition of the works of the former camp prisoner Marian Kołodziej. Kołodziej worked through his experience in the camp in numerous pictures. He was one of the first to arrive at Auschwitz and he survived. The pictures are pencil and graphite drawings drawn on different sized backgrounds. The exhibition is housed in a narrow cellar vault. The light reveals the distorted , haggard features of so many prisoners who, as shadows of their former selves, are often contrasted with the SS members, who are portrayed as wild animals. Several portraits show Kołodziej himself, who can be recognised by his tattooed prisoner number: 432. Kołodziej did not just want to his pictures to bear witness, he also wanted to give the prisoners of the concentration camp their identity and their existence back. After the tour, the participants had some time to go through the exhibition on their own. In the conversations that followed on the way to the bus and during the journey to the memorial, the general mood fluctuated between feeling overwhelmed at the sheer number of impressions they were left with and their admiration for the artist.
 cf. Olga Mielnikiewicz: Oświęcim. Historia społeczności, Link: https://sztetl.org.pl/pl/miejscowosci/o/546-oswiecim/99-historia-spolecznosci/137813-historia-spolecznosci, last accessed on 7/1/2020.