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Józef Szajna

13/3/1922 (Rzeszów, Poland) – 24/6/2008 (Warsaw, Poland)

Portrait photograph of Józef Szajna
Józef Szajna (1922-2008) during the 60th anniversary of liberation at the Buchenwald Memorial, April 2005. Photo: Peter Hansen.

Józef Szajna was born in Rzeszów on 13 March 1922. When the Germans invaded Poland, he left school and went to work copying technical documents from factories for the Polish resistance.

He was captured by the Gestapo and at the end of July 1941, after incarceration in various prisons, deported to Auschwitz. In the summer of 1943 he was sentenced to death for attempting to escape. He was kept in a standing cell to await execution. In October 1943 the sentence was commuted and he was put to work sorting the belongings of murdered Jews. On 21 January 1944 he managed to trick his way onto a transport to Buchenwald. From there he was transferred to the Schönebeck subcamp. He drew pictures with his fingers and spent matchsticks, and decorated his barrack with two murals. In April 1945 he escaped from a death march.

"We have to find a morality in which human beings are not hostile to each other, that is: trust. This is what I work for. Perhaps somebody is still listening."
Józef Szajna

From 1947 to 1953 Szajna studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, from 1955 he worked at the Teatr Ludowy ("People's Theatre") in Nova Huta as a set designer and artistic director. In 1965 he qualified as a director and worked after that with great international success as a theatre director, scene designer, set designer and stage director – usually all at once. In the 1970s he was director of the Warsaw Art Centre STUDIO, a theatre with an art collection and gallery. From 1972 he was professor at the Warsaw Art Academy and developed the postgraduate study course in set design. His productions, including Faust, Dante and Cervantes, were staged at theatre festivals throughout Europe. Szajna developed theories of "organic" and "panic" theatre. Parallel to his theatre work he designed collages, installations and environments: some of his works are exhibited in the museums of the Buchenwald Memorial.

Józef Szajna died in Warsaw on 24 June 2008.

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