To the authors
I have been invited to share my reflections, embodied in a diversity of shapes, colours and moving images. As a survivor of KL Auschwitz and other concentration camps, I am indeed very much tempted to do so.
I was born in 1922 in Rzeszów. Throughout my school years I was full of high spirits, fascinated by sports and rather partial to painting. The outbreak of the Second World War swept my family home away, irreversibly changing my own notion of happiness and sense of life. At the tender age of 17 I became a soldier, expected to be mature enough to assume full responsibility for my own life.
As an underground resistance fighter, I tried my hand in various sabotage actions against the Nazi occupying forces, always a mere step ahead of the Gestapo. In the early 1940 I was apprehended in Slovakia, while trying to cross illicitly into Hungary, and handed over to the Gestapo. At first incarcerated in Muszyna, Nowy Sącz and Tarnów, I was eventually sent down to KL Auschwitz, a totally alien world ruled by the motto: Arbeit macht Frei.
Once inside the concentration camp, I realised that just about everything around me was inherently imbued with eerie, almost surreal qualities: violence and cruelty, bravery and selflessness. Notions of social class, race, political views and religious creed simply no longer mattered. As an inmate I was allocated just a number - 18729 - a solitary island in the vast archipelago of anguished minds.
Summer of 1941. A close friend of mind dies of total exhaustion, while I try to escape once again. My attempt fails and I am brought back into the camp to be sentenced to death in the infamous Stehbunker in Block No 11. My world gets suddenly reduced to a space of 90 cm by 90 cm, not enough room to even stand upright. The cell could only be accessed by a small door at floor level, just like a crematorium smokestack. No window, no air, no exit, no hope.
The flow of time no longer mattered, there was no way of telling the day from the night, total darkness swallowed me up completely. Awaiting my turn to be put up against the wall and shot, I desperately tried to inch my way forward to God, moving gingerly closer to the other side of life. The nothingness around me paralysed me with terror, the overwhelming silence ripped my brain apart, I just wanted to die to escape from my misery.
Alas, that was not to be - I was set free. Just a quirk of blind fate? Destiny? Years later I would write in my plays: "I've escaped the hangman's rope, but death is buried deep within me and shares my bed, night after night, after night..."
Memory. There is something deeply human about it. Some of us cannot push things out of it, while others would do just about anything not to remember they are still buried there. Can one just go on living without being bound by any obligations? Can a society go on living without being bound by any obligations?
I try not to divide my time into things past and things that are still ahead of me, neither do I try to divide people around me into the ones that matter, and those who don't. My war years were my great university, time of testing friendships and the strength of my own character.
The first days of freedom after the liberation in 1945, when I returned from yet another concentration camp - Buchenwald - felt like a limbo, I had no strength left to rejoice, I was merely trying to get myself upright again. I was quite insecure about my camp experience, as if it were some sort of obscene disability. Deprived of any sense of self-esteem, not wanted by anyone, I tried to seek refuge in the arts. I did not want much, and yet - l had it all - I survived. I made my way back to my family home, which was no longer there. I was back in my home country, though.
I somehow managed to pull myself together, graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow and eventually set up a home of my own. Whatever I endeavour to do in the arts I simply regard as my new lease of life. Whenever I move in the domain of free creation, I feel somehow purged from my oppressive past, as if set completely free from the anguished memories.
Back in 1947, in Krakow, I was summoned as a witness for the prosecution at the trial of 40 war criminals from the Auschwitz camp. Those who once arrogantly ruled the world, masters of life and death over hundreds of thousands, the officers and their proxies, were now awaiting judgement. Some of them used to kill inmates by merely following orders, others would do it with true relish on their own accord. Now brought into the dock, looking small and frightful, showing no remorse.
In the 1960s I set up a theatrical project, focusing predominantly on the visual narrative. My aim was to pose probing questions into the role of artist in the modern world and the significance of arts at large.
Those are the omnipresent questions. That is how a series of paintings Anthills came into being, to be construed as a running commentary on human condition as such; still very much on my artistic agenda today. The Epiphanies and Apotheoses series, a spatial composition - Reminiscences - not only do they bear witness to the past victims of genocide, but also sound a powerful warning against the ever present threat of the same happening over and over again, like it did in the Soviet labour camps in the Kolyma region, or during the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, or in so many other places around the world. It is all about the century we happen to live in, the century indelibly marked by atrocities and genocide, whereupon the Lord's commandment "Thou shall not kill" was in fact turned into its opposite.
My play "The Replica" of 1971 makes use of actors on stage performing in a complete silence. American press dubbed it the "scream of our times", the Mexicans saw it as "an aftermath of a massive earthquake", while the Germans regarded it as an attempt at "settling the old-time scores". The play aims to bring up close the death throes of our world as we know it, the continuing atrophy of our civilisation, the vicissitudes of the post-industrial era. It has already inspired a lot of avid interest in many countries round the world.
It is only through endeavouring to create ideas unencumbered by the small-time pragmatism that we can successfully escape the impasse, move away from violence which always brings more violence, move away from vengeance that is always sure to result in more vengeance, more blind hatred and more killing.
In our own appreciation of reality we do seem to be pretty complacent, but isn't this complacency contaminated with a sense of futility? Is really everything for sale?
The neo-Nazi ideology has been manifesting itself in a brand new disguise recently, more and more often do we hear about the oppressive Poles and decent Germans.
There is no chance for absolution without contrition, like there can be no reconciliation without forgiveness.
Upon the 50th Anniversary of the liberation of KL Auschwitz I appealed to all visitors to join in the common effort of building a "Mound of Reconciliation and Memory" - as a symbol of World Peace in Auschwitz. I very much hope that the next century is actually going to prove conducive to this idea.
painter, writer, theatrical director, stage designer
Professor at the Academy of Fine Arts
Warsaw, September 25, 2000