Authenticity and Memory: Forbidden Art Premiers at University of Michigan-Dearborn

Authenticity is something all of us seek in each and every part of our lives.  It’s what we need in the relationships with the people around us; it’s what is required of our professors and teachers when we want to educate ourselves; it’s what an artist intimately sculpts into the most beautiful works of art.  For the artists especially, finding authentic inspiration to make original work is the key to a life of expressing oneself, and that idea is at the core of Forbidden Art.

We at The Polish Mission recognize the authenticity of Auschwitz as the most powerful force against ignorance, for those who deny historical fact cannot present a credible argument in the wake of the evidence, survivors, and the hallowed ground of Auschwitz.  Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, and even the disturbing trend of misleading nomenclature like the term “Polish concentration camps” all stand in opposition to the combined mission of The Polish Mission, and the world’s most recognizable symbol of the Holocaust, Auschwitz.

Click here to view all the photographs from the event!

Many are familiar with the three-ton traveling education program from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum (A-BSM) of Poland called Forbidden Art.  All in all, the mobile educational program has traveled over 8,000 miles since its premier at Orchard Lake, and it doesn’t look like the tour will slow down anytime soon—the next venue will be the United States Military Academy West Point, and others are in the works as well.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest of all the Nazi German concentration camps in Europe during the Second World War.  Today, the 472-acre museum has adopted the finest scientific and educational methods to offer the best care to the original site, and to provide the most authentic and comprehensive educational program about the Holocaust.  In 1979, Auschwitz-Birkenau became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The pieces in Forbidden Art were selected from thousands of such objects in the collections at A-BSM, specially selected to illustrate an accurate representation of the people who were victimized at Europe’s largest Nazi German extermination complex.  They were chosen specifically to invite guests to experience a degree of intimacy with not only the inmates who created the objects, but also with the horrific concentration camp experience itself.

 

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Left to right: Youth Coordinator at Temple Israel Ethan Bennett, Forbidden Art Project Manager JJ Przewozniak, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Historian Teresa Wontor-Cichy, Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive Director Jamie Wraight, Polish Mission Board Member Eugenia Gorecki, Polish Mission Director Marcin Chumiecki, Polish Mission Chairman Dr. Stan Majewski 

The artwork allowed their creators to mentally and emotionally escape, albeit briefly, from the horrors of life in a concentration camp.  For the prisoners, art became a survival strategy: at times it was a tool for imagining a world without oppression, or a gift of thanks for kindness, or even a way to advance one’s social status.  In every instance, the artwork was a defiant expression of self that was strictly forbidden—usually punishable by death, and in danger of eliciting severe repercussions upon one’s fellow prisoners.  Today, the amateur and professional artwork in the collections at A-BSM, and those featured on Forbidden Art show us a clear look at the concentration camp experience, communicated to us in the language of art.

Like the example of the 6,620 Polish people recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations (the largest number in any single Nazi-occupied country), Forbidden Art reveals the heroism that sharply permeates the darkness of the Holocaust.  The artists risked absolutely everything to retain their humanity in a place where people were relegated to numbers; worthless beings; even insects.

Like the invaluable testimony of the survivors, the written accounts, and the few precious and infamous photographs that document the past, the artwork too is testimony to the reality of the camp.  While sometimes the artwork from the camp may not be as explicit as some powerful image or paragraph, the artwork is an expression of the artists themselves.  Since it was the concentration camp experience that spawned the creation of them, the surviving pieces today really do testify to an authentic reality of Auschwitz; to unfathomable oppression that serves as a priceless record of the past.

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Chairman of The Polish Mission board Dr. Stanislaw Majewski address the audience on the second floor of the Mardigian Library

In addition to the panels, two replicas of the featured inmate artwork, in the form of glass sculptures, have been crafted in 1:1 scale, allowing guests to appreciate the minute scale and clandestine nature of the artwork, which was carefully hidden The sculptures were originally unveiled at the Eisenhower Presidential site, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, in June 2014.

After over a year of careful planning, Forbidden Art at University of Michigan-Dearborn will be a distinctive landmark on the national tour.  Dr. Martin Hershock, Dean of the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters, and Dr. Jamie Wraight, Director of the Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive, had linked up with The Polish Mission in 2012 when Forbidden Art premiered in the historic Galeria in Orchard Lake.  Since then, the team at University of Michigan-Dearborn had dedicated themselves to bringing the powerful message of the project to the UM-Dearborn community.  We at The Polish Mission encourage everyone to discover our colleagues in Dearborn, and explore our local University of Michigan campus.  Since 2012, they’ve been supportive partners and great friends, who offer academic excellence in our own backyard to almost 10,000 students each year.

Sunday, September 18 was the opening gala at the Mardigian Library on the UM-Dearborn campus.  About 150 guests gathered on the second floor to hear a presentation by Ms. Teresa Wontor-Cichy, from A-BSM, who had made the journey to the United States to offer the Dearborn community a detailed interpretation on the history of Auschwitz-Birkenau as well as an academic exploration of several of the pieces in Forbidden Art.  Wraight opened the presentation, introducing UM-Dearborn Chancellor Dr. Daniel Little, Polish Mission Chairman Dr. Stan Majewski, and Forbidden Art Project Manager JJ Przewozniak.  Przewozniak introduced Wontor-Cichy, and the audience made of students, local community members, and professors listened intently as Wontor-Cichy’s detailed look at the history of Auschwitz captured everyone’s attention.

 

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Wontor-Cichy greets Abraham Pasternak, who survived the Holocaust at Auschwitz and other concentration/death camps

Following the presentation, guests viewed Forbidden Art at the Alfred Berkowitz Gallery on the library’s third floor. The UM-D Department of Art Collections and Exhibitions preserves, displays, and interprets a treasured art collection that has been acquired by the university over the past four decades, and the Berkowitz gallery is the centerpiece venue for the over 3,000-pice artwork collection.  Many of the UM-Dearborn pieces were donated by Alfred Berkowitz and Bill and Electra Stamelos, close friends of UM-Dearborn and curator emeritus Joseph Marks. Works by Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, Vera Sattler, Howard Ben Tré, and Dale Chihuly are just a few of the globally known artists usually featured in the elegant maple-adorned gallery, opened in 1997, where Forbidden Art is on display now until December 23.

Many special guests were in attendance, the most prominent of which, was Mr. Abraham Pasternak.  Pasternak is a Holocaust survivor, whose oral testimony is preserved at the Voice/Vision archive.  He was born in Betlan, Romania, and following the Hungarian occupation, he and his family were sent to Dej to do forced labor.  From there, the family was transported to Auschwitz, where his parents and youngest brother were sent to death.  He and his remaining brothers were then sent to several other camps including Buchenwald, Schlieben and Zeitz, and Pasternak was liberated in Theresienstadt.  After the war he moved to the United States and was soon after drafted into the American armed forces where he served as a chaplain.

A particular element of the Forbidden Art project of a long scroll of paper, which bears countless signatures and inscriptions.  It was begun at the exhibition premier in 2012, as a way for exhibition viewers to offer a personal reflection, which will be preserved for posterity in the permanent collections of A-BSM.  The scroll has traveled to all fifteen venues of Forbidden Art, and one can find words of reflection in English Polish, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, and other languages.  There are simple words, deep musings, and everything in between on what has become a most valuable and interactive elements of the Forbidden Art experience with The Polish Mission, but what makes it really priceless, are the few inscriptions from survivors, including Abe Pasternak.

 

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Holocaust survivor Abraham Pasternak signs the scroll while others look on

Forbidden Art invites all viewers to become diplomats of history; to become representatives of the facts of yesterday to the issues of today.  We at The Polish Mission extend a welcome to everyone to experience Forbidden Art.  For hours of operation and more information, please visit http://library.umd.umich.edu/berkowitz/ .

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