Illustrated KZ Mail Part 1
Sooner or later, most collectors of German concentration camp mail will run across prisoner mail objects that have been adorned with illustrations. These illustrations tend to fall into certain categories, with holiday-related drawings or paintings being the most prevalent. Their exact origin is still something of a mystery. The simplest explanation, that a prisoner wished to communicate something more than words can convey to family and friends, is certainly true up to a point. However, in the twisted world of the concentration camps few things were truly simple. In general, prisoner mail rules forbade the inclusion of illustrations or photographs in both outgoing and incoming mail. Prisoners could face suspension of mail privileges, or even severe beatings, for running afoul of these regulations. Thus, when such illustrations are found it usually indicates that a prisoner either had special privileges within the camp, or decided to take a considerable risk with the censor.
Neutral lettersheet sent from KZ Esterwegen, one of the Moorlager camps, sometime between 1934 and 1936. (Source: Heinrich Heeren, Germany)
“Happy Easter!” from a prisoner in KZ Dachau. (Source: Søren Nordklint, Denmark)
Holiday scenes frequently made up the subject matter for the illustrated mail of KZ Dachau inmate Karel Kasák, who for part of his incarceration was confined to the Heilkräuterkulturen (H.K.K.) sub-camp, an agricultural research station situated near the main camp (also used by the SS as an execution site). Kasák, who was employed in illustrating botanical specimens, was a trusted prisoner and had certain mail privileges. Two of his paintings on Dachau pre-printed lettersheets are shown in Figure 8.
This brings us to one of the most interesting KZ prisoner drawings known. Figure 9 shows an illustrated pre-printed lettersheet sent by Auschwitz prisoner Franz Targosz to his wife in Bielsko. The drawing is by another Auschwitz prisoner, Mieczyslaw Koscielniak. It depicts a fabled knight, King Boleslaw, asleep in the Tatra Mountains. According to the Polish saga, the knights of King Boleslaw will fight for the freedom of Poland if wakened. It is unlikely that the censor would have any knowledge of this legend, and so he let the letter pass. It might have gone very ill with the prisoners had the drawing’s true nature been comprehended and the matter turned over to the Gestapo.
In Part 2 I will present an additional example of artwork by Mieczyslaw Koscielniak, along with the wonderful paintings of Auschwitz prisoner Josef Dziura. Thanks to Heinrich Heeren, Søren Nordklint, and Wolfgang Haney for providing copies of illustrated KZ prisoner mail. Special thanks to Erik Lørdahl for tracking down some of the illustrations for this article.