KRAKOW – Polish prosecutors have opened an investigation after a Swedish artist claimed he used the ashes of Holocaust victims in a painting.

Carl Michael von Hausswolff, a composer, visual artist and curator based in Stockholm, said that he took the ash from the crematoria at the Majdanek concentration camp in Lublin when he visited the site in 1989. He said that he later mixed the ash with water and used it in a black and white painting.

The painting, titled Memory Works, consists of vertical brushstrokes that give the impression of a group of people standing close together. It was on display at a museum in the city of Lund in southern Sweden, until the exhibition was shut down last month following massive protests by local citizens, the Swedish media, the Jewish community of Sweden and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The protest began after the artist wrote on the museum’s website that he had used ash he took from the Majdanek crematoria. He added that the ash had remained in a jar until 2010, when he had the idea for the painting.

The sharp criticism levelled against von Hausswolff for “disturbing the peace of the dead” led Swedish police to open their own investigation into the matter, but it was quickly dropped, with the Swedish issuing a statement saying there was no evidence of theft and in any case, the alleged theft had been committed abroad.

Beata Syk-Jankowska, a spokeswoman for the Lublin prosecutor’s office, confirmed that an investigation had been launched and that Polish authorities would cooperate with the Swedish justice system to obtain more detail for their investigation. “The prosecution decided to open an investigation into this matter on Monday. As of now, we do not have any evidence and prosecutors are acting on media reports. We will check whether there is truth to the artist’s claim,” she said.

She added that Polish prosecutors will ask for the assistance of Swedish investigators and that the case is being investigated under article 262 of the Polish criminal code, which concerns thefts from graves or other places of rest.

Offenses under this code can carry a penalty of up to eight years imprisonment. Another paragraph pertains to the desecration of human remains and carries a penalty of up to two years imprisonment.

Sources close to the investigation say they have not ruled out the possibility that the artist invented the whole story and is merely staging a publicity stunt in order to promote his exhibition and attract visitors to see his painting.

The Majdanek Museum has also issued an official statement: “This Swedish artist certainly did not come into possession of victims’ ashes in a legal way. We hope that the authorities will quickly determine whether there has been a theft or a desecration of the remains of the victims, or whether this is just artistic provocation that simply deserves condemnation.”

Salomon Schulman, a Holocaust survivor and member of Lund’s Jewish Community, told local media that the painting was “a desecration of Jewish bodies” and wondered whether it should be called art at all.

“Some of the ashes might have come from some of my relatives. It was a disgusting painting,” he added.

About 150,000 people were held at the Majdanek concentration camp in Lublin, the second largest concentration camp in Poland after Auschwitz, between 1941 and 1944. It is estimated that 80,000 victims – three-quarters of whom were Jewish – perished.

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