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Monday, December 10, 2018

The Painful Artworks of Marian Kolodziej (1921-2009)

In June of 2008, as I was sitting at school in preparation for teaching my summer course, I received an email from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. At that point I had done contract work for the Museum's education arm since 2005, and had been a Teacher Fellow since 2002. The email was to inform me that I'd been one of 10 American teachers chosen for a one week study tour of Poland in mid-October, to be arranged and paid for by the Polish Embassy in Washington. On the itinerary would be several days spent in Warsaw working with 10 Polish educators and 10 educators from Israel. Toward the end of the week, the American group would move to Krakow to attend meetings at a secondary school in that city. I immediately turned down the offer, thinking there was no way I could miss a week of school, etc. Informing my principal, I was told that I had been foolish to have declined and to quickly see if my spot was still available. It was, and I was able to go on the trip of a lifetime - it has proven to be the highlight of my professional career.

I say that to say this: On the last full day we were in Poland, we drove from Krakow to Auschwitz. We spent the morning touring Auschwitz I, and then moved for a brief tour of Auschwitz II-Birkenau. But when we were informed that our stay in Birkenau would be less than one hour, we were upset by that. We were told that we had one more stop on the day. We begrudgingly boarded our bus and off we went to a mysterious place - we'd not been told where. About halfway along we learned that we were going to a monastery, to see an art exhibit. To say we were further puzzled that we'd left Birkenau for an art exhibit would be an understatement. But when we arrived, it was clear that this would be no ordinary art gallery tour.

Marian Kolodziej spent 4 ½ years of his life in Auschwitz. As Prisoner #432, he entered the camp on the day it opened; he was liberated in January 1945, being one of only a handful of people to survive Auschwitz each day it was operational. He never spoke of his experiences for almost 50 years. After a serious stroke in 1993, on the recommendation of his physicians he began rehabilitation by doing pen and ink drawings depicting what he and others had endured in the concentration camp. What came out of his mind through his hand is a shocking testimony to his experiences, relationships, and reflections on the life Auschwitz stole from him. His drawings are housed in the basement of St. Maximilian Kolbe Franciscan Church in Harmeze, Poland, about six miles from Auschwitz.

The image above is elevated to the left upon entering the basement gallery. I have to tell you, it was somewhat alarming as we descended a dank outdoor staircase to a heavy wooden door. The monk (yes - you read that right) who was our guide keyed into the door, we entered, and then he locked it behind us. To be greeted with the strange faces, the seemingly endless images of barbed wire, and the heavy beams that framed the image provided us with a certain uneasiness. That, and being locked inside the basement of the monastery...

The image below is very large - the faces are close to life-sized. On the day we were there, and for years afterward I viewed this as a target. But upon inspection, one of my students correctly proclaimed that it is a clock. In the center is, I assume, Death. To the left is Kolodziej as a young man, to the right is the contemporary artist.

Kolodziej was a Polish political prisoner, as he shows in the image above at left. At right is a memory of being in the "standing cell" in Block 11 at Auschwitz I. No larger than a phone booth or shower stall, as many as four men could be made to crawl from a door only two feet tall at floor level into this space. While stooping to gain entrance, prisoners would have been kicked by guards, perhaps beaten with batons or rubber hoses. Kolodziej draws the men crowded, and overcome by the lice they'd have carried. The punishment often lasted 24 hours and probably included beatings afterward as well. 

Death rides as an SS officer, above.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of artworks in the galleries. The gallery itself, honestly, is an artwork. Kolodziej was a designer in the Polish theater in the post-War years, and it shows through the various ways in which his work is presented. I asked our docent if Kolodziej was at the time still continuing to build the galleries. Yes, was the response. And he related a story that speaks to the permanence of the PTSD afflicting many survivors: Kolodziej had recently brought in and installed several artworks and had informed the church that he was done. His work was complete; he'd said all he felt he needed to say. And then he returned some weeks later with additional memories and feelings set to art.


In the image above, Kolodziej paints all those he encountered who persecuted him. Most of the people in the image are the artist's fellow inmates. In person, this particular painting exudes evil. It is captivating and haunting. Close inspection is necessary, yet incredibly disconcerting.

Below is an image of the victims of Auschwitz. Auschwitz I had one gas chamber/crematorium. At Auschwitz II-Birkenau there were four such installations. At the bottom of the painting below, you can see the five chimneys.

Unlike many of his peers in the Hell of Auschwitz, Marian Kolodziej was a Catholic. In the final exhibit in today's post, the artist draws himself as crucified with Christ. Yet notice the composition of the crown of thorns... more of the barbed wire, which was omnipresent in Kolodziej's art.

More information concerning the artist is available online. Suffice it to say that this was certainly not a pleasant way to end what was a very difficult day. Our bus ride back to Krakow was mostly silent. Decompression of the day's emotions took the better part of our evening, and still weighed on us as we made preparations to leave for the States the following day. 


  1. I have heard of Kolodziej, and I've seen some examples of his work before. But these are very good photographs, Doug.
    His work is hard to look at but compelling at the same time. It is amazing regardless.

    1. Thank you, Edo. It was a day I will never forget. The memories of that gallery remain vivid. I know readers don't have time for all of the stories I could tell, but there were things our guide said that have really stuck with me. Just heartbreaking, haunting, information.


  2. To survive that, to produce these works... Thanks for sharing.

    Such cruelty is beyond comprehension yet always ready to rise up, it seems. When I lived in southern Germany my numerous visitors wanted to see Dachau. I tried to talk them out of it, warning them they would feel down and hate Germans for the next several days. But I couldn't and they did...

  3. Hi Doug, So I googled and there seems to be very little in English on Marian Kolodziej. Do you have a link you could share?

    1. Hi, Charlie -

      When I searched for Kolodziej, his Wikipedia page was in Polish. My version of Chrome asked me if I wanted to translate the page; when I clicked yes, it just converted the same page to English. However, if you can't do that, go to and you can copy/paste text into that page.

      Not the best solution, but hopefully you can make something work.

      Thanks for the comments!


    2. Charlie, try Youtube - theres a twenty plus minute piece on Kolodziej in English that comes up if you search his name.
      Its an episode of something called Catholic Focus, which probably gives you a pretty good idea of where its coming from (no offence to anyone, but I'd have preferred a secular doc).

      Between what happened to him and then the effect of his stroke the work raises all sorts of questions about the relationship of art to life and so on, but I don't have much of a comment to make. Given the context, discussing technique or whatever seems a bit beside the point.


  4. Doug, thanks for posting this artwork. Kolodziej' work is painful to view, but amazing in it's intensity and detail. And the messages that work carries need to be repeated, over and over again. Seeing all that in person , and immediately after touring Aushwitz; staggering...


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