Prisoner photo from Auschwitz, Courtesy Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim
Józef Szajna in 1998
Born March 13, 1922 in Rzeszów, Poland; today lives in Warsaw, Poland
1939, Szajna was drafted and assigned with other adolescents to guard bridges, railway stations, and other military objectives against sabotage. Around this time, he joined a Polish underground organization that later become known as the Military Fighting Union (Związek Walki Zbrojnej) and for which he copied a factory's technical plans and sketches.
Arrest and Deportation to Auschwitz
Threatened with arrest for their underground work, Szajna and his friends in January 1940 fled to Hungary, were arrested at the border, handed over to Slovak border police, and delivered to the Gestapo. Szajna was subsequently imprisoned in Muszyna, Nowy Sącz, and Tarnów. After four-and-a-half months in Tarnów, Szajna on July 25, 1941, was deported to Auschwitz, where he was assigned prisoner number 18729.
Work Assignments at Auschwitz
Szajna was initially assigned to work on construction detail (Baukommando) and in winter of 1941-42 was reassigned to the tailor workshops (Nähkommando) and the transport crew (Rollwagen 1). After the SS caught him attempting to smuggle food and messages in November 1942, Szajna was beaten and transferred to punishment detail, building the Königsgraben sanitation ditch at barrack 1 at Birkenau. Early 1943 he was again assigned to the punishment cells in barrack (Block) 11. February 1943, Szajna was sent to the infirmary and then reassigned as a cleaner in the SS canteen, a work detail that the artist considered "fortunate" as the duties it entailed enabled him to barter for food.
After an unsuccessful escape attempt in summer of 1943, Szajna was incarcerated August 17-October 11, 1943, in the punishment "standing" cells of barrack (Block) 11 in Auschwitz I and sentenced to death. The execution order was shortly rescinded and Szajna was again assigned to work in transport detail, sorting objects and clothing belonging to Jews killed at Birkenau.
Transfer to Buchenwald
January 21, 1944, Szajna was transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp, where he received prisoner number 41408 and was at first assigned to labor in the stone quarries. Mid-1944, he was transferred to the subcamp of Schönebeck near Magdeburg, where he produced airplane parts at a Junkers factory.
Art Produced at Buchenwald
Szajna was again sent to the infirmary during the Allied air raids. There, he began to produce portraits of fellow prisoners and created, from memory, about 20 sketches of Auschwitz barrack 11, four of which survived liberation and were later deposited in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Szajna also painted street and barracks signs and produced at least one artwork on demand: a painting of flower bouquets on the shades of an SS man's quarters.
Liberation and After
When on April 11, 1945 the SS "evacuated" about 600 prisoners from Buchenwald, Szajna escaped with friends and on April 15 met up with units of the U.S. Army. After spending the next two years as a displaced person at Haaren/Ems in the British zone, he returned to Poland in 1947, and in November of that year was called as a witness in the Kraków trial of Auschwitz and Birkenau guards.
1953, Szajna graduated from the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts with a diploma in graphic art and theater design and from 1955-66 served as designer and artistic director of the People's Theater in Nowy Huta. At the Venice Biennale of 1970, Szajna was honored with a one-man exhibition featuring his installation Reminiscences, a work commemorating Kraków artists killed at Auschwitz. 1971-81, he served as director of the Warsaw art gallery and theater center "Studio," a post from which he resigned in 1981 in protest against military rule in Poland.
Archives and art collection at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim.
Bodek, Andrzej, ed. Reminiszenzen: ein Environment von Prof. Jósef Szajna: zum 50. Jahrestag der Befreiung von Auschwitz-Birkenau. Frankfurt am Main, 1995.
Archives and art collection at the Buchenwald Memorial Museum, Weimar.
Madeyski, Jerzy and Andrzej Zurowski. Józef Szajna: plastyka, teatr. Warsaw, 1992.
Milton, Sybil and Janet Blatter. Art of the Holocaust. New York, 1981.
Sybil Milton interviews and conversations with Józef Szajna at Warsaw 1980 and 1995,
Auschwitz 1988, and Venice 1990.
Oleksy, Krystyna, ed. Swiat Józefa Szajny. Oświęcim, 1995.
Józef Szajna: Appell: Geschichtszeichen und Kunstwerk in der Dauerausstellung zur
Geschichte des Konzentrationslagers Buchenwald. Weimar, 1995.
Szajna, Józef. "Replika - Erinnerungen: Künstleriche Protest-Aktion gegen den Terror," and "Gespräch zwischen Detlef Hoffmann und Józef Szajna," in Detlef Hoffmann and Karl Ermert, eds. Kunst und Holocaust: Loccumer Protokolle, No. 14 (1990), 74-99.