Posts Tagged ‘ Auschwitz ’

Arbeit Macht Frei

Who the hell would steal the “Arbeit macht frei” sign from Auschwitz?  Meaning ‘Work sets you free’ and constructed by prisoners from the camp, the entrance sign is symbolic of the Holocaust.  The camp, in which 1-1.5 milion people died,  has been a museum since 1945.  The sign is 5 meters long and weighs 40 kilograms.  I wonder how such a large sign was taken unnoticed, but apparently the one security camera used was blinded by the snow.  Borders were closed in case the sign is on its way out of the country, 50 criminal investigators are patrolling the camp grounds with dogs, and a temporary replica was installed in the sign’s place.

Who would do such a thing?  The museum has 1 million visitors every year, and the memorial stands as an important educational tool.  World leaders are outraged, and I have to agree that this act could only be antisemitic.  Will the sign go up for sale?  Will this symbol of the Holocaust be destroyed in an act of hatred? I have nothing new to say about this hurtful act of vandalism, but I feel truly sick over this piece of news, and I hope the criminals are caught and imprisoned.  This sign is more than just pieces of guilded iron- it is possibly the most recognized symbol of the millions of  people that died in the Holocaust.

Lego (1996) by artist Zbigniew Libera

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Zbigniew Libera, contemporary Polish pop-artist, unapologetically pushes boundaries by depicting subject matter sanctified by modern culture. The issue of how to depict the Holocaust is debated in many art forms, including theatre, writing and the visual arts. Some artists only carefully depict what is already known about the Holocaust, rather than raising new questions and debate surrounding the topic.

Libera, born in 1959 in Poland served time in prison for drawings that the communist regime considered “pornographic”. After the fall of communism, the artist was able to travel extensively and exhibit abroad. Most of his work focuses on commercialization and it’s impact on society, and criticizes the regime in which he grew up. His most provocative and well-known work is entitled Lego (1996) and is a limited edition of three LEGO sets of a concentration camp. The larger boxes of the set show the entire concentration camp with buildings, gallows with one inmate being hanged, inmates behind barbed wire or marching in and out of the camp. Also included is an entry gate similar to the one at Oswiecim, but without the German inscription “Arbeit Macht Frei.” The guards are the same as the policemen in other LEGO sets, and the prisoners are from the medical and hospital sets. Another set shows a crematorium with smoke coming out of the chimneys and a guard wearing a red hat, looking as if he belongs in a Soviet gulag rather than a Nazi extermination camp.

When Libera presented the piece at an international conference in 1997, he was pelted with insults and criticism, despite the fact that the conference was concerned with how to keep the discourse of the Holocaust alive. The artists were unsure whether or not the set was a limited edition (yes) or a mass-produced piece. Although this was not what anyone was expecting, Zbigniew Libera raised many new questions and answers about the Holocaust through his piece.

When searching for the roots of the genocide, it is interesting that Libera’s work is made almost entirely from pre-existing LEGO pieces. When LEGO corporation heard about the artist’s use of their product, they tried to sue him. Also, the box of his piece states that LEGO sponsored the work of Zbigniew Libera, which the company adamantly refutes. However, three sets were already sold and European copyright laws permit the use of corporate logos for artistic purposes, so the lawsuit was quickly dropped. LEGO spends a lot of time and energy explaining to museums and the public that Libera’s piece is not their product. The fact that the set is produced in multiples suggests that history repeats itself. As the artist grew up in Poland, concentration camps were in his immediate surroundings, although there is nothing specifically German about the construction of the work. This fact proposes the idea that these camps could be located in the Gulag or anywhere genocide is taking place. Elements for such a massacre exist in the world and all that is needed is for the right person to “assemble” the pieces correctly. Holocaust survivors were present at the international conference where the artist first presented the piece. When Libera is asked about his respect for the victims he responds “I am from Poland. I have been poisoned.”

In May 1997, Libera was invited to display in the Polish pavilion at the Venice Biennale, but asked not to bring Lego. The artist ended up withdrawing from the exhibition. Despite the provocative nature of the work and its easy ability to offend, Lego sparks a new dialogue about the Holocaust. Libera shows us that all of the elements for genocide surround us. Now that we are in the 21st century and a few generations past the Holocaust, there is a certain degree of complacency surrounding the topic. Libera forces his audience not only to look at the past, but also at life today.

Sources:

  • The artist statement
  • Stephen C. Feinstein

Ordinary Days in Auschwitz

I fear this will not be my only post on Auschwitz.  Living in Krakow for five or six weeks now, I know that I am getting closer to my inevitable visit to the nearby extermination camp.  It is hard to walk through the center of the city without noticing many advertisements for tours of Auschwitz, although I doubt the Poles are particularly happy that so many visitors use the beautiful city of Krakow as a stepping stone to something they didn’t want in the first place.

People are used to hearing stories of heroism and victimization surrounding Auschwitz and the Holocaust.  Everyone knows about Anne Frank- after two years, her hiding spot was discovered and she was sent to Belsen where she died of typhus.  Most people have also seen Schindler’s List, which chronicles the story of Oskar Schindler who rescued around 1,200 jews by employing them in his enamel factory.  In fact, many tourists look for locations from the movie around Kazimierz (former Jewish neighborhood in Krakow pre-WWII) and Krakow.  There was also Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in Auschwitz.  He was canonized as patron saint of “Our Difficult Century” by Pope John Paul II in 1982 for his extraordinary heroic and selfless deed.  Also unique is the story of Witold Pilecki, the only known person to volunteer to go to Auschwitz.  Once a prisoner, he sent invaluable information to the West and organized resistance.auschgate

This list is in no way complete; there are countless heroes of the holocaust and Auschwitz.  In retrospect, people like to hear these stories of extraordinary people doing extraordinary deeds in the midst of the biggest disaster of the twentieth century.  It provides some hope that “good” really does conquer “evil.”   However, as I read the book This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman by Tadeusz Borowski, I see a completely new perspective.  After publishing in underground circles, Borowski walked into a trap and spent 1943-1945 in Auschwitz until the Red Army’s “liberation.”  His experiences are reflected in this book, which is in first person narrated by a fictional character named Tadek.  Sometimes he has the “privileged” job of helping to unload the new arrivals to the camp from their crowded trains, directing them onto trucks to extermination.  Afterwards, he and the other workers take their food from the abandoned suitcases on the tracks for means of survival.  Tadek also works with groups doing heavy labor around the camps, and discusses the hierarchy of prisoners.  He talks about daily life with an incredible amount of distance.  Every person discussed has the dual role of the executioner and a victim, as they try to make it through the day.  No one is innocent.  And when the work is done for the day, Tadek describes the camp as a “haven of peace.”  People are dying but one has enough food and the ability to work…

Of course, the impact of this book cannot be summed up into a few paragraphs and I digress.  However the stories are unique in many ways.  Often, we hear the Auschwitz perspective of the Jewish people and usually heroic tales of solidarity.  Instead, Borowski unabashedly recounts ordinary days in Auschwitz.  Although a collection of his personal experiences, the perspective of a narrator allows the stories to be those of many, instead of just Borowski’s.  These stories could be those of the ordinary days of many people, and Borowski identifies himself with millions in the writing of this book.

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