Auschwitz Prisoner’s Carvings Reflect Divine Mercy

Polish officer in the underground armed services scratched images of the Crucifixion and the Sacred Heart with his fingernails.

Stefan Jasieński (r) with an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus he carved into the wall of his cell in the basement of Block 11 in the Main Camp at Auschwitz.
Stefan Jasieński (r) with an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus he carved into the wall of his cell in the basement of Block 11 in the Main Camp at Auschwitz. (photo: Adam Cyra / Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum / Google Arts & Culture)

It is commonly said that a suffering artist can produce profoundly beautiful art. In fact, some say suffering is necessary for art to be truly moving. Sometimes this suffering comes in the form of everyday frustrations; sometimes it is a personal tragedy, such as the death of a loved one or a broken heart; and sometimes it is the sort of suffering that is unfathomable to most of us, the kind that is written about in history books and makes us shudder as we read about it.

Stefan Jasienski was an artist who experienced the latter form of suffering, and he produced some remarkable-yet-little-known art as a result of it, in the midst of that pain.

Jasienski was born in 1914 in Poland, and during the Second World War, he served as a second lieutenant in the Home Army in Poland, an underground armed service. He saw a great deal of action during the war, including during Nazi Germany’s initial invasion of Poland in September 1939. In September 1944, he was captured and sent to the Nazi Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where he died in the first days of 1945. No one is quite sure how he died, and his family was not even aware that he died in the camp for many years afterwards.

He had been imprisoned in Block 11, Cell 21 during his time at Auschwitz. Later inspection of his cell brought to light some curious scratchings on the wall. These scratchings, upon closer inspection, turned out to be quite marvelous works of art.

One of these artistic endeavors was a crucifix, scratched into the wall.

It is important to note that this was not an idle pastime for Jasienski. This artwork would have been an act of protest against the horrors being perpetrated by the Nazis; it would have been an act of prayer, expressing his trust in the Lord and his unwavering faith; it also would have been an excruciating mortification. Think about it: The prisoners at Auschwitz would not have had knives or any other sharp implements in their cells — what if they used them to attack and overthrow the guards? — and so Jasienski only had one option: carving into the stone walls, using his fingernails.

Jasienski followed in the footsteps of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who was also imprisoned at Auschwitz, also in Block 11, although Father Kolbe died a martyr in August 1941, more than three years before Jasienski even arrived. Perhaps it was the saintly influence Father Kolbe had on the camp that inspired Jasienski to produce these works of art. Perhaps stories of Father Kolbe’s selflessness and heroism were passed down, and if so, maybe they brought strength, resolve and peace to Jasienski’s heart.

There is something even more profound about the image of the Sacred Heart: This was created by a Polish prisoner at Auschwitz only a few short years after the Polish St. Faustina received her visions regarding Divine Mercy.

We are all quite familiar with the Divine Mercy image given to St. Faustina. The image depicts Our Lord, his heart on full display, with rays of light washing down over the viewer. One can’t help but see echoes of this in Jasienski’s depiction of the Sacred Heart. Perhaps he had seen the Divine Mercy image and was intentionally mimicking its style. Or perhaps the similarities are purely a coincidence. Either way, we know that the heart of Jesus loves us deeply, and seeing the Sacred Heart on display, scratched into the walls of a cell at Auschwitz, reminds us that God’s love is everlasting — and his mercy endures forever. (See Psalm 136.)

The crudity of Jasienski’s artwork lends it a certain amount of pathos, a certain emotional impact. It is crude; it is simplistic — not because of any artistic shortcomings of the artist, but rather because of the conditions which prompted the artwork and which at the same time limited the artist. Perhaps if Jasienski had been sitting at home, in front of a canvas, with every shade of paint he can imagine and all the time in the world, he could have created a more beautiful, more realistic depiction of the Crucifixion or of the Sacred Heart. But they would not have nearly the same emotional impact.

The artwork was profoundly personal. Some say that Jasienski also carved his own face gazing upon the Sacred Heart, with his arms around the waist of Christ on the cross. The artist is seeking Our Lord, and grabbing on for dear life once he finds the Lord. The suffering Jasienski experienced at Auschwitz is unfathomable, and we cannot imagine how desperate or abandoned he may have felt. But these works of art show that, in spite of all that, he still trusted in God’s providence and God’s mercy. 

When Christ called out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he was quoting the Psalms; what many people forget is how that particular Psalm continues: 

“For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hid his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him” (Psalm 22:24).

Jasienski surely felt this same trust in the face of suffering — and from him we can learn to always trust in God’s Divine Mercy.