When painting, I do not wonder
whether what I am doing is good or bad. All I want is to catch, to capture
with my hands the indescribable fear and the undeserved lot of millions of
Jews and other prisoners, which I have witnessed with my own eyes.
The way my visions became paintings
From tape-recorded and live narratives
by Adolf Frankl, an Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor,
tattoo number B 14395
I distribute paint on the canvas with my
fingers, brush and palette knife, without any plan or model to follow. I am
so absorbed in my work that I daub paint over my face, hair, clothes and
shoes, sometimes I am so distracted I even put the brush into my mouth.
Out of a feeling of both RAGE AND JOY I make patches of color either
creating harmony or havoc, largely subconsciously. After some hours, I need
to lie down, I am exhausted. I get some sleep, then I smoke and think of the
past, of my youth, of women and also of the dreadful images from the camp.
The ghosts crawl out of the darkness. I cannot bear it any longer. I run to
a cafe, the painting pursuing me and ordering me to continue my work until
it is finished.
In the evening, when everyone else is asleep, I get the canvas out and from
my bed I observe the painting for hours. First with my hand, then with one
eye, then with a mirror I look for a solution, for a way to explain to
others the awful thoughts that rage behind my eyes. There, through my shut
eyes, I see the Jewish girls, the flowers of Zion, standing at the barbed
wire fence of the camp, like they did when I came to Birkenau1: legs apart,
or else they would tumble down, arms hanging at their sides, bent forward.
They stared at me like animals. Those eyes – I cannot forget them!
"You can't take this any longer than three or four weeks, then you will
evaporate through the chimney, so don't you worry!" said my acquaintance
from Trenčin in Slovakia, by the name of Suess. He was a "Kapo", which
denounced a camp inmate assigned by the SS as overseer. He wore handsome
high shoes with laces.
The painting I have begun calls me back. Gradually, the patches of color are
materializing into faces, sometimes animals - vague creatures, half beast,
half man - and my memories return with renewed force and clarity. A huge
black bearded man takes shape in my mind, the Rabbi Goldstein, an orthodox,
incorruptible man, true to his principles, who in Bratislava (Pressburg)
used to proudly walk up the Jewish street to the synagogue to deliver his
sermon on Sabbath. In the Sereď concentration camp I saw him beardless, a
tiny gaunt face with eyes dilated from mortal fear.
I can see the faces now, clearly, and I recognize Herbert, the German
foreman from the Birkenau women's camp weaving department. He had been a
mariner before. He called me "Wolf" (wolf) and sometimes "Fuchs" (fox).
He confided to me that the food we got contained bromine2, and from time to
time supplied me with unmixed food. Once a woman I knew who worked in the
camp kitchen for the SS passed on to me a tiny piece of salad.
Unfortunately, a female SS-warden caught sight of this and whipped me. She
whistled to fetch Herbert. He said "This is a green one!3" He hit me,
knocked me down, then danced over my body. Next day, I asked him "Herbert,
why did you beat me? Haven't you recognized me?" He said "No, wolf, I did
not recognize you".
In Birkenau, I also see the lawyer from Bratislava's Sedlárska street. Once
he was an ambitious, pushy person, a star of yesterday. Before the onset of
persecution he ran a large thriving office, his waiting room always full of
clients. I still recollect him coming out from the "Mexiko-Kommando4", his
head close-cropped, his face black from dirt, his glasses broken. In the
department "Mexiko-Kommando" the prisoners were forced, among others, to
dismount damaged barracks, with nothing but bare hands and in bitter
By the roll-call next morning at dawn he was finished – dead.
I also watch myself in Birkenau exchanging bread for cigarettes and trying
to find butts in the darkness in the barrack. I get caught by a "Kapo", a
former policeman. He forces me to bend over the stove which ran through the
whole length of the barrack and hits my bare behind with his rod ten times.
I scream with pain, so loud, you could hear it in Cracow – unendurable pain!
And there again, rats, ugly fat rats, the only creatures with always
something proper to eat! Up to these days I have been haunted by the stench
of burnt human flesh and hair, and I still see the smoke escaping from the
chimneys of the incinerators. I will never shake it off, I feel myself
drowning in this thick stench.
I return to the canvas. The colors and the blurred contours of the faces are
starting to take shape. I like the bright, garish colors. Like fire they
should shine! The depth effect of the colors makes up the basis of my works.
These are the origins of my paintings. I admire Chagall. We have but one
thing in common: The powerful colors dominate the paintings. However,
because of my own experience of the past, my pictures are full of mourning.
They contain many things I cannot explain. When painting, I do not pay any
attention to whether what I am doing is good or bad. Out of the patches of
color my VISIONS form themselves – with many interruptions, improvements,
without my paying any heed to perspectives, dimensions, phrases or
Being an eye-witness, a sufferer myself, I want to conjure the indescribable
fear and the undeserved fate of millions of Jews, of other fellow prisoners,
of children and of those unborn. In such moments, I am seized with righteous
anger and with memories carved indelibly on my mind, I seek to capture them
with my hands, to express them in such a way that this tragedy become a
warning testimony to future generations.
An art critic once told me that one of my paintings in which you can see
dogs baring their teeth reminded him of motifs used by Chagall. However, my
paintings reflect my own personal suffering and the ordeals that I
personally endured …
This is Frankl – not Chagall!
With my paintings I have created
a memorial for all nations.
shall ever experience
any such or similar disaster,
regardless of religion
or political conviction!
(1) Birkenau (Brzezinka) constituted a part of the
concentration and annihilation camp Auschwitz (Oświęcim). Therein, the
prisoners lived like animals under barbarous conditions, most of them
resembling walking skeletons rather than human beings. Adults, youngsters,
children, even babies died a slow dog's death in the gas chambers, from
medical experiments and poisonous shots, they were shot dead, hanged,
slayed, consumed by fire, they died of frost, torture, hunger, slave labor,
and all that while enduring catastrophic, unimaginable sanitary conditions.
All this happened in a well prepared, premeditated, perfectly organized,
bureaucratic, industrialized manner. In their hopelessness, many preferred
suicide to the humiliations and mortifications. Auschwitz-Birkenau is the
world's biggest cemetery.
(2) Bromine is known to suppress sex drive. It was added to the prisoners'
(3) "Grüner": This term was used for professional criminals, they wore
badges in green colors. However, my father was none of them. The prisoners
of Auschwitz-Birkenau and attached camps were tattooed on their left
forearms with a number. Additionally, they had to wear marks on the left
chest of their jackets and on the right pants legs, according to various
(4) "Kommando Mexiko" was a notorious labor group in the camp part B III of
Birkenau, thus nicknamed by the prisoners, probably because the way how
those working there protected themselves with blankets against the bitter
cold reminded them of Mexicans wrapping themselves into their ponchos. The
camp part B III was named "Mexiko". It was not before the end of summer
1944 that they started to build it as the last section of Birkenau, but it
never saw completion. It was meant to serve as a "storage and gateway" camp,
("Depot- und Durchgangslager-Juden"), for the planned transfers of Jews to
forced labor activities in Germany. In this part of the camp the prisoners
were treated with special cruelty, their jobs being extremely hard and