Children Only Allowed to Go for Short Walk. Karel Fleischmann, Terezín, 1942. India ink wash drawing. (Jewish Museum in Prague)

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Art and the Holocaust

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During World War II, Jews produced art in concentration camps, in ghettos, or while in hiding. Unlike artistic production undertaken by outsiders in the name of propaganda, or to confirm the events after the killing had ended, art created by victims under Nazi domination may be viewed as a form of documentation, witnessing, and spiritual resistance that plays a very important historical role as evidence from the victim’s perspective.

After World War II, less Holocaust-specific art was created in Eastern Europe because of the imposition of official ideological positions about art. The Soviet approach to the arts, called socialist realism, meant that the regime proscribed artistic creation that did not advance socialism. For the most part, this ideological form was imposed on Communist Eastern Europe after 1948. Official Communist ideologies denied the specificity of Jewish victimization. All of those killed were referred to as “victims of Fascism,” a phrase reflected on Soviet memorials and monuments. Such ideological treatment of the Holocaust and the arts in general did not begin to crack until the late 1960s, precisely when the term Holocaust became entrenched.

The most substantial corpus of camp art produced by Jews from a Central and East European perspective came from Terezín, the camp that served as a special enclave for artists and intellectuals. Deported there on 16 December 1942, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, a prominent artist from the Bauhaus School of Design, established several art schools for children in the ghetto. It is estimated that 600 children received art lessons while in the camp. The 5,000 surviving art works of 60 of these children, only 4 of whom survived the Holocaust, form a basis for contemporary scholarship on the ways in which art became a means of coping with the extreme conditions of life in the camp. The surviving paintings of Jozef Novák, Jindřich Seiner, Hana Fischerova, Hana Lustigova, Helena Weisova-Hoskova, and others manifest a remarkable degree of originality. Dicker-Brandeis and many of her students were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau on 6 October 1944, where they died.

Tomíčkovi k jeho 3 narozeninám vterezínĕ—22. I. 1944! (To Tommy on His Third Birthday in Terezín—22 January 1944!), by Bedrich Fritta. (YIVO, courtesy of Eyal Kaplansky)

Aside from the children’s art at Terezín, the camp’s prominent adult painters were Leo Haas, Bedrich Fritta, Karel Fleischmann (see image, top right), Otto Ungar, and Felix Bloch. Most were from Czechoslovakia. Haas, one of the best-known artists at the time, became leader of the Zeichenstube, an underground group that tried to depict the brutal realities of camp life. Fritta produced one of the most poignant examples of camp art in an illustrated children’s book, Tomickovi (To Tommy), dedicated to his son Tomás on his third birthday in Terezín on 22 January 1944 (see image at left).

Other work focused on the unique cultural life of the camp, and was showcased as part of Nazi self-advertising. Yehuda Bacon, one of the child artists associated with Haas’s group, survived, immigrated to Israel, studied at the Bezalel Art School, and continued to draw scenes of his experience as well as to write extensive diaries. Pavel Fantl, a medical doctor and artist, created a 40-page Terezín Bible laced with satirical drawings. Eli Leskley, at the camp or afterward, used biting caricature and humor to create pieces similar to editorial cartoons. These works were buried and recovered after the war, and subsequently were even redrawn by the artist. A group of paintings by the Zeichenstube group was smuggled, via bribes to guards and railway workers, to Switzerland. Upon the discovery of an underground group, the Nazis labeled the work Greuel-propaganda (atrocity propaganda), and deported the artists. Only a few of this group survived.

Significant artistic activity also took place in the Lithuanian ghettos of Vilna and Kovno. In spring 1943, the Vilna ghetto held an art exhibition that included works by Samuel Bak, then age 10. Bak survived to become one of the most significant painters of Holocaust themes, which are often described as surrealist and filled with symbolism. While his early drawings were illustrative, many of his later paintings frame the motif of the ghetto within the larger theme of landscapes of Jewish history.

The nearby Kovno ghetto also supported cultural and artistic life. Elkhonen Elkes, chairman of the Kovno Council, asked Esther Lurie, a local painter in the ghetto, to document events. She produced works not only with a high narrative quality, but also an equally impressive artistic sensitivity. Lurie had become a favorite of the Nazi guards because of her ability to copy the paintings of Renaissance masters for them. She was allowed to have a studio and was given protected status. She collaborated with two other ghetto artists, Josef Schlesinger and Jacob Lifschitz; in addition, the artist Peter Gadiel established a paint and design workshop for graphic artists. Avraham Tory incorporated the visual record of the Kovno ghetto into the secret archive known as Slobodka Ghetto 1942. It included detailed architectural drawings of the Kovno ghetto and its gradual reduction in size, rendered by Gadiel, plus compilations of German laws prefaced by artistic collages, drawings, and graphics recording the numbers of dead and the ways people died.

From The Book of Alfred Kantor by Alfred Kantor (New York: McGraw Hill, 1971). This watercolor depicts a “selection” that took place on 18 December 1943 on the platform at the Auschwitz death camp, where those immediately slated for death in the gas chambers were selected from among new arrivals. (YIVO)

The Book of Alfred Kantor, one of the most familiar visual diaries, was created immediately after Kantor’s liberation, and forms one of the most coherent and complete visual narratives of the Holocaust (see image at right). Dina Gottlieb, an artist inmate at Auschwitz-Birkenau, was ordered to paint watercolor portraits of Gypsies (Roma) as documentation for Josef Mengele’s studies of racial characteristics. Alexander Bogen, the commander of a partisan division fighting the Nazis, was in a unique category on the outside rather than inside of camps and ghettos. As a trained artist from Lithuania, he found materials to compose sketches and drawings of his men and the forests before battles. He burned his own charcoal to create a drawing material, used his penknife to form wood blocks, and stole paper during raids.

Polish Jewish artists of this era included Amos Szwarc, Bronislaw Czech, Halina Olomucki, and Hirsch Szylis, all of whom were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they managed to create art. Olomucki, for example, worked as a Stubendienst (“room orderly”) making signs and decorations for the Nazis, but also produced more than 200 drawings that she hid between the planks in her barrack. Szylis’s artistic talents impressed Hans Biebow, Commandant of the Łódź ghetto, who arranged for him to paint official portraits of SS officers serving in the ghetto. Jonasz Stern survived the ghetto and several work camps to become a noted Polish artist after the war. His mixed media work reflected the trauma he had gone through and was based on organic matter, bones, fish scales, and a heavy application of paints.

The most famous Polish Jewish artist was probably Artur Szyk, who moved to England and then New York before the outbreak of World War II. He created vivid propaganda art documenting the fate of the Jews and the evils of Nazism in a form that mirrored Persian miniature paintings. Appearing in book form, The New Order (1941) was circulated widely, as were his political cartoons in many American magazines.

The first major Polish exhibition that dealt with the Holocaust as well as the injustices of the Communist period came only in 1996. Titled Gdzie jest brat twój, Abel? (Where Is Abel, Thy Brother?), the exhibition brought together a group of international artists to confront this biblical quotation artistically. In Poland, many non-Jewish Poles have embraced the Holocaust as a critical subject for their work.

Patent Nr 67353. Zinovii Tolkatchev, Poland, 1945. From Kwiaty Oświęcimia (The Flowers of Auschwitz; Kraków: M. H. Rubin, 1947). (YIVO, courtesy of Ilya and Anel Tolkatchev)

In the USSR, probably the first and foremost Jewish artist who dealt with the Holocaust from a liberator’s perspective was Zinovii Tolkatchev, who served as an official artist for a Soviet Army documentation unit. In the summer of 1944, he was sent to the recently liberated Majdanek death camp, where he completed a series of illustrations of the camp. They were exhibited in 1944 before one of the first war crimes trials there. Tolkatchev was also one of the first to enter Auschwitz in January 1945, where he began sketching the camp and survivors. A collection of these drawings was published in Warsaw in 1946 with the title Kwiaty Oświęcimia (The Flowers of Auschwitz); the compilation perhaps ranks as the first published drawn works about Auschwitz. Some of Tolkatchev’s images became Soviet anti-Fascist posters that circulated well after the end of the war (see image at left).

During the 1960s, Jewish artists, especially those interested in leaving the Soviet Union, began to integrate the theme of the Holocaust into their paintings. Moscow artist Dimitrii Lion produced a series of realist works as well as abstract pieces with texts that often had the number 6,300,000 running through it. Because of the absence of an accurate history of Jewish victimization in Soviet history books, that figure representing the number of victims was the one that circulated in “unofficial” circles. Mikhail Iofin’s Letters from Petersburg contained vignettes of the war and the Holocaust. One painting, My Name is Raoul Wallenburg (1992), linked the memory of the Holocaust with that of the disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg. Leningrad artist Mark Klionsky came to the United States in 1974 and created a large body of work, with extreme realism, that alluded to disturbances in East European Jewish life from 1939; he produced etchings under the title Persecuted People.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there have been more incentives and opportunities to delve into the Holocaust artistically. Documentation and exhibition centers have opened in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Minsk, Kiev, and other former centers of Jewish history.

Suggested Reading

Ziva Amishai-Maisels, Depiction and Interpretation: The Influence of the Holocaust on the Visual Arts (London, 1993); Janet Blatter and Sybil Milton, Art of the Holocaust (New York, 1981); Bedřich Fritta, Tomi: Le-Tomi le-yom ha-huledet ha-shelishi bi-Terezin, 22 be-Yanu’ar 1944 (Jerusalem, 1999); Dennis B. Klein, ed. Hidden History of the Kovno Ghetto (Washington, 1997); David Mickenberg, Corinne Granof, and Peter Hayes, eds., The Last Expression: Art and Auschwitz (Evanston, Ill., 2003); Paul Morrison, From the Bitter Earth: Artists of the Holocaust, videotape (London, 1993); Glenn Sujo, Legacies of Silence: The Visual Arts and Holocaust Memory (London, 2001).